Saintsbury Introduction, Volume XVI – Part II

The Seamy Side of History (L’Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine):
     Madame de la Chanterie (Madame de la Chanterie)
     The Initiate (L’Initié)
A Prince of Bohemia (Un Prince de la Bohème)
A Man of Business (Un Homme d’Affaires)
Gaudissart II
Sarrasine (Sarrasine)
Facino Cane (Facino Cane)
Z. Marcas (Z. Marcas)
An Episode Under the Terror (Un Episode sous la Terreur)

 

It would be difficult to find another book, composed of two parts by the same author, which offers more remarkable variations and contrasts than the volume which contains L’Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine and Z Marcas. And in certain respects it must be said that the contrast of the longer and later story with the earlier and shorter one is not such as to inspire us with any great certainty that, had Balzac’s comparatively short life been prolonged, we should have had many more masterpieces. It is true that, considering the remarkable excellence of the work (Les Parents Pauvres) which immediately preceded L’Envers de l’Histoire, it is not possible to say with confidence that the inferiority of the present book is anything more than one of the usual phenomena of maxima and minima – of ups and downs – which present themselves in all human affairs.

At the same time, there is in L’Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine an ominous atmosphere of flagging, combined with a not less ominous return to a weaker handling of ideas and schemes which the author had handled more strongly earlier. We have seen that the secret-society craze – a favorite one with most Frenchmen, and closely connected with their famous panic-terror of being “betrayed” in war and politics – had an especially strong hold on this most typical of French novelists. He had almost begun his true career with the notion of a league of Dévorants, of persons banded, if not exactly against society, at any rate for the gratifying of their own desires and the avenging of their own wrongs, with an utter indifference to social laws and arrangements. He ended it, or nearly so, with the idea of a contrary league of Consolation, which should employ money, time, pains, and combination to supply the wants and heal the wounds which Society either directly causes or more or less callously neglects.

The later idea is, of course, a far nobler one than the earlier; it shows a saner, healthier, happier state of imagination; it coincides rather remarkably with an increasing tendency of the age ever since Balzac’s time. Nay, more, the working out of it contains none of those improbabilities and childishness which, to any but very youthful tastes and judgments, mar the Histoire des Treize. And it is also better written. Balzac, with that extraordinary “long development” of his, as they say of wines, constantly improved in this particular; and whatever may be the doubts on the point referred to above, we may say with some confidence that had he lived, he would have written, in the mere sense of writing, even better and better. Yet again, we catch quaint and pleasant echoes of youth in these pages, and are carried back nearly fifty years in nominal date, and more than twenty in dates of actual invention, by such names as Montauran and Pille-Miche and March-à-Terre.

But when all this is said, it cannot, I think, be denied that a certain dulness, a heaviness, does rest on Madame de la Chanterie and L’Initié. The very reference to the Médecin de Campagne, which Balzac with his systematizing mania brings in, calls up another unlucky contrast. There, too, the benevolence and the goodness were something fanciful, not to say fantastic; but there was an inspiration, a vigor, to speak vulgarly, a “go,” which we do not find here. Balzac’s awkward and inveterate habit of parenthetic and episodic narratives and glances backward is not more obvious here than in many other pieces; but there is not, as in some at least of these other pieces, strength enough of main interest to carry it off. The light is clear, it is religious and touching in its dimness; but the lamp burns low.

Z. Marcas, on the other hand, written a good deal earlier in the author’s public career, at that quaint and tumbledown residence of Les Jardies, where he did some of his very best work, has all the verve and vigor which its companion or companions lack. Numerous and often good as are the stories by all manner of hands, eminent and other, of the strange neighbors and acquaintance which the French habit of living in apartments brings about, this may vie with almost the best of them for individuality and force. Of course, it may be said that its brevity demanded no very great effort; and also, a more worthy criticism, that Balzac has not made it so very clear after all why the political ingratitude of those for whom Marcas labored made it impossible for him to gain a living more amply and comfortably than by copying. The former carp needs no answer; the sonnet is the equal of the long poem if it is a perfect sonnet. The latter, more respectable, is also more damaging. But it is a fair, if not quite a full, defence to say that Balzac is here once more exemplifying his favorite notion of the maniaque in the French sense – of the man with one idea, who is incapable not only of making a dishonorable surrender of that idea, but of entering into even the most honorable armistice in his fight for it. Not only will such a man not bow in the House of Rimmon, but the fullest liberty to stay outside will not content him – he must force himself in and be at the idol. The external as well as the internal portraiture of Z. Marcas is also as good as it can be: and it cannot but add legitimate interest to the sketch to remember, first, that Balzac attributes to Marcas his own favorite habits and times of work; and secondly, that, like some other men of letters, he himself was an untiring, and would fain have been an influential, politician.

Un Episode sous la Terreur is one of the brilliant things in a small way, which the author did not attempt afterwards to expand at the obvious risk of weakening. It is compressed into compass commensurate with its artistic limits, and, thus preserved, it displays all the strength and vivacity which the plot demands. When Balzac was thus content to leave a ‘skit’ of this sort, or when he condensed as only Balzac could condense – as in the case of La Maison du Chat-qui-Pelote – the result was a story the like of which could scarcely be duplicated in the whole range of French literature. As for the sinister side of Un Episode sous la Terreur, it is well known how great was the attraction with the author for things of this kind. And that he treated them vigorously and well, this story will witness.

Un Episode sous la Terreur, together with the two stories just noted [Le Depute d’Arcis and Z. Marcas], forms a part of the limited Scenes de la Vie Politique.

L’Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine, as above stated, was, in part, one of the very latest of Balzac’s works, and was actually finished during his residence at Vierzschovnia. Madame de la Chanterie, however, was somewhat earlier, part of it having been written in 1842. It appeared in a fragmentary and rather topsy-turvy fashion, with separate titles, in the Musée des Familles, from September in the year just named to November 1844, and was only united together in the first edition of the Comédie two years later, though even after this it had a separate appearance with some others of its author’s works in 1847. L’Initié, or, as it was first entitled, Les Frères de la Consolation, was not written till this latter year, and appeared in 1848 in the Spectateur Republicain, but not as a book till after the author’s death. In both cases there was the usual alternation of chapter divisions, with headings and none.

Z. Marcas, written in 1840, appeared in the Revue Parisienne for July of that year, made its first book appearance in a miscellany by different hands called Le Fruit Défendu (1841), and five years later took rank in the Comédie.

________________________

The other stories included here for the sake of convenience may be located readily by reference to the Balzacian scheme, all being from Scénes de la Vie Parisienne.

A Prince of Bohemia, the first of the short stories which Balzac originally chose as make-weights to associate with the long drama of Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes, is one of the few things that, both in whole and in part, one would much rather he had not written. Its dedication to Heine only brings out its shortcomings. For Heine, though he would certainly be as spiteful and unjust as Balzac here shows himself, never failed to carry the laugh on his side. You may wish him, in his lampoons, better morals and better taste, but you can seldom wish him better literature. Had he made this attack on Sainte-Beuve, we should certainly not have yawned over it; and it is rather amusing to think of the sardonic smile with which the dedicatee must have read Balzac’s comfortable assurance that he, Heinrich Heine, would understand the plaisanterie and the critique which Un Prince de la Bohème contains. Heine “understood” most things; but if understanding, as is probable, here includes sympathetic enjoyment, we may doubt.

It was written at the same time, or very nearly so, as the more serious attack on Sainte-Beuve in August 1840, and, like that, appeared in Balzac’s own Revue Parisienne, though it was somewhat later. The thread, such as there is, of interest is two-fold – the description of the Bohemian grand seigneur Rusticoli or La Palférine, and the would-be satire on Sainte-Beuve. It is difficult to say which is least well done. Both required an exceedingly light hand, and Balzac’s hand was at no time light. Moreover, in the sketch of La Palférine he commits the error – nearly as great in a book as on the stage, where I am told it is absolutely fatal – of delineating his hero with a sort of sneaking kindness which is neither dramatic impartiality nor satiric raillery. La Palférine as portrayed is a “raff,” with a touch of no aristocratic quality except insolence. He might have been depicted with cynically concealed savagery, as Swift would have done it; with humorous ridicule, as Gautier or Charles de Bernard would have done it; but there was hardly a third way. As it is, the sneaking kindness above referred to is one of the weapons in the hands of those who – unjustly if it be done without a great deal of limitation – contend that Balzac’s ideal of a gentleman was low, and that he had a touch of snobbish admiration for mere insolence.

Here, however, it is possible for a good-natured critic to put in the apology that the artist has tried something unto which he was not born, and failing therein, has apparently committed faults greater than his real ones. This kindness is impossible in the case of the parodies, which are not parodies, of Sainte-Beuve. From the strictly literary point of view, it is disastrous to give as a parody of a man’s work, with an intention of casting ridicule thereon, something which is not in the least like that work, and which in consequence only casts ridicule on its author. To the criticism which takes in life as well as literature, it is a disaster to get in childish rages with people because they do not think your work as good as you think it yourself. And it is not known that Balzac had to complain of Sainte-Beuve in any other way than this, though he no doubt read into what Sainte-Beuve wrote a great deal more than Sainte-Beuve did say. There is a story (I think unpublished) that a certain very great English poet of our times once met an excellent critic who was his old friend (they are both dead now). “What do you mean by calling —- vulgar?” growled the poet.–“I didn’t call it vulgar,” said the critic.–“No; but you meant it,” rejoined the bard. On this system of interpretation it is of course possible to accumulate crimes with great rapidity on a censor’s head. But it cannot be said to be a critical or rational proceeding. And it must be said that if an author does reply, against the advice of Bacon and all wise people, he should reply by something better than the spluttering abuse of the Revue Parisienne article or the inept and irrelevant parody of this story.

Un Homme d’Affaires, relieved of this unlucky weight, is better, but it also, in the eyes of some readers, does not stand very high. La Palférine reappears, and that more exalted La Palférine Maxime de Trailles, “Balzac’s pet scoundrel,” as some one has called him, though not present, is the hero of the tale, which is artificial and slight enough.

Gaudissart II. is much better. Of course, it is very slight, and the “Anglaise” is not much more like a human being than most “Anglaises” in French novels till quite recently. But the anecdote is amusing enough, and it is well and smartly told.

Sarrasine presents two points of divergence from other Balzacian stories: It contains no feminine characters, although the pro- and epilogue introduce two of the ‘stock’ women personages of the Comédie. It is a story within a story, which is no infrequent thing, but, unlike others, the conteur is unknown. While not dealing with a theme the most pleasant, Sarrasine will appeal by its clear-cut style; it is one of the cleverest of the shorter tales. Considering the species of singer referred to, the personnel of the Italian operatic stage was well known as far back as the days of Addison and Steele. In France also its customs were freely discussed. Granted, however, that such was the case, the story is open to criticism on this account. It seems hardly possible that a well-informed man of the time should have been entirely ignorant of the fact that the Italians allowed no women to sing in public; and that this man, a sculptor by profession, should have been deceived by the figure of a eunuch so frankly displayed in the glare of the footlights. He studied every line of every limb. He noted the well-formed shoulders and the poise of the head. He reproduced the contour of the form in marble. Yet he was deluded openly and hoaxed without mercy. But, aside from this possible defect in plot, the story presents a striking contrast in the figures of the passionate, obstinate, hot-headed man, and the shrinking, irresolute, sexless creature.

Facino Cane did not originally rank in the Parisian Scenes at all, but was a Conte Philosophique. It is slight and rather fanciful, the chief interest lying in Balzac’s unfailing fellow-feeling for all those who dream of millions, as he himself did all his life long, only to exemplify the moral of his own Peau de Chagrin.

Un Prince de la Bohème, in its Revue Parisienne appearance, bore the title of Les Fantaisies de Claudine, but when, four years later, it followed Honorine in book form, it took the present label. The Comédie received it two years later. Gaudissart II. was written for a miscellany called Le Diable à Paris; but as this delayed its appearance, it was first inserted in the Presse for October 12, 1844, under a slightly different title, which it kept in the Diable. Almost immediately, however, it joined the Comédie under its actual heading. Un Homme d’Affaires appeared in the Siècle for September 10, 1845, and was then called Les Roueries d’un Créancier. It entered the Comédie almost at once, but made an excursion therefrom to join, in 1847, Ou mènent les mauvais chemins and others as Un Drame dans les Prisons.

Facino Cane is earlier than these, having first seen the light in the Chronique de Paris of March 17, 1836. Next year it became an Étude Philosophique. It had another grouped appearance (with La Muse du Département and Albert Savarus) in 1843, and entered the Comédie the year after.

Sarrasine was published by Werdet in October 1838, being included in a volume with Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan, Les Employés, Facino Cane and La Maison Nucingen, the latter of which was the title story. It was included in its present place in the Comédie in 1844.

George Saintsbury

 

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition

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