La Fausse Maîtresse
The Imaginary Mistress
Also translated as:
The False Mistress
During his short and frenetic life, Balzac could at times be a chameleon, tossing off works that were uncharacteristic of him, but by no means inferior to the standard classics for which we know him. For many years, he loved the Polish Countess Eveline Hanska (and eventually married her just months before he died).
This is one of several of his works that was by way of a valentine to his love. (Another is The Seamy Side of Paris.) This novelette is about a young Parisian woman of fashion who marries a Polish Count, one Adam Laginsky. There is nothing quite so spectacular about this Laginski as his friend Paz. Acting as his steward and general factotum, Paz takes charge of Laginsky’s life, his investments, his horses, his real estate – and does it brilliantly. Why does he do this? While they were fleeing Poland after it was engulfed by Russia, Laginsky saved Paz’s life twice; so Paz took it upon himself to live quietly in his friend’s shadow, helping him in every way he could.
This particular story has something of the myth of Pandora’s Box in it: the Countess Laginska suddenly becomes curious about this man Paz. It seems, you see, that Paz is actually in love with his friend’s wife; but he wants no part in breaking up the relationship. He does the one thing for which the Countess could not forgive him: He takes up with a circus rider named Malaga who is too infra dig for a Parisian woman of fashion to tolerate. How Paz maneuvers his way through this minefield makes this one of Balzac’s few great comedies.
There is an old joke to the effect that, rather than getting married, it is better to find a woman you hate and buy her a house. That is more or less what Count Paz does. Consider this: He owes a debt of friendship to Count Laginski; he is afraid of falling in love with Mme Laginskaia, toward whom he feels a powerful attraction; being a genuinely good person, he is not so interested in finding a love interest for himself.
Instead, he finds a “false mistress,” or what is sometimes referred to among gays as a “beard”. Except that Count Paz’s sexual attraction appears to be completely sublimated in his other activities, including taking care of his friend’s household. But when he sees the Countess casting interested gazes at him, he decides to go out with a circus stunt rider named Malaga – a person who normally would be of no interest to a cultivated person such as the Countess imagines Paz to be.
That works all too well. The Countess is offended that Paz goes in for such a cheap slut, to use the vernacular, rather than her more refined charms. Malaga herself is confused because, although Paz spends a lot of money on her, he doesn’t appear to be too interested in sealing the deal with a more intimate relationship. Yet, the Countess wants Paz out of the house.
The next thing we hear is that Paz is about to join the Russian army in the Caucasus (where there was extensive military action at this time, pace Leo Tolstoy’s tales of army life there). After a letter indicates he is to serve as captain there, Paz decamps from Paris. Or does he?
Some time has passed, and the Countess is on the point of making a fool out of herself by stepping out with a notorious rake, the Comte de la Palferine. Just when she is about to step into La Palferine’s carriage, she feels strong hands lifting her bodily from danger and placing her into her own carriage. Naturally, it is Paz, still looking after the Laginskis, even if from afar. (The Caucasus commission was apparently bogus.)
I find this to be an utterly delightful tale mostly because of Paz himself. In his own way, he is just as good as Mme de la Chanterie in The Seamy Side of Paris. He is also quite a character – brilliant, totally unselfish, and the best friend a person can have.
Summarized by Jim, December 2010