The Unconscious Comedians by Honoré de Balzac

The Unconscious Comedians (Les Comédiens sans le savoir) also translated as
The Unconscious Humorists
Comedians Without Knowing It
The Unconscious Mummers
The Unwitting Play-Actors


The Unconscious Comedians is another short story from La Comedie Humaine which draws on Balzac’s favourite themes: the lives of artists, and the corruption of the legal system in France.

Leon de Lora is an impecunious artist who made good in Paris, recognised as one of the great geniuses of French landscape painting and fabulously wealthy. As Mistigris, Schinner’s pupil, he featured in a previous tale, ‘A Start in Life’ (Scenes from Private Life) but at the time of this story, now he 36 years old.

Originally from the Eastern Pyrenees and descended from the noble Roussillon family he came to Paris penniless but now owns a grand house in the Rue de Berlin, is a member of the Institute and an Officer of the Legion of Honour, has a handsome income from the Funds and receives invitations to court balls.

More amazing to Lora, however, is that his fame now extends as far as his birthplace where ‘vegetate three veritable Loras’: his father, his elder brother and an ancient paternal aunt, Mme Urracca y Lora. (These play no part in the story). On his mother’s side there is a cousin, M. Sylvestre Palafox-Castal-Gazonal who lives in a manufacturing town but when faced with a problem that can only be solved in Paris, he decides to make use of Lora. It is he who writes to the famous painter to establish that he is indeed of their family, and it is he who sets out for Paris to ask Lora’s advice when he suffers from the high-handed actions of the local administrators. They have meddled with a dam to the detriment of Gazonal’s factory and so he has a lawsuit to seek redress, but his lawyers are gloomy about its prospects…

In Paris he is aghast not only by the cost of living, but also by his insignificance in the capital. Stuck in shabby lodgings and pining for the warmth of the southern skies, he feels doubtful about the likelihood of Lora acknowledging their relationship. He decides to content himself with fantasies of murdering or ‘minotaurizing’ the Prefect who has caused him so much grief.

One day, however, he reads in the news that Lora has returned from a trip to Italy in time to exhibit at the Salon, and on an impulse he dashes out to establish a connection with his illustrious cousin. As he recounts the tale to his pals on his return home, he finally caught up with Lora and his pal Bixiou at a late and lavish breakfast, where he deluged them with a lot of vitriol about the vicissitudes of Paris, about the exorbitant cost of useless lawyers, and about the Prefect and Commissioner who’ve caused his troubles i.e. Masson and Vignon. However he was much encouraged by Lora’s declaration that:

All things are possible in Paris for good as well as for evil, for the just as well as the unjust. There’s nothing that can’t be done, undone and redone.

Lora and Bixiou showed him just how, beginning with recognising the sources of power in Paris. At the Paris Opera they pointed out the ‘rats’, the dancers and singers who hold great power depending on their position and talents (and whether they are favoured by the right newspapermen. The most successful – the most notable being Carabine -are fabulously wealthy and – given their access to the powerful in Paris – can help him with his lawsuit if they choose to.

Off they went to visit Gaillard, the editor, and to meet up with Fromenteau – who contributes to Gazonal’s education with the information that there are five kinds of police in Paris: criminal police, secret police, political police, police for foreign affairs and palace police, now defunct since the Revolution. Now he works in commercial policing, hunting out and seizing debtors, a job which is extremely well paid and more fun than hunting and fishing.

En route to their quarry Vauvinet, they visited a hatter, who – on the strength of Bixiou’s assertion that Gazonal is a famous inventor of a method to replace the indigo of cloth in old blue coats – agreed to make a hat for Gazonal at the same price as Bixiou’s (i.e. for free) because it’s worth it to him to have his hats ‘quoted’ in the right circles. Hats, he said, are not about style or elegance, but must conform to the fashion no matter how ridiculous it is, and he showed them Vignon’s hat – a sensible hat from the days when he was a ‘free man and a free-liver’ and now, when he is an important personage, his hat ‘expressive of the juste-milieu’. His big problem as a hatter is that hats are too cheap and so must be paid for in cash which limits his business – because everything else is bought on credit in Paris.

Next they visited Madame Nourisson, who specialises in selling garments and gossip from the rich and famous and in her old age lends money to wealthy women for their gowns because ‘passion never calculates, it pays blindly’. Bixiou invited her round to his lodgings where he offered her slippers belonging ‘formerly to the Empress Josephine’ but only as a lure to make her sell the information Gazonal needs.

Gazonal produced a forty-franc gold-piece, and Madame Nourrisson gave him startling details as to the secret penury of certain so-called fashionable women. This dealer in cast-off clothes, getting lively as she talked, pictured herself unconsciously while telling of others. Without betraying a single name or any secret, she made the three men shudder by proving to them how little so-called happiness existed in Paris that did not rest on the vacillating foundation of borrowed money. She possessed, laid away in her drawers, the secrets of departed grandmothers, living children, deceased husbands, dead granddaughters,–memories set in gold and diamonds. She learned appalling stories by making her clients talk of one another; tearing their secrets from them in moments of passion, of quarrels, of anger, and during those cooler negotiations which need a loan to settle difficulties.

Then they visited Ravenouillet the porter – who makes a handsome living lending money at 30% to all the tenants in his house, a position he got through the patronage of Masson. (Leon de Lora made a point of saying that he treats his porter well).

Their next stop was the usurer Vauvinet who claimed to be unable to lend Bixiou any money until Bixiou reminded him that he’d said he’d do anything for some ‘shares at par in that railroad du Tillet and Nucingen have made an offer for’ – and tonight, said Bixiou (though he knew the railway contract was doomed) du Tillet and Nucingen (a well-known banker) were going to Carabine’s to meet up with certain politicians. Suddenly the money and credit was found…

But before Gazonal could be presented at the salon of an influential duchess (of the rue Saint-Georges, his hair had to be dressed and so off they went to the salon of Marius V – whose ‘complementary’ business enterprises rival those of

“Remember this,” said Bixiou, gravely. “In Paris there is no such thing as a small business; all things swell to large proportions, down to the sale of rags and matches. The lemonade-seller who, with his napkin under his arm, meets you as you enter his shop, may be worth his fifty thousand francs a year; the waiter in a restaurant is eligible for the Chamber; the man you take for a beggar in the street carries a hundred thousand francs worth of unset diamonds in his waistcoat pocket, and didn’t steal them either.”

By way of contrast, Balzac then introduces the allegorical artist Dubourdieu who berated Lora for bringing the Academy into disrepute by failing to attend an election which chose as its chair not an artist but Stidmann, ‘a maker of toys and mantelpieces, an ornamentationist, a seller of bric-a-brac!’ But Lora was unrepentant. Future fame and greatness is all very well, but what matters is getting along now. Still Lora offered to help Dubourdieu to get access to space in the Louvre, only later admitting to Gazonal and Bixiou that his style of painting is passe now. When Gaxonal demurred, Bixiou responded with the ultimate in cynicism:

“You don’t know anything about Paris. Ask it for a hundred thousand francs to realize an idea that will be useful to humanity,– the steam-engine for instance,–and you’ll die, like Salomon de Caux, at Bicetre; but if the money is wanted for some paradoxical absurdity, Parisians will annihilate themselves and their fortune for it. It is the same with systems as it is with material things. Utterly impracticable newspapers have consumed millions within the last fifteen years. What makes your lawsuit so hard to win, is that you have right on your side, and on that of the prefect there are (so you suppose) secret motives”.

Their next port-of-call was Mere Fontaine, an old crone who earns her living telling fortunes. She almost frightened the life out of Gazonal with her eerily accurate knowledge of his lawsuit, but in Paris, everyone knows everything about everyone, so naturally a fortune-teller knows all about him too.

Finally they set off for the Chamber of Deputies, a place guided entirely, says Bixiou, by self-interest and vanity. It is the now Comte de Rastignac who greeted them, and extracted from Gazonal his first venture into the way things get done in Paris: Gazonal made an undertaking to have Rastignac’s man elected in the next provincial election and Rastignac scooted away to the Chamber, leaving the trio to witness negotiations between the Left and the Right for orchestrated rancour in the Chamber.

Alas, Gazonal made the mistake of expressing his indignation about these corruptions, but failed to recognise his own complicity in promising his vote. Bixiou and Lora decided to teach the hypocrite a lesson. They took him to visit Madame Cadine, an actress cultivated by Massol and therefore useful to his suit, knowing that Gazonal will fall for her.

And he did. At Carabine’s salon, he was stupefied by the glamour and promised her guipure and lace from his factory, offering her a dress, a scarf or a mantilla – only to have her accept all three. But more disastrous than that was his offer to Jenny Cadine, who overheard the exchange.

“And I,” said the actress, “what am I to have?”
“All I possess,” replied Gazonal, thinking that to offer all was to give nothing.

But the provincial was wrong about that. Cleve Jenny, ‘attracted by the insidious hope of getting her furniture renewed’ took Gazonal home with her. It did him no good at all that his suit was successful, because Jenny left him with not even enough to pay his lawyer and has notes of hand out of him worth more than all his property…

Read it here

This summary was prepared by Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers.


2 comments on “The Unconscious Comedians by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This story might have appealed more to me if I’d read it earlier than the 92nd Balzac story! Country bumpkin comes to Paris and learns what it takes to win friends and influence people. Balzac is SO fascinated with this theme! The characterizations are good, but I’m just tired of the theme. The way Balzac writes, you’d think there is not an honest or sincere or loving person in all of the big city. The poor gentleman just wants help with political problems at home, and just for meanness his ‘friends’ hook him up with a courtesan who will steal all his money he will eventually have. I’m feeling a bit jaded – the critics say this piece is extraordinarily well done, and no doubt it is indeed.


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