Balzac: The Deserted Woman – La Femme abandonnée (1832)

When I read Le Père Goriot Old Goriot years ago I was fascinated by the tragic story of Mme de Beauséant. I knew Balzac had dedicated a novella to her which is included in the Scenes from Private Life. After reading one of Guy’s recent Balzac reviews, I decided it was about time to finally read the story. For those who read French you can find the story of The Deserted Woman or La Femme abandonnée in  Les Secrets de la Princess de Cadigan et autres études de femmes.

Gaston de Nueil, a young noble man, leaves Paris for Bayeux, a provincial city located in the Basse-Normandie region. His health is rather poor and he has to stay away from the capital until he recovers. Used to more interesting society than the one he finds in Bayeux, he is soon terribly bored and his imagination is set on fire by the story of the countess de Beauséant who lives like a recluse in her château in the Normandy. She is said to be a young woman of great beauty and even greater esprit who fled to Bayeux after having been abandoned by her former lover, the marquis d’Ajouda-Pinto. The separation was devastating and as she is trapped in a loveless marriage which cannot be divorced, the only way to keep at least some of her self-esteem was to withdraw from the world and dedicate her days to reading and praying.

Young, bored and curious about love, de Nueil falls in love with the unhappy countess before he has even set eyes on her. He walks in her gardens in the night, tries to catch a glimpse of her and is finally so love-sick that he decides to use a ruse in order to get access to her house.

When he finally stands before the woman he fell in love with because of her story and her reputation, he finds her even more beautiful and tragic than he expected.

The countess is 30 years old by now, while de Nueil is barely 23. She is trapped in a void, a loveless life, no contact to society, no future joy in sight. It’s not surprising that de Nueil’s infatuation moves her and finally leads her to accept him as her lover.

Writing more would spoil the story which is one of the best of Balzac’s short stories. You can read it on its own but when you are familiar with the Comédie Humaine you will like it even more. The countess is a key figure in Old Goriot and therefore important for the whole oeuvre. The story as such reminded me of many others. It bears some resemblance with Mme de Lafayette’s The Princesse de Clèves. The countess sounds just like the princesse when she first meets de Nueil. I was also reminded of  Henry James’ Mme de Mauves but most of all it reminded me of Colette’s Chéri. The end however is entirely different from all of these.

I like it when the title has a special significance, is complex and multi-layered. The title of this story seems simple but is excellent. To fully appreciate it, you will have to read the story.

As excellent as this story is, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not familiar with Balzac. I would still recommend Old Goriot as the best starting point. Paired with this novella, it would be an amazingly great introduction to Balzac’s work and convey a good feeling for the diversity of his talent. The Deserted Woman also contains all of the themes which are important in Balzac’s work such as the mechanics of society, the role of women, marriage, adultery, money and some sub-themes like the “inheritance”, the “fallen woman”, the “aging woman” etc.

I liked the story a great deal. I thought the way Balzac described how de Nueil falls in love is perceptive and uncanny at the same time. Falling in love of an idea, or ideal, may unfortunately very often be the reason for falling in love. I haven’t seen it described as eloquently very often. I think this part of the story applies to all sorts of idealisations; people falling in love with stars or other people they hardly know like people in chat rooms, internet forums or blogs.

If you’d like to read the novella in English and are interested in an overview of Balzac’s work and how it is grouped here is an excellent link The Human Comedy – La comédie humaine.

Writers in Paris – Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke (2008)

No city has attracted so much literary talent, launched so many illustrious careers, or produced such a wealth of enduring literature as Paris. From the 15th century through the 20th, poets, novelists, and playwrights, famed for both their work and their lives, were shaped by this enchanting place. From natives such as Molière, Genet, and Anaïs Nin to expats like Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, author David Burke follows hundreds of writers through Paris’ labyrinthine streets, inviting readers on his grand tour.

Writers in Paris may very well be one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I own, one that you can browse, open at random, read from beginning to end or backwards, it will always be great. I don’t even know where to begin to give you a good impression, it is so full of fantastic details.

Burke organised the book by “regions”, so to speak, “The Literary Left Bank”, “The River and Islands”, “The Literary Right Bank”…

What I like best is that you can either follow the traces of an author, be it a Parisian or an expat, or you can find information on books set in Paris, and read about the places described in novels. Each chapter is divided in sub chapters and Burke will indicate who lived in what street, quote excerpts of letters and diary entries, passages of novels and poems.

In the case of Rainer Maria Rilke, Burke, describes the streets and places where the writer lived

On a first stay in Paris during 1902 and 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke lived in a shabby student room at No. 11 rue Toullier, between rue Soufflot and rue Cujas. The house is still there, neat, cream-colored, with weathered shutters. The Prague-born poet was twenty-six years old when he arrived, unquestionably gifted, but emotionally and artistically immature. To him Paris was a sinister place.

But Burke also explores the streets evoked in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Or he describes, where Rilke found inspiration for one of his most famous poems, The Panther, namely at the Jardin des Plantes.

There are many authors mentioned in the book, some famous like Rilke, Balzac, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway and others who are less well-known like Lautréamont (One sub chapter is called “Lautréamont and Maldoror on rue Vivienne”). Some writers are named repeatedly because they either moved about Paris quite a lot or because their books are set in different streets, different arrondissements.

One sub chapter is dedicated to “The Noble Houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain”. In this chapter you can find long paragraphs on Proust’s The Guermantes Way or on Edith Wharton’s stay in Paris. But also Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story is set here.

During two years I had an apartment at the Place de la Contrescarpe where Hemingway had his first home in Paris. He describes that stay in A Moveable Feast. I was curious to see who else had lived there at a certain point in time. It seems that François Villon roamed the premises in the 15th century, Mme Vauquer, one of Balzac’s characters, lives here, James Joyce and Valérie Larbaud had an apartment close by. The side streets of the rue Mouffetard, which leads to the Place de la Contrescarpe, are described in great detail in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I found this particularly interesting as Emma’s has recently reviewed it (here is the review) and I hadn’t even known before reading her review that Orwell also stayed in Paris for quite a long time.

The river Seine and the islands also play quite an important role in many a book like in Zola’s L‘Oeuvre.  Here is a scene in which the mad painter drags Christine to the river bank.

There he stopped again, his gaze fixed upon the island riding forever at anchor in the Seine, cradling the heart of Paris through which its blood has pulsed for centuries as its suburbs have gone on spreading themselves over the surrounding plain. His face lit up, as with an inward flame, and his eyes were aglow as, with a broad sweeping gesture, he said, “Look! Look at that!”

Other famous writers who have more than one entry are Colette, Proust, Céline, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Sand, Anaïs Nin and Arthur Miller.

Writers in Paris also contains quite a lot of black and white photos of writers and places, houses and streets.

Here is the homepage of the book with table of contents, lists of authors and some photos.

This is another contribution to  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

Balzac: La Vendetta (1830)

I read La Vendetta as part of a mini-readalong together with Danielle and Emma. It was Danielle’s idea to read it for  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

You can find different English versions of the novella or, if you read in French, you will find it in the collection La Maison du chat-qui-pelote or as a stand alone.

La Vendetta is one of Balzac’s earlier stories and part of the so-called Scènes de la vie privée. It is an interesting story for various reasons. On the one hand because it reflects some of the themes that were fashionable in the literature of the time but also because we can already see some of Balzac’s key themes emerge. I would say this novella is still rooted in romanticism with only a touch of realism.

The central story is the story of two families, the Piombos and the Portas,  who are connected by their mutual hatred. We learn at the beginning that after the Portas killed almost the whole family of the Piombos, the old Piombo killed the whole Porta family with the exception of a son, Luigi.

As Balzac tells us, the Corsicans are a fierce people and take revenge, or vendetta, as they call it, seriously. It is almost a religion for them. There will be no mercy or forgiveness ever. It’s a blood feud that can cost each and every member of a family his or her life.

After seeing their family so drastically decimated, Bartholoméo Piombo decides to leave Corsica and look for assistance by Bonaparte in Paris.  He has to learn an important lesson before being accepted in Paris. He must acknowledge that there will be no more vendetta. In Paris justice is not a personal matter but part of an official legal system.

After the first scene in which Bartholoméo is introduced the book fast forwards some ten years and focuses on the daughter of the family, Ginevra. The young woman is taking painting classes with a famous painter. She is quite skilled and produces many a good copy of existing pieces of art. The girls taking these calsses are a composite group. Some are of aristocratic background, some are nouveaux riches. There are many petty rivalries that are influenced by their families political orientation

Ginevra is a beautiful and cherished young woman. She is already 25 years old but has never fallen in love. She thinks that she will never leave her family and go on living a peaceful life at the side of her elderly parents. Destiny has other plans and one afternoon, while painting, she discovers a young soldier, who has been hidden by the painter. The young man is no other than Luigi Porta. It is a time of great turmoil, Napoléon has been overthrown for the second time and all those who followed him are in grave danger. Luigi has endured a lot, he was part of the Berezina campaign, he fought at Waterloo.

The two young people fall in love and Ginevra wants to get married but her father doesn’t want to accept this. His reasons go far beyond the fact that the young man is a Porta. He doesn’t want to lose his daughter. He doesn’t even care that this refusal might lead to a tragedy. When he finally realizes that he has made a mistake, it is too late.

I can’t really say I liked La Vendetta. Should you know Merimée’s Mateo Falcone, a novella on a similar theme, written just one year prior to La Vendetta, you will know why. Mérimée’s novella is accomplished and renders life and customs of Corsica without falling into the trap of stereotypes. Unfortunately this isn’t the case here. Balzac doesn’t do the Corsican people justice. He probably chose the theme because it was fashionable and I think what he really wanted to write about is the jealous possessiveness of a father. Bartholoméo Piombo isn’t the only selfish father in Balzac’s books. There are many others. This is why I could at least appreciate parts of the story. Another typical Balzac theme is the artist. Balzac was fascinated by painters and regularly evokes them in his stories. I found it sad that Ginevra who seems to have been very talented wasn’t encouraged to paint anything else but copies and in the end this speeded up the economical downfall of the young couple. This element is certainly realistic. There weren’t many accepted female painters in the early 19th century. Still it saddened me to see that young girls with talent had to paint mediocre works.

La Vendetta isn’t a bad novella but it isn’t Balzac at his most original. We see a few glimpses of the future master, but he isn’t there yet.

I’m curious to read what Emma and Danielle think.

Here are the links:

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Emma (Book Around the Corner)

On the History of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac

About a year ago I inherited my mother and my grandmother’s books. They fill up more than one cellar. We are talking about thousands of hardbacks as both never bought paperbacks. They didn’t think they were looking good on the wood shelves. And they removed all the dust jackets which is not helpful as there are so many that may or may not be good but I have no clue what they are about.

To cut a long story short there are also innumerable classics and collected works of many an author. You can find the whole works of Goethe, Schiller, Romain Rolland, Upton Sinclair, John Galsworthy…

I remembered that I had seen a 50s edition of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac somewhere and – oh wondrous moment – found it within a minute. Dusty and with a somewhat musty smell but nicely intact. What surprised me more than the speedy recovery of the book was the afterword and I realized I had had no idea how the book came to be, let alone that Stefan Zweig meant this to be his magnum opus, his most important work. Considering that literary biographies were something he excelled at we can easily deduce how important his Balzac must have been for him.

The afterword in my Balzac edition has been written by Richard Friedenthal, Stefan Zweig’s friend who got to be the literary executor of the manuscripts that had remained in Europe after Zweig fled to Petrópolis where, in 1942,  he ended his life together with his wife.

It took Stefan Zweig over ten years of working, compiling, taking notes and rewriting but when he died, Balzac was still not finalized, or so he said. He managed to finish Die Schachnovelle or Chess in Petrópolis and his autobiography. However he had wished to finish the Balzac as well and had asked Friedenthal to send the manuscript to Petrópolis, which he did, but the papers never reached Zweig. By the time it arrived in Brazil, Zweig had already ended his life. The mansucript was sent back to Friedenthal who then sorted and edited what was, according to him, almost finished anyway.

Zweig had written the last draft of the Balzac in Bath, where he had stayed before emigrating to the US and from there to Brazil.

Zweig’s book Drei Meister or Masterbuilders of the Spirit already contains an essay on Balzac, together with essays on Dickens and Dostojewski. But that was just like warming up. Clearly the topic of Balzac was far too important to him to be left in the form of an essay only.

As Friedenthal points out, Balzac was of supreme importance for Austrian literature. It was the reception of authors like Hugo von Hofmannsthal who contributed to a large extent to Balzac’s fame during his lifetime.

Hofmannsthal said about him that he was “the biggest substantial imagination since Shakespeare”. The Austrian authors thought of him as the incarnation of literary potential. Zweig thought pretty much the same and despaired many times during the composition of the book, it seemed almost too enormous an undertaking.

When Friedenthal, who lived in London during the Second World War, looked at the manuscript, after Zweig’s death, he saw that it didn’t need a lot of changes and undertook to edit what he got. Reading what he writes about it makes you think that it is a miracle this book was ever published. Friedenthal describes how it was literally ripped out of his hands twice when, during the Blitz,  the house he lived in was bombed. Apparently one can still see bits of plaster and little splinters of glass in the original manuscript. On the papers are numerous notes and remarks of Stefan Zweig’s wife who helped him correct and edit his works. Zweig had already written “For the editor” on the front page which led to Friedenthal’s assumption that Zweig himself considered it to be fairly finished.

I am not sure when I will start to read Zweig’s Balzac, but I  know I will. These two authors seem such opposites. I know I’m simplifying things but it seems as if one of the two was so avid for life that it killed him and the other one so tired of it that he ended it.

Balzac: Le Colonel Chabert aka Colonel Chabert (1832/1844)

Balzac’s radiant story recounts the history of Colonel Chabert, a disenfranchised hero of the Napoleonic wars. Left for dead on the battlefield of Eylau, Chabert has spent years as an amnesiac in an asylum. The novel begins with his return to the life he left behind: only to discover that in his absence, his entire life – family, society, identity – has changed. With Napoleon deposed, France’s aristocracy has returned to power ‘as if the Revolution never occurred’. With Chabert supposedly dead, his wife is now married to a Count. Sickened by his wife’s pretence not to recognise him, and the titled society which spurns his former meritorious deeds, Chabert vows to recover his money, his reputation and his name.

A few years back I went through an intense Balzac phase reading one of his novels after the other. Still there are so many left I haven’t read and one of them was Le Colonel Chabert (or Colonel Chabert in English). I always thought it was much longer, probably because the edition I have contains other books as well. Or because of its notoriety. I think it is one of the most famous of his works.

Le Colonel Chabert is one of the books from the Scènes de la vie privée. Those who are familiar with Balzac know that the vast canvas of his work which he called La Comédie Humaine is organized in groups depending on the setting or themes.

Balzac has written an impressive amount of books. Some were serialized and written for the newspaper, like Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, and the writing is not subtle at all. As wonderful as his plots, characters and topics usually are, his style is occasionally lacking. I was pleased to see that Le Colonel Chabert is, from a purely literary point of view, one of his best. It was published twice, first in 1832 under the name La transaction and then again in 1844.

Colonel Chabert is one of Balzac’s most tragic figures, a man who had everything and lost it all. To a certain extent the figure of Colonel Chabert whose fate is tied to that of Napoléon, also mirrors the emperor’s fate. Like Napoléon himself, he knew fame and glory and lost it all.

The novel opens on a scene of lively banter among several clerks who work for a young and promising lawyer. This scene is Balzac at his very best. With a few words he captures mediocrity. Into this setting enters a man who looks like a ghost. An old and broken man, poorly dressed, weak and ailing. When he asks to see Derville, the young lawyer, they make fun of him. And even more so when he tells them that he is the Colonel Chabert. Everybody knows that this cannot be as the Colonel has died in the battle of Eylau. His much deplored death has even been confirmed by Napoléon himself. His wife has remarried and born two children to a new husband. His fortune has been divided. The man standing in front of them cannot be the dashing looking colonel. This is an old man who seems to have seen nothing but poverty and misery.

The clerks who do not believe the old man send him away and tell him to return at one in the morning, the only hour during which the lawyer receives his clients.

When Chabert returns Derville is gruff at first but he is not only an ambitious young man, he is also very intelligent and kind-hearted. He pities the poor man and allows him to tell his story.

The Colonel who has shown Derville the deep scar on his skull, tells him how he was mortally wounded by a sabre, who almost split his skull in two. Buried under his horse who had been killed, he wasn’t trampled by the fleeing army but left unconscious. When they finally discovered him, they declared him dead and buried him. He regained consciousness later in the grave and managed to dig himself out from underneath corpses, earth and snow. This is a truly creepy scene that reminded me of an Edgar Allan Poe story.

Illustration de Le Colonel Chabert

(La bataille d’Eylau by Antoine-Jean Gros)

Ten years have passed since that episode. Ten years of suffering and erring during which the Colonel wrote to his wife a few times. Hoping to make a better marriage she pretends not to believe that he is alive. Chabert finally decides to ask for help and wants the young lawyer’s assistance in claiming back his wife and his considerable fortune.

His former wife, now the Countess Ferraud, is one of the ugliest characters of Balzac whose novels are full of greedy, vile people.

I will stop my summary here and just tell you that the outcome isn’t exactly what we expect.

I am not sure if it would be ideal to start reading Balzac with Le Colonel Chabert. I usually recommend Le père Goriot or La cousine Bette. Once you are more familiar with Balzac’s themes and characters you will realize how unique this book is. It is very short but extremely complex and a lot of allusions to French history are almost crammed into it. To fully comprehend the story it is good to know something about French history.

I’m looking forward to watch the movie one of these days as it seems to be very good as Guy Savage writes in his review of the book.

My favourite Balzac is Les illusions perdues aka Lost illusions, followed by La cousine Bette aka Cousin Bette. Which one do you like?

Colonel Chabert (Hesperus Classics)