A Personal Matter – Kenzaburō Ōe (tr. John Nathan)

“You’re right about this being limited to me, it’s entirely a personal matter. But with some personal experiences that lead you way into a cave all by yourself, you must eventually come to a side tunnel or something that opens on a truth that concerns not just yourself but everyone.”

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Kenzaburō Ōe is known for his deeply personal works, and he credits his son Hikari, brain damaged from birth, for influencing his literary career.  Ōe claims that he has tried to give his son a “voice” through his writing. Several of Ōe’s books feature a character based on his son and ‘A Personal Matter’ (1964) deals with the birth of a son who has a brain hernia, Hikari was born in 1963.

The novel opens with a sense of foreboding, our protagonist, Bird, looking at the map of Africa in the atlas, a place he wants to escape to:

Shuddering, Bird peered at the details of the map. The ocean surrounding Africa was inked in the teary blue of a winter sky at dawn. Longitudes and latitudes were not the mechanical lines of a compass: the bold strokes evoked the artist’s unsteadiness and caprice. The continent itself resembled the skull of a man who had hung his head. With doleful, downcast eyes, a man with a huge head was gazing at Australia, land of the koala, the platypus, and the kangaroo. The miniature Africa indicating population distribution in a lower corner of the map was like a dead head beginning to decompose; another, veined with transportation routes, was a skinned head with the capillaries painfully exposed. Both these little Africas suggested unnatural death, raw and violent.

At this stage of the book Bird’s wife is still in labour, he is yet to learn of his first-born son being born brain damaged. Wandering the streets and telephoning the hospital each hour Bird wanders into a game arcade where he tests his strength, he is no longer the man he thought he was, reduced from a fighter to a scrawny meek being whose strength is less than the kick from a gang member who are watching him. Once Bird leaves the arcade he is literally, and metaphorically, attacked by the gang, we know that our journey with Bird is going to be deeply personal.

“Brain hernia, we call it. The brain is protruding from a fault in the skull.”

From this point onwards the novel explores a range of emotional responses, Bird a former alcoholic, goes through phases of anger, grief, hopelessness, despair, rejection, guilt, fear:

I’m afraid of the dark recesses where that grotesque baby was created

Shame, after an act of sexual perversion with a former girlfriend Bird is in the “grip of diffidence”.

Bird tried comparing his child who seemed to have two heads with pictures he had seen of mutations caused by radioactivity. But he had only to think to himself about the baby’s abnormality and a sense of extremely personal shame hotly rose into his throat. How could he discuss the misfortune with other people, it was inherent in himself! He had the feeling this would never be a problem he could share with the rest of mankind.

The guilt:

If life was eternal and if there was a god who judges, Bird thought, then he would be found guilty. But his guilt now, like the grief that had assailed him in the ambulance when he had compared the baby to Apollinaire with his head in bandages, tasted primarily of honey.

This is a deeply personal exploration of a man who has a choice, does he keep and rear a handicapped child, does he allow the hospital to operate most likely causing death, does he allow them to slowly starve the child? Interestingly Bird’s wife, his mother and father-in-law are minor players here, the focus is on Bird’s inner turmoil and that of his former girlfriend whose husband had committed suicide.

Set against the backdrop of the Russians resuming nuclear tests there is a hint of the human crisis being faced, Kenzaburō Ōe has written extensively on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as pressuring the Government after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and organising antinuclear protests.

Before this novel Kenzaburō Ōe published a series of works incorporating sexual metaphors for the occupation of Japan, and this work does have a chapter with a similar theme, Himoko, Bird’s former girlfriend, is the “Japan” placed in a humiliating position by the oppressor, Bird.

The main character here is called “Bird” and the novel is littered with animal similes:

like a bed of straw for sick livestock
like an angry rat
like a titmouse pecking at millet seeds
like a laughable cartoon bear
like an orangutan sampling a flavour
like a fish with a ripped belly

These examples coming from only five pages of text! A world where nature should be dominant, but the simmering threat of nuclear war poses the question, should I bring a young life into this world?  

An interesting novel that touches on many of Kenzaburō Ōe’s themes, one that is deeply personal, (well it  is ‘A Personal Matter’), however it could also be seen as deeply egotistical and misogynistic. Ōe has gone into the dark cave all by himself, but he discovers a truth that concerns not only himself but everyone. For readers who haven’t come across his works before this is less daunting that more recent works and it would be a nice entry point to his oeuvre.

Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize Longlist 2022

The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize has just announced a longlist of sixteen titles in translation, normally only announcing a shortlist of eight titles, stating that this is to showcase the diversity of the entries.

The Prize is for a book-length literary translation, into English, from any living European language. “It aims to honour the craft of translation and to recognise its cultural importance”. It was founded by Lord Weidenfeld and is supported by New College, The Queen’s College, and St Anne’s College, Oxford.

The longlisted titles are as follows (author, title, translator):

Jakuta Alikavazovic ‘Night As It Falls’ (tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman)

Eva Baltasar ‘Permafrost’ (tr. Julia Sanches)

Édith Azam ‘Bird Me’ (tr. Stuart Bell)

Raphaela Edelbauer ‘The Liquid Land’ (tr. Jen Calleja)

Jon Fosse ‘A New Name’ (tr. Damion Searls)

Julian Fuks ‘Occupation’ (tr. Daniel Hahn)

Monika Kompaníková ‘Boat Number Five’ (tr. Janet Livingstone)

Andrea Lundgren ‘Nordic Fauna’ (tr. John Litell)

Salvatore Quasimodo ‘The Complete Poems’ (tr. Jack Bevan)

Montserrat Roig ‘The Song of Youth’ (tr. Tiago Miller)

Kateřina Rudčenková ‘Dream of a Journey’ (Alexandra Büchler)

Cristina Sandu ‘Union of Synchronised Swimmers’ (tr. By the author)

Maria Stepanova ‘Memory of Memory’ (tr. Sasha Dugdale)

Andrea Tompa ‘The Hangman’s House’ (tr. Bernard Adams)

Khal Torabully ‘Cargo Hold of Stars’ (tr. Nancy Naomi Carlson)

Adrienne Yabouza ‘Co-Wives, Co-Widows’ (tr. Rachael McGill)

The shortlist of eight titles will be announced at the end of this month, the prize of £2000 will be awarded at Oxford Translation Day on 11 June 2022.

Ilse – Ossit (translator uncredited)

Then the flowers died.

That is the full text of Chapter XIII in Ossit’s short novel ‘Ilse’. A work that appears, on the surface, to be a fairy tale of a young innocent girl corrupted by men. But bubbling underneath is a deeper allegorical journey with references to the emperor, folk lore, fairies and more. Described in the blurb as “like a fable or a long poem in prose” and “as much a drowsy dream as it is a book”, the edition was released last year, coming from a revised 1906 translation.

Madeleine Annette Edme Angelique Vivier-Deslandes (1866-1929) wrote under the pseudonym of “Ossit” and ‘Ilse’ is her second novel, her four books being; ‘A quoi bon?’ (1892), ‘Ilse’ (1894), ‘Il n’y a plus d’îles bienheureuses’ (1898) and ‘Cyrène’ (1908). Information about “Ossit” is very limited on the internet, I managed to find one article, in French, discussing a portrait of her by Edward Burne-Jones, where she is described as a recluse, modelling herself on images taken from Botticelli, a home with no windows and a thick steel door, containing thick plush white carpets, white bear rugs, bronze toads. There are two well researched articles about her persona on the National Gallery of Victoria’s website relating to the Edward Burne-Jones portrait which is held in the gallery.

The book itself says “she hosted a notable literary solon, which was attended by such figures as Jean Lorrain, Gabriele d’Annunzio, and Oscar Wilde. Somewhat an eccentric, she was said to have recited a poem by Jean Richepin from a lion’s cage at a fair.”

Our main protagonist, Ilse, is an innocent young girl who frolics amongst the sunflowers, enjoying the sunshine and the “the chattering of the happy birds”. The riverside fishing village where she lives also hosts a forty-year-old old-maid, the shop keeper Lina Minniglich who has designs on her neighbour Heinrich Rothkeppel, a keen gardener, however Heinrich meets Ilse:

One Sunday as he was tending his plants, Heinrich, happening to raise his head, saw leaning on the parapet a young girl who was looking at him. She was fair and very beautiful and suggested all kinds of flowers. He stood staring at her open-mouthed, astonished at the contrast she made to the shopkeeper he was accustomed to find there.
The girl smiled and bowed to him prettily. He raised his hat awkwardly, and then, after a moment’s silence, asked: “Do you love flowers?”
“Oh, yes, I lover flowers,” she replied, her pretty face lighting up with pleasure.
“Would you like to come in and see my garden? He asked hesitatingly.

The innocence and simplicity of the writing leads you to feel the dread in in such straightforward requests.

A young prince enters the fray, each of the characters being introduced with a short sketch, their personas detailed enough for the reader to broadly anticipate their roles. An innocent young girl, an old maid, an eligible bachelor, a prince:

He was a looker-on. He loved the arts passionately, but he practiced none of them with any considerable success, a result rather of his extreme indifference and versatility than of a lack of natural gifts. He was very handsome and very much petted, but that did not suffice him. He had a melancholy soul that was at once enthusiastic and disillusioned. He was not capable of any sustained effort not of continuity in his ideas. He was not goog, nor was he bad; he was an idler, that is all. He idled through life and recognized his own uselessness.
He had just returned from Bayreuth, where Wagner’s art had delighted and then saddened him, for it had made him feel once more his inferiority, his impotence to create and the futility of his efforts. This was a great sorrow to him; but still he could never find the necessary energy and determination to be great in anything he undertook.

Ossit seems to have very firm views of the usefulness of men, even the prince is of lacks “natural gifts”. On the other hand, Ilse is full of innocence, revelling in the idea of fairies, even her name is reflected in fairy legend. Princess Ilse (German: Prinzess Ilse or Prinzeß Ilse) is the name of a popular tourist destination in the Ilse valley near the town of Ilsenburg in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. The legend of the name comes from ‘Prinzessin Ilse’ a fairy tale from the ‘Harz’ by Marie Petersen, which first appeared in print in 1850. In this story, Princess Ilse loses her way whilst riding to the chase with her father, King Ilsing, and comes at nightfall to the gates of the fairy world, ruled by the fairy queen. The queen meets her kindly and invites her to the crystal palace. (Wikipedia) Ilse’s brother Hans takes the young prince, Brian, to his home, a scene he could paint, and there he meets Ilse:

A great, unknown joy had entered into her; it seemed to her that the queen of the fairies had sent her a message. Everything was vague and confused in her mind, but everything was changed; she no longer felt that she was the same little girl who had got up that morning so care-free, so ignorant of happiness and still so glad to be alive amid the shrill music of the birds.
Ilse could not sleep. Now the moon came in through the window and bathed her in its pale rays. She sat down on her little bed, clasping her arms about her knees, and stared into space with unseeing and ecstatic eyes. Love had entered her heart, and she did not understand its wonderful magic that is so gentle, so radiant, so mysterious and so sad.

In her mind “he came from the land of the fairies, and surely their gentle queen had sent him.” Whilst reveling in the world of love and innocence the novel turns when the flowers die. Earlier in the novel we learn of the statue of Konrad III, “the emperor on his stone horse” a likeness with “an indignant air”. This towering monarch with “arrogant eyes” will play a literal as well as a metaphorical role in Ilse’s fate.

A short novel, that can be read in a single sitting, that plays on folk lore, innocence vs ignorance, one that uses metaphor subtly alongside theories of “the great Nietzsche”, this is a delicate and subtle moral tale. It is a pity the publisher, Snuggly Books, hasn’t credited a translator, simply stating “This edition of Ilse is a revised version of the translation that was originally published in 1906.” An enjoyable light read between some of my more serious fare.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists 2022

The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists have been announced, the Awards are held annually with the winners for each category being announced on 16 May 2022 as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

With numerous categories I’ll head straight into the shortlists.

The Christina Stead Prize ($40,000) for Fiction.

Tony Birch for ‘Dark as Last Night’
Merlinda Bobis for ‘The Kindness of Birds’
Katherine Brabon for ‘The Shut Ins’
John Hughes for ‘The Dogs’
John Kinsella for ‘Pushing Back’
Claire Thomas for ‘The Performance’

The UTS Glenda Adams Award ($5,000) for New Writing (writer has not previously had a published book length work)

Ella Baxter for ‘The New Animal’
Kavita Bedford for ‘Friends & Dark Shapes’
Stuart Everly-Wilson for ‘Low Expectations’
Angela O’Keefe for ‘Night Blue’
Monica Raszewski for ‘The Archaeology of a Dream City’
Chloe Wilson for ‘Hold Your Fire’

The Douglas Stewart Prize ($40,000) for Non-Fiction

Bernadette Brennan for ‘Leaping Into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears’
Veronica Gorrie for ‘Black and Blue: a memoir of racism and resilience’
Amani Haydar for ‘The Mother Wound’
Kate Holden for ‘The Winter Road: A story of Legacy, Land and a Killing at Croppa Creek’
Brendan James Murray for ‘The School: The ups and downs of one year in the classroom’
Mark Willacy for ‘Rogue Forces’

The Kenneth Slessor Prize ($30,000) for Poetry

Eunice Andrada for ‘Take Care’
Evelyn Araluen for ‘Drop Bear’
Eileen Chong for ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’
Dan Disney for ‘accelerations & inertias’
John Kinsella for ‘Supervivid Depastoralism’
Bella Li for ‘Theory of Colours’

The Patricia Wrightson Prize ($30,000) for Children’s Literature

Philip Bunting for ‘Me, Microbes and I’
Peter Carnavas for ‘My Brother Ben’
Christopher Cheng & Stephen Michael King for ‘Bear and Rat’
Karen Foxlee for ‘Dragon Skin’
Morris Gleitzman for ‘Always’
Kirli Saunders for ‘Bindi’

The Ethel Turner Prize ($30,000) for Young People’s Literature

Kathryn Barker for ‘Waking Romeo’
Felicity Castagna for ‘Girls in Boys’ Cars’
Leanne Hall for ‘The Gaps’
Pip Harry for ‘Are you there, Buddah?’
Rebecca Lim for ‘Tiger Daughter’
Rhiannon Wilde for ‘Henry Hamlet’s Heart’

The Nick Enright Prize ($30,000) for Playwriting

Kodie Bedford for ‘Cursed!’
James Elazzi for ‘Queen Fatima’
Elias Jamieson Brown for ‘Green Park’
Finegan Kruckemeyer for ‘Hibernation’
Kirsty Marillier for ‘Orange Thrower’
Ian Michael, Chris Isaacs for ‘York’

The Betty Roland Prize ($30,000) for Scriptwriting

Shaun Grant for ‘Nitram’
Alec Morgantiriki Onus for ‘Ablaze’
Kelsey Munro for ‘Bump Episode 10 ‘Matrescence’ Season 1’
Leah Purcell for ‘The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson’

The Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000)

Randa Abdel-Fattah for ‘Coming of Age in the War on Terror’
Safdar Ahmed for ‘Still Alive’
Eunice Andrada for ‘Take Care’
Kodie Bedford for ‘Cursed!’
Amani Haydar for ‘The Mother Wound’
Rebecca Lim for ‘Tiger Daughter’

The NSW Premier’s Translation Prize ($30,000) – a biennial award

The award will next be offered in 2023.

The Indigenous Writers’ Prize ($30,000) – a biennial award

Larissa Behrendt for ‘After Story’
Lisa Fuller for ‘Ghost Bird’
Anita Heiss for ‘Bila Yarrudhangglangdhuray; River of Dreams’
Terri Janke for ‘True Tracks’
Gary Lonesborough for ‘The Boy From the Mish’
Alf Taylor for ‘God, the Devil and Me’

There are also awards for “People’s Choice” (Only taken from the Fiction Award list), “Book of the Year” and a “Special Award”.

EBRD Literature Prize Shortlist 2022

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (“EBRD”) Literature Prize was created in 2017 and is awarded to the year’s “best work of literary fiction”, translated into English, from the Bank’s countries of operations, and published by a UK publisher.

There is a €20,000 prize which is split equally between the author and translator. The two runners-up and their translators receive a prize of €4,000 each.

Past winners:

2018 – ‘Istanbul, Istanbul’ by the Turkish author Burhan Sönmez and his translator Ümit Hussein.

2019 – ‘The Devils’ Dance’ by Hamid Ismailov and translated from Uzbek by Donald Rayfield (with John Farndon)

2020 – ‘Devilspel’ by Grigory Kanovich and translated from Russian by Yisrael Elliot Cohen

2021 – ‘The King of Warsaw’ by writer Szczepan Twardoch and translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye

The judges for the 2022 Prize are Toby Lichtig (Chair), the Fiction and Politics Editor of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), Alex Clark, critic, journalist and broadcaster, Boris Dralyuk, literary translator, poet and the Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dr Kathryn Murphy, literary critic and scholar who reviews Czech literature for the TLS.

The shortlisted titles for 2022, in alphabetical order by author, were announced yesterday (summaries are taken from publisher’s websites):

‘Doctor Bianco and Other Stories’ by Maciek Bielawski, translated by Scotia Gilroy (Terra Librorum Ltd). Language: Polish. Country: Poland.

A postman who develops close friendships with everyone on his postal route, an old man who stops buying the coal he needs to heat his flat so he can afford Christmas presents for his granddaughters, a senile old Holocaust survivor who’s suspicious of almost all her neighbours, two young sisters who are fed up with their baby brother, and an old woman squabbling with her tailor while a suit is being sewn for her to wear at her own funeral these are just some of the intriguing characters we meet in Doctor Bianco and Other Stories. Written in terse, spare, unaffected prose devoid of sentimentality, the nineteen stories in this collection gradually reveal the portraits of various people inhabiting one particular apartment building in an unspecified town. The gritty, harsh realities faced by Bielawski’s protagonists are at times darkly funny and other times gut-wrenchingly sad. Bielawski sets up a magnifying glass on a small corner of Polish life and allows us to glimpse fascinating, surreal scenes from a tangle of human lives whose heartbreak, despair and various anxieties might feel surprisingly familiar to readers from any walk of life.

‘Birds of Verhovina’ by Adam Bodor, translated by Peter Sherwood (Jantar Publishing Ltd). Language: Hungarian.  Country: Hungary.

Home to nine hot springs, Verhovina used to be rich in natural beauty, yet it has become a wasteland, with only a few dozen inhabitants left. Trains to Verhovina are scarce; the timetable was cancelled. One day, even the birds disappeared from the region!

The reader arrives in Ádám Bodor’s world, the periphery of civilisation, at the break of dawn. Adam, the foster son of Brigadier Anatol Korkodus is waiting at the dilapidated station for a boy who is arriving from a reform school. Soon afterwards, Korkodus is arrested, for unfathomable reasons. Yet this decaying and sinister world is not devoid of a certain joie de vivre: people eat gourmet dishes, point out their interlocutor’s hidden motives with incredibly dark humour and enjoy the region’s stunning natural beauty.

‘The Book of Katerina’ by Auguste Corteau, translated by Claire Papamichail (Parthian Books). Language: Greek. Country: Greece.

My name is Katerina, and I died by a route dark and lonely, for there was too much in me I could bear no longer.

In this acclaimed Greek novel, Auguste Corteau imagines his own mother’s inner life, observing with wit and earthy humour the saga of her extended family’s ups and downs in the city of Thessaloniki over three generations.

From the poverty of the early years through to affluence and aspirations of grandeur, Katerina drags her husband and son into the chaos of her life: sicknesses are hidden, siblings fight for love and attention while feckless husbands and unwanted children are riven through the family story.

‘Red Crosses’ by Sasha Filipenko, translated by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner (Europa Editions UK). Language: Russian. Country: Belarus.

Sasha Filipenko traces the arc of Russian history from Stalin’s terror to the present day, in a  novel full of heart and humanity.

One struggles not to forget, while the other would like nothing better. Tatiana Alexeyevna is an old woman, over ninety, rich in lived experience, and suffering from Alzheimer’s. Every day, she loses a few more of her irreplaceable memories. Alexander is a young man whose life has been brutally torn in two.

Tatiana tells her young neighbor her life story, a story that encompasses the entire Russian 20th century with all its horrors and hard-won humanity.

Little by little, the old woman and the young man forge an unlikely friendship and make a pact against forgetting.

‘City of Torment’ by Daniela Hodrova, translated by Veronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (Jantar Publishing Ltd). Language: Czech. Country: Czech Republic.

An intoxicating, personal journey through 1,000 years of European culture where history’s losers bite back.

City of Torment is, on one level, a family and generational novel, conveyed through the complex voice of a first-person female narrator whose subjectivity becomes elaborately intertwined with the main protagonist, Eliška Beránková (Lamb). Eliška/Daniela is searching above all for her dead father, but also for her dead mother and ultimately for herself. At the same time, on a more abstract level, Hodrová introduces a feminine structural dimension to a theme especially prevalent in 20th-century prose – the novel as a self-conscious genre, openly exploring the relationship of the author to her text. Hodrová’s trilogy represents a distinct contemporary Czech voice in women’s experimental writing, a genre first introduced to anglophone readers by Virginia Woolf.

‘Manaschi’ by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Donald Rayfield (Tilted Axis Press). Language: Uzbek. Country: Uzbekistan.

A radio presenter interprets one of his dreams as an initiation by the world of spirits into the role of a Manaschi, a Kyrgyz bard and shaman who recites and performs the epic poem, Manas, and is revered as someone connected with supernatural forces. Travelling to his native mountainous village, populated by Tajiks and Kyrgyz, and unravelling his personal and national history, our hero Bekesh instead witnesses a full re-enactment of the epic’s wrath.

‘Boat Number Five’ by Monika Kompaníková, translated by Janet Livingstone (Seagull Books). Language: Slovak. Country: Slovak Republic.

Emotionally neglected by her immature, promiscuous mother and made to care for her cantankerous dying grandmother, twelve-year-old Jarka is left to fend for herself in the social vacuum of a post-communist concrete apartment-block jungle in Bratislava, Slovakia. She spends her days roaming the streets and daydreaming in the only place she feels safe: a small garden inherited from her grandfather. One day, on her way to the garden, she stops at a suburban railway station and impulsively abducts twin babies. Jarka teeters on the edge of disaster, and while struggling to care for the babies, she discovers herself. With a vivid and unapologetic eye, Monika Kompaníková captures the universal quest for genuine human relationships amid the emptiness and ache of post-communist Europe.

‘Karolina, or the Torn Curtain’ by Maryla Szymiczkowa (Jacek Dehnel/ Piotr Tarczynski), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Oneworld Publications). Language: Polish. Country: Poland.

Easter, 1895.

The biggest event in the Catholic calendar is a disaster in Zofia Turbotyńska’s household. Her maid Karolina has handed in her notice and worse, gone missing. When Karolina’s body is discovered, violated and stabbed, Zofia knows she has to investigate.

Following a trail that leads her from the poorest districts of Galicia to the highest echelons of society, Zofia uncovers a web of gang crimes, sex-trafficking and corruption that will force her to question everything she knows.

Set against the backdrop of the women’s cause, Karolina, or the Torn Curtain refuses to turn a blind eye to the injustices and inequalities of its era – and ours.

‘Just the Plague’ by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon (Granta). Language: Russian. Country: Russian Federation

A gripping novel based on real events in the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s, written in the late 1970s and rediscovered by the author during lockdown.

‘The Orphanage’ by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Issac Stackhouse Wheeler (Yale University Press). Language: Ukrainian. Country: Ukraine.

If every war needs its master chronicler, Ukraine has Serhiy Zhadan, one of Europe’s most promising novelists. Recalling the brutal landscape of The Road and the wartime storytelling of A Farewell to Arms, The Orphanage is a searing novel that excavates the human collateral damage wrought by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. When hostile soldiers invade a neighboring city, Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives, now in occupied territory. Venturing into combat zones, traversing shifting borders, and forging uneasy alliances along the way, Pasha realizes where his true loyalties lie in an increasingly desperate fight to rescue Sasha and bring him home.

 Written with a raw intensity, this is a deeply personal account of violence that will be remembered as the definitive novel of the war in Ukraine.

NOTE – This looks more like the longlist than the shortlist, however I am following the official website’s language. For more information on the Prize visit the official website here.

Madame Firmiani – Honoré de Balzac (tr. Clara Bell)

Madame Laure de Berny (oil on canvas) by Gorp, Henri Nicolas van (c.1756-p.1819) oil on canvas Bibliotheque Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, Chantilly, France Lauros / Giraudon French, out of copyright

‘Madame Firmiani’ is a short story included in Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, classified under the Scènes de la vie privée (’Scenes from private life’) section of the multi volume work. As previously explored, the works appearing in ‘Scenes from private life’, as categorised by Balzac himself address “youth, adolescence, and their faults”.

This story is the fifth I have read from the ‘scenes from private life’ and it is one of the later published works of the five, ‘At the Sign of the Cat and Racket’, ‘The Sceaux Ball’ and ‘The Vendetta’ being published in 1830, this story and ‘The Purse’ in 1832.

Opening in a completely different style to the other stories, novellas, Balzac is addressing you, the reader:

If you are thinking by chance of the dear friends you have lost; if you are alone, and it is night, or the day is dying, read this narrative; otherwise, throw the book aside, here. If you have never buried some kind aunt, an invalid or poor, you will not understand these pages. To some, they will be odorous as of musk; to others, they will be as colourless, as strictly virtuous as those of Florian. In short, the reader must have known the luxury of tears; must have felt the wordless grief of a memory that drifts lightly by, bearing a shade that is dear but remote; he must possess some of those remembrances that make us at the same time regret those whom the earth has swallowed, and smile over vanished joys.
And now the author would have you believe that for all the wealth of England he would not extort from poetry even one of her fictions to add grace to this narrative. This is a true story, on which you may pour out the treasure of your sensibilities, if you have any.

The early part of the story explores the many angles of gossip about Madame Firmiani:

‘Madame Firmiani? Why, my dear boy, she was a mistress of Murat’s.’ This gentleman is a Contradictory. They supply the errata to every memory, rectify every fact, bet you a hundred to one, are cock-sure of everything. You catch them out in a single evening in flagrant delicts of ubiquity. They assert that they were in Paris at the time of Mallet’s conspiracy, forgetting that half an hour before they had crossed the Beresina. The Contradictories are almost all members of the Legion of Honour; they talk very loud, have receding foreheads, and play high.
‘Madame Firmiani, a hundred thousand francs a year? Are you mad? Really some people scatter thousands a year with the liberality of authors, to whom it costs nothing to give their heroines handsome fortunes. But Madame Firmiani is a flirt who ruined a young fellow the other day, and hindered him from making a very good marriage. If she were not handsome, she would be penniless.’

 So instead of being a character study, it becomes a study in the rumour mills, gossip. It is impossible to determine the real Madame Firmiani, poor or rich, alluring or ugly, a flirt or chaste, married or single?

From Wikipedia, here’s part of the plot of this short story; Madame Firmiani is a beautiful young woman who is the subject of gossip in Paris. However, her husband’s whereabouts are unknown. One day she receives a visit from Monsieur de Bourbonne, who is concerned about a rumour that his nephew Octave de Camps is having an affair with her, and has ruined himself financially because of her. Monsieur de Bourbonne is charmed by Madame Firmiani, but when he mentions that Octave is his nephew, the conversation is brought to an abrupt end.

In the biography ‘Honoré de Balzac’ by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet (translated by Frederic Taber Cooper) – 1914 – it is mentioned that Madame Firmiani is modelled on his lover Madame Louise Antoinette Laure de Berny. “Balzac borrowed certain traits from her for the noblest heroines in his works; and she served successively as model for Mme. Firmiani, for Mme. de Mortsauf in The Lily in the Valley, and for Pauline in Louis Lambert; and he spoke constantly of her in his correspondence with Mme. de Hanska, yet always with a sort of reverence and passionate gratitude.”

Here his pen is dripping with his love (although he is describing a fictional character):

Have you ever met, for your happiness, some woman whose harmonious tones give to her speech the charm that is no less conspicuous in her manners, who knows how to talk and to be silent, who cares for you with delicate feeling, whose words are happily chosen and her language pure? Her banter flatters you, her criticism does not sting; she neither preaches nor disputes, but is interested in leading a discussion, and stops it at the right moment. Her manner is friendly and gay, her politeness is unforced, her eagerness to please is not servile; she reduces respect to a mere gentle shade; she never tires you, and leaves you satisfied with her and yourself. You will see her gracious presence stamped on the things she collects about her. In her home everything charms the eye, and you breathe, as it seems, you native air. This woman is quite natural. You never feel an effort, she flaunts nothing, her feelings are expressed with simplicity because they are genuine. Though candid, she never wounds the most sensitive pride; she accepts men as God made them, pitying the vicious, forgiving defects and absurdities, sympathising with every age, and vexed with nothing because she has the tact to forefend everything. At once tender and lively, she first constrains and then consoles you. You love her so truly, that is this angel does wrong, you are ready to justify her. – Then you know Madame Firmiani.

A moral tale – again, I am not going to give you the narrative, you’ll need to read it yourself, I’m simply documenting some highlights from each of the readings and attempting to string together some consistent themes in his work – here though, the obvious references to privacy, locked rooms, high walls, is missing, the privacy is portrayed through an inability to pin down a single opinion of Madame Firmiani.

Now that I have finished a collection of Balzac’s works, published in an early 1900’s edition, I am tempted to start reading La Comédie humaine in the order suggested by William Hobart Royce, I am under no illusions that I will complete all the works before I am side tracked to other books, I know I will tire of Balzac’s style at some stage. I still have my notes from ‘Sarrasine’ (1830) to type up and I never wrote any thoughts about the three works that make up ‘The Thirteen’ (Histoire des Treize), ‘Ferragus’ (1833), ‘The Duchess of Langeais’ (La Duchesse de Langeais, 1834), and ‘The Girl with the Golden Eyes’ (La fille aux yeux d’or, 1835). A re-read of these is probably in order.

Expect a few more Balzac posts from me in the coming weeks!!!

I do intend to also put together some highlights from Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ sequence of novels, as I have also been reading these over the last few months. 2022 looks like a year of “classics” for me!!!

The Vendetta – Honoré de Balzac (tr. Clara Bell)

Title page of 1897 edition of La Vendetta (illustration by Toudouze)

‘La Vendetta’, (‘The Vendetta’) was one of the earlier published works from La Comédie humaine. The first edition was published in April 1830 by Mame et Delaunay-Vallée, appearing immediately after the preface in the first volume of a two-volume collection of Balzac’s novels entitled Scènes de la vie privée (’Scenes from private life’). The work was divided into a prologue and four sections entitled: ‘L’Atelier’ (‘The Studio’) , La Désobéissance (‘The Disobedience’) , Le Mariage (‘The Marriage’) and Le Châtiment (‘The Punishment’).

The novel begins with a “stranger, having with him a woman, and a little girl” requesting an audience with Bonaparte, we learn they are Corsican seeking refuge after a family feud:

‘They stayed at my place, and set fire to my vineyard at Longone. They killed my son Gregorio; my daughter Ginevra and my wife escaped; they had taken the Communion that morning; the Virgin protected them. When I got home I could no longer see my house; I searched for it with my feet in the ashes. Suddenly I came across Gregorio’s body; I recognised it in the moonlight. “Oh, the Porta have played this trick!” said I to myself. I went off at once into the scrub; I got together a few men to whom I had done some service – do you hear, Bonaparte? – and we marched down on the Porta’s vineyard. We arrived at five in the morning, and by seven they were all in the presence of God. Giacomo declares that Elisa Vanni saved a child, little Luigi; but I tied him into bed with my own hands before setting the house on fire. Then I quitted the island with my wife and daughter without being able to make sure whether Luigi Porta were still alive.’

Fast forward fifteen years and we enter the private world of Severin’s, “one of our most distinguished artists”, studio where “young ladies…take lessons in painting”. One of those young ladies is Ginevra, the daughter exiled from Corsica, the “little girl” mentioned in the prologue.

As I have addressed with other works from the Scènes de la vie privée (’Scenes from private life’) here we see the folly of youth as well as Balzac’s focus on the “private life”. Here Ginevra has been banished by her classmates, her easel sent to the far end of the studio, she ignores her classmate’s bullying and uses the moved easel.

…she hastily rose, walked rather slowly along the partition which divided the dark closet from the studio, seeming to examine the skylight from which the light fell; and to this she ascribed so much importance that she got upon a chair to fasten the green baize which interfered with the light, a good deal higher. At this elevation she was on a level with a small crack in the boarding, the real object of her efforts, for the look she cast through it can only be compared with that of a miser discovering Aladdin’s treasure. She quickly descended, came back to her place, arranged her picture, affected still to be dissatisfied with the light, pushed a table close to the partition, and placed a chair on it; then she nimbly mounted this scaffolding, and again peeped through the crack. She gave but one look into the closet, which was lighted by a window at the top of the partition, but what she saw impressed her so vividly that she started.


She quickly arranged the baize, came down, pushed the table and the chair far from the partition, returned to her easel, and made a few more attempts, seeming to try for an effect of light that suited her. Her picture did not really trouble her at all; her aim was to get close to the dark closet by which she placed herself, as she wished, at the end near the door. Then she prepared to set her palette, still in perfect silence. Where she now was she soon heard more distinctly a slight noise which, on the day before, had greatly stirred her curiosity, and sent her young imagination wandering over a wide field of conjecture. She easily recognised it as the deep, regular breathing of the sleeping man whom she had just now seen. Her curiosity was satisfied, but she found herself burthened with an immense responsibility. Through the crack she had caught sight of the Imperial eagle, and on a camp bed, in the dim light, had seen the figure of an officer of the guard. She guessed it all. Servin was sheltering a refugee.

Peering through cracks, dark closets, I have quoted a rather long section, however I feel it shows the depths in the writing to reinforce the privacy aspect, the voyeuristic behaviours, discovering and spying on the refugee takes place over many pages. Needless to say Ginevra falls in love with the mysterious refugee. However, the theme of privacy continues throughout:

Ginevra was content with her little domain, though the view was limited by the high wall of a neighbouring house, and the courtyard on which the rooms looked was gloomy. But the lovers were so glad of heart, hope so beautified the future, that they would see nothing but enchantment in their mysterious dwelling. They were buried in this huge house, lost in the immensity of Paris, like two pearls in their shell, in the bosom of the deep sea. For any one else it would have been a prison; to them it was Paradise.

In previous works I had noticed references to the sea, possibly a metaphorical theme, here I noted the reference and will add to them as I read each work, it may not amount to anything, let’s see:

Is not love like the sea, which, seen superficially or in haste, is accused of monotony by vulgar minds, while certain privileged beings can spend all their life admiring it and finding in it changeful phenomena which delight them?

Another tale where “youth, adolescence, and their faults” comes to the fore (as described by Balzac in “his Avant-propos” for the stories in ’Scenes from private life’) and another enjoyable read. I’ve purposely avoided spoilers or any real narrative references as part of the charm of Balzac’s works is the sudden revelations, the shocks. Although told in the omniscient third person voice, Balzac purposely withholds information to allow a building of tension, conjecture by the reader, and given his works can range from the melancholy to the bleak and then to the delightful there is always a seed of doubt as to where they will twist next. Does the innocence of love lead to a happy ending?

The Purse – Honoré de Balzac (tr. Clara Bell)

Illustration from an 1897 edition
by Georges Cain (the protagonist Hippolyte Schinner)

More of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine and more specifically another from the ‘Scènes de la vie privée’ (‘Scenes from private life’) collection of works. Another read out of sequence from William Hobart Royce’s suggested reading order for the Comédie Humaine.

‘The Purse’ (‘La Bourse’) 1832, is one of the shorter works in the collection, however it touches on “youth, adolescence, and their faults” (as described by Balzac in his “Avant-propos”) the main theme of ‘Scenes from private life’.

In this story of young love, a young painter, Hippolyte Schinner, falls from a ladder whilst working in his studio and knocks himself unconscious. The neighbours, Adélaïde Leseigneur and her mother Madame de Rouville, hear the fall and help him to recover consciousness. Inevitably Hippolyte and Adélaïde fall in love (“youth, adolescence, and their faults”) although the painter is celebrated and it is not clear how the impoverished Adélaïde sustains herself and her mother. There is an air of concern over their behaviour which only intensifies once Hippolyte’s purse goes missing:

Insensibly the painter was led into confidences, and confessed his love. The moment he mentioned the Rue de Suresne, and a young girl living on the fourth floor, ‘Stop, stop,’ cried Souchet lightly. ‘A little girl I see every morning at the Church of the Assumption, and with whom I have a flirtation. But, my dear fellow, we all know her. The mother is a Baroness. Do you really believe in a Baroness living up four flights of stairs? Brrr! Why, you are a relic of the golden age! We see the old mother here, in this avenue, every day; why, her face, her appearance, tell everything. What, have you not known her for what she is by the way she holds her bag?’

Balzac sowing the seed of doubt, and with his works you never know if it will end happily or as a complete shambles.

The idea that we are reading about something from a “private life”, voyeuristic, is styled through Balzac’s careful introductions, rooms are closed, the painter is alone in his studio, behind a closed door, and when he visits Adélaïde’s room for the first time…

Mademoiselle Leseigneur herself opened the door. On recognising the young artist she bowed, and at the same time, with Parisian adroitness, and with the presence of mind that pride can lend, she turned round to shut a door in a glass partition through which Hippolyte might have caught sight of some linen hung by lines over patent ironing stoves, an old camp-bed, some wood-embers, charcoal, irons, a filter, the household crockery, and all the utensils familiar to a small household. Muslin curtains, fairly white, carefully screened this lumber-room -– a capharnaüm, as the French call such a domestic laboratory, — which was lighted by windows looking out on a neighbouring yard.

Adélaïde is closing a door on private items that we, the reader, are privy to knowing, but are hidden from the eyes of Hippolyte.

Where the artist has rented rooms and where Adélaïde and her mother live is a dilapidated house, rented out and not maintained, has anything changed in 100’s of years?

The house belonged to one of those proprietors in whom there is a foregone and profound horror of repairs and decoration, one of the men who regard their position as Paris house-owners as a business. In the vast chain of moral species, these people hold a middle place between the miser and the usurer. Optimists in their own interests, they are all faithful to the Austrian status quo. If you speak of moving a cupboard or a door, of opening the most indispensable air-hole, their eyes flash, their bile rises, they rear like a frightened horse. When the wind blows down a few chimney-pots they are quite ill, and deprive themselves of an evening at the Gymnase or the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, ‘on account of repairs.’ Hippolyte, who had seen the performance gratis of a comical scene with Monsieur Molineux as concerning certain decorative repairs in his studio, was not surprised to see the dark greasy paint, the oily stains, spots, and other disagreeable accessories that varied the woodwork. And these stigmata of poverty are not altogether devoid of poetry in an artist’s eyes.

Another really enjoyable, albeit short, tale from the pen of Balzac and his Comédie Humaine, love blinding the youngsters of the “grease, oil, stains” of their immediate environment and more broadly Paris. A moral tale too, but you will have to read it to learn the moral. As I have now completed seven of his works from the Comédie Humaine, (only writing about three here but I will get to the other four at some stage), maybe a plan to read all ninety-nine* is not too bad an idea!!!

*There is conjecture as to the number of works in the Comédie Humaine, I’ll reference ninety-nine, the number listed on William Hobart Royce’s suggested reading order.

Honoré de Balzac ‘La Comédie Humaine’ suggested reading order

In 1946 the “Balzac Society of America” published a bibliography by William Hobart Royce titled “Balzac as he should be read: The Comédie Humaine arranged in logical order of reading according to Time of Action”. In this book he refers to ninety-nine titles and says:

La Comédie Humaine presents “a formidable mass, even to the scholar, and much more to the casual reader. This huge bulk of fiction has been compared to a mountain, the summit of which may be attained only by tortuous ascent of blazed trails; to a gigantic edifice, the innumerable rooms and galleries of which can be visited only with the direction of an experienced guide; to a dense forest of tangled jungle growth, which can be penetrated only by patience and persistence, by mental and indeed physical endurance; in fact, it is the whole of human life, that which nothing can be more difficult or more terrible to contemplate, to comprehend, to controvert and to conquer.

For anybody wondering where to start on a Blazacian journey, William Hobart Royce suggests beginning with le Père Goriot (Old Goriot) if you enjoy it then you should continue, it you do not enjoy it then “Balzac is not the author upon whom one is to concentrate with love and devotion.”

And to read the various works in the chronological order which Balzac wrote them, would serve no purpose at all, except exhibiting the development of his method and his genius.

William Hobart Royce presents his list in chronological order, an historical “time of action”. He also presents a shorter list of twenty-four works “outstanding masterpieces…through them runs the main current of Balzac’s novels.” I have included this shorter list at the end of the main list.

Logical order of reading according to Time of Action

Avant Propos (Introduction)

The Exiles (Les Proscrits, 1831)

Christ in Flanders (Jésus-Christ en Flandre, 1831)

Maître Cornélius (1831)

The Elixir of Life (L’Élixir de longue vie, 1831)

Introduction to About Catherine de’ Medici (Sur Catherine de Médicis, 1842)

The Calvinist Martyr (II. Le Martyr calviniste from Sur Catherine de Médicis, 1842)

The Secret of the Ruggieri (III. La Confidence des Ruggieri from Sur Catherine de Médicis, 1842)

The Hated Son (L’Enfant maudit, 1831)

The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, 1831)

Sarrasine (1830)

The Two Dreams (IV. Les Deux rêves from Sur Catherine de Médicis, 1842)

An Episode Under the Terror (Un épisode sous la Terreur, 1830)

The Conscript (Le Réquisitionnaire, 1831)

The Red Inn (L’Auberge rouge, 1831)

The Maranas (Les Marana, 1834, a.k.a. Juana)

A Passion in the Desert (Une Passion dans le Désert, 1830)

The Chouans (Les Chouans, 1829)

The Vendetta (La Vendetta, 1830)

A Second Home (Une double famille, 1830)

A Murky Business (Une ténébreuse affaire, 1841, a.k.a. A Historical Mystery, a.k.a. The Gondreville Mystery)

At the Sign of the Cat and Racket (La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, 1830)

El Verdugo (1830)

Domestic Bliss (La Paix du ménage, 1830)

Louis Lambert (1832)

The Quest of the Absolute (La Recherche de l’Absolu, 1834, a.k.a. Alkahest)

A Woman of Thirty (La Femme de trente ans, 1832)

The Girl with the Golden Eyes (La fille aux yeux d’or, 1835)

The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse, 1842, a.k.a. A Bachelor’s Establishment, a.k.a. The Two Brothers)

Old Goriot (le Père Goriot, 1835)

Eugénie Grandet (1834)

César Birotteau (Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, 1837)

Farewell (Adieu, 1830)

Ferragus (1833)

The Message (Le Message, 1832)

Le Colonel Chabert (1844, first published as La transaction, 1832)

Facino Cane (1836)

The Two Poets (Les Deux poètes, 1837)

A Great Provincial in Paris (Un grand homme de province à Paris, 1839)

Eve and David (Ève et David, 1843)

La Grenadière (1832)

Massimilla Doni (1839)

The Lily of the Valley (Le Lys dans la vallée, 1836)

Melmoth Reconciled (Melmoth réconcilié, 1835)

The Atheist’s Mass (La Messe de l’athée, 1836)

The Old Maid (La Vieille Fille, 1836)

The Collection of Antiquities (Le Cabinet des Antiques, 1839)

A Drama on the Seashore (Un drame au bord de la mer, 1834)

The Duchess of Langeais (La Duchesse de Langeais, 1834)

Madame Firmiani (1832)

The Peasants (Les Paysans, 1855; first part published in 1844, a.k.a. Sons of the Soil)

The Purse (La Bourse, 1832)

The Ball at Sceaux (Le Bal de Sceaux, 1830)

Esther Happy (Esther heureuse, 1838)

What Love Costs an Old Man (À combien l’amour revient aux vieillards, 1843)

The End of Evil Ways (Où mènent les mauvais chemins, 1846)

The Last Incarnation of Vautrin (La Dernière incarnation de Vautrin, 1847)

A Marriage Contract (Le Contrat de mariage, 1835)

Gobseck (1830)

The Deserted Woman (La Femme abandonnée, 1832)

Study of a Woman (Étude de femme, 1830)

L’Interdiction (1836, a.k.a. The Commission in Lunacy)

A Start in Life (Un début dans la vie, 1845; first published as Le danger des mystifications, 1842)

Modeste Mignon (1844)

The Vicar of Tours (Le Curé de Tours, first published as Les célibataires, 1832)

The Country Doctor (Le Médecin de campagne, 1833)

Another Study of a Woman (Autre étude de femme, 1842)

La Grande Breteche (1832)

Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, 1842)

Pierrette (1840)

Pierre Grassou (1840)

The Government Clerks (Les Employés, 1838; first published as la Femme supérieure, 1837, a.k.a. Bureaucracy)

The Wild Ass’s Skin (La Peau de chagrin, 1831)

The Illustrious Gaudissart (L’Illustre Gaudissart, 1833)

A Man of Business (Un homme d’affaires, 1846; first published as les Roueries d’un créancier, 1845)

A Daughter of Eve (Une fille d’Ève, 1838–39)

Ursule Mirouët (1841)

The Secrets of the Princess Cadignan (Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan, 1840, first published as Une Princesse parisienne, 1839)

Honorine (1843)

Albert Savarus (1842)

Gambara (1837)

The Firm of Nucingen (La Maison Nucingen, 1838)

Madame de la Chanterie


The Imaginary Mistress (La fausse maîtresse, 1842, a.k.a. Paz)

A Prince of Bohemia (Un prince de la Bohème, 1844; first published as les Fantaisies de Claudine, 1840)

Béatrix (1839)

Z. Marcas (1840)

The Muse of the Department (La Muse du département, 1843)

The Village Rector (Le Curé de Village, 1839)

Cousin Bette (La Cousine Bette, 1846)

Cousin Pons (Le Cousin Pons, 1847)

The Lesser Bourgeoisie (Les Petits Bourgeois, 1854, a.k.a. The Middle Classes)

Gaudissart II (1846; first published as un Gaudissart de la rue Richelieu; les Comédies qu’on peut voir gratis, 1844)

The Deputy for Arcis (the only part written by Balzac was published as l’Élection, 1847)

The Unwitting Comedians (Les Comédiens sans le savoir, 1846)

Physiology of Marriage (Physiologie du Mariage, 1829)

Little Miseries of Conjugal Life (Petites misères de la vie conjugale, 1846)

Séraphîta (1835)

Twenty-four titles for a shorter journey

The Chouans (Les Chouans, 1829)

A Murky Business (Une ténébreuse affaire, 1841, a.k.a. A Historical Mystery, a.k.a. The Gondreville Mystery)

Louis Lambert (1832)

The Quest of the Absolute (La Recherche de l’Absolu, 1834, a.k.a. Alkahest)

The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse, 1842, a.k.a. A Bachelor’s Establishment, a.k.a. The Two Brothers)

Old Goriot (le Père Goriot, 1835)

Eugénie Grandet (1834)

César Birotteau (Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, 1837)

The Two Poets (Les Deux poètes, 1837)

A Great Provincial in Paris (Un grand homme de province à Paris, 1839)

Eve and David (Ève et David, 1843)

The Lily of the Valley (Le Lys dans la vallée, 1836)

Esther Happy (Esther heureuse, 1838)

What Love Costs an Old Man (À combien l’amour revient aux vieillards, 1843)

The End of Evil Ways (Où mènent les mauvais chemins, 1846)

The Last Incarnation of Vautrin (La Dernière incarnation de Vautrin, 1847)

Gobseck (1830)

The Country Doctor (Le Médecin de campagne, 1833)

The Wild Ass’s Skin (La Peau de chagrin, 1831)

Ursule Mirouët (1841)

The Village Rector (Le Curé de Village, 1839)

Cousin Bette (La Cousine Bette, 1846)

Cousin Pons (Le Cousin Pons, 1847)

The Lesser Bourgeoisie (Les Petits Bourgeois, 1854, a.k.a. The Middle Classes)

The Sceaux Ball – Honoré de Balzac (tr. Clara Bell)

Balzac’s plan of the Comédie Humaine begins with ‘Scènes de la vie privée’ (‘Scenes from private life’), and that section opens with ‘La Maison du chat-qui-pelote’ (‘At the Sign of the Cat and Racket’).

As we can see in the opening sections of ‘The Cat and Racket’, one of the main characters, the artist Théodore de Sommervieux, observes the darkened shop, the inhabitants and the daughter Augustine and secretly paints two masterpieces that bring him fame:

At dusk one evening, a young man passing the darkened shop of the Cat and Racket, had paused for a moment to gaze at a picture which might have arrested every painter in the world. The shop was not yet lighted, and was as a dark cave beyond which the dining-room was visible. A hanging lamp shed the yellow light which lends such charm to pictures of the Dutch school. The white linen, the silver, the cut glass, were brilliant accessories, and made more picturesque by strong contrasts of light and shade. The figures of the head of the family and his wife, the faces of the apprentices, and the pure form of Augustine, near whom a fat chubby-cheeked maid was standing, composed so strange a group; the heads were so singular, and every face had so candid an expression; it was so easy to read the peace, the silence, the modest way of life in this family, that to an artist accustomed to render nature, there was something hopeless in any attempt to depict this scene, come upon by chance.

Scenes from private life, an artist spying upon a private scene, one that becomes famous.

The next instalment in the ‘Scenes from private life’ is listed as ‘Le Bal de Sceaux’ (‘The Ball at Sceaux’ or in my translated version ‘The Sceaux Ball’ 1830). It tells the story of the de Fontaine family (an allusion to the fables of Jean de La Fontaine?), the honour of earning various dignities and awards, and more specifically the story of Émilie de Fontaine, who refuses a number of eligible suitors under the pretext that they are not peers of France.

During the short banishment of royalty, Monsieur de Fontaine was so happy to be employed by Louis XVIII., and found more than one opportunity of giving him proofs of great political honesty and sincere attachment. One evening, when the King had nothing better to do, he recalled Monsieur de Fontaine’s witticism at the Tuileries. The old Vendéen did not let such a happy chance slip; he told his history with so much vivacity that a king, who never forgot anything, might remember it at a convenient season. The royal amateur of literature also observed the elegant style given to some notes which the discreet gentleman had been invited to recast. This little success stamped Mansieur de Fontaine on the King’s memory as one of the loyal servants of the Crown.

A story that is deeply concerned with titles, peerage, connections and standing in society, it touches on “youth, adolescence, and their faults” (as described by Balzac in “his Avant-propos” and quoted in “Balzac as he should be read: The Comédie Humaine arranged in logical order of reading according to Time of Action” by William Hobart Royce).

‘Though young and of an ancient family, he must be a peer of France,’ she said to herself. ‘I could not bear not to see my coat-of-arms on the panels of my carriage among the folds of azure mantling, not to drive like the princes down the broad walk of the Champs Elysées on the days of Langchamps in Holy Week. Besides, my father says that it will some day be the highest dignity in France. He must be a soldier – but I reserve the right of making him retire; and he must bear an Order, that the sentries may present arms to us.’
And these rare qualifications would count for nothing if this creature of fancy had not a most amiable temper, a fine figure, intelligence, and, above all, if he were not slender. To be lean, a personal grace which is but fugitive, especially under a representative government, was an indispensable condition. Mademoiselle de Fontaine had an ideal standard which was to be the model. A young man who at first glace did not fulfil the requisite conditions did not even get a second look.

As the Mademoiselle de Fontaine becomes more finnicky and her prospects begin to diminish, her reluctance becomes the subject of mirth amongst the family and serious discussions are had between father and daughter, “You are making game of me, papa. Well, I can assure you that I would rather die in Mademoiselle de Condé’s convent than not be the wife of a peer of France.”

As seen in other works of Balzac’s there is a large cast of characters, some, who play crucial roles, are introduced late in the piece, for example here an uncle suddenly appears about a third of the way into the work.

An uncle of Emilie’s, a vice-admiral, whose fortune had just been increased by twenty thousand francs a year in consequence of the Act of Indemnity, and a man of seventy, feeling himself privileged to say hard things to his grand-niece, one whom he doted, in order to mollify the bitter tone of the discussion now exclaimed —
‘Do not tease my poor Emilie; don’t you see she is waiting until the Duc de Bordeaux comes of age!’
The old man’s pleasantry was received with general laughter.
‘Take care I don’t marry you, old fool!’ replied the young girl, whose last words were happily drowned in the noise.

Without giving away too much of the narrative Emilie falls in love with somebody who she believes is not able to receive a peerage. Will she abandon her long held beliefs for love? Will she marry the “old fool”, a character who plays as a humorous aside throughout the second half? Another moral tale of the heart ruling over the mind and the follies of youth, another scene from private life, one that is a little drier than ‘the cat and racket’ as it spends a significant amount of time investigating peerage, titles, standing in society. I’m sure these will fade away as I move towards the “Scènes de la vie de province” (‘Scenes from Provincial life’).

Here we may not be observing private scenes as in the obvious metaphor of a painting created from stolen glimpses through doorways, we observe them through the private moments of the young Mademoiselle firm in her convictions having never before experienced true love, we observe the absurd family discussions about peerage, all private matters. Less memorable than the first instalment in the Comédie Humaine, however one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle.