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!!!

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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

L’Initie

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.

At the Sign of the Cat and Racket – Honoré de Balzac (tr. Clara Bell)

Honoré de Balzac’s ‘La Comédie humaine’ (‘The Human Comedy’) “consists of 91 finished works (stories, novels, or analytical essays) and 46 unfinished works (some of which exist only as titles).” (Wikipedia).

Most listings of the ninety-one works commence with “Scènes de la vie privée” (“Scenes from private life”) with the first listed work “La Maison du chat-qui-pelote” (“At the Sign of the Cat and Racket”, 1830).

Although the text is available freely on the web (Project Gutenberg), I prefer reading physical books and this is a title I managed to source via a second-hand retailer, an early 1900’s Everyman’s Library edition #349.

The story begins in a Paris street, where a young man is standing outside “one of those delightful houses which enable historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy”, a “drapery”, on which is painted the store’s logo, a picture of a cat playing tennis:

In the middle of this broad and fantastically carved joist there was an old painting representing a cat playing rackets. The picture was what moved the young man to mirth. But it must be said that the wittiest of modern painters could not invent so comical a caricature. The animal held in one of its fore-paws a racket as big as itself, and stood on its hind legs to aim at hitting an enormous ball, returned by a man in a fine embroidered coat. Drawing, colour, and accessories, all were treated in such a way as to suggest that the artist had meant to make game of the shop-owner and of the passing observer.

Hence the strange title, however this is not a story of a cat playing tennis. The young man observing the Cat and Racket and awaiting the eyes of the young girl in the rooms above, is the artist Théodore de Sommervieux, the young girl he loves Augustine Guillaume, youngest daughter of the cloth merchant. Théodore achieves fame through his exhibition in the Paris Salon, a reproduction of the interior of the Cat and Racket, alongside a strikingly modern portrait of Augustine.

Despite family wishes, Augustine and Théodore are eventually married. However, Augustine’s lack of education and social standing hinders her ability to mix in the artistic social circles of Théodore and his passion wanes, eventually he gives the famous Augustine portrait to the Duchesse de Carigliano.

In spite of all this lovemaking, by the end of this year, as delightful as it was swift, Sommervieux felt one morning the need for resuming his work and his old habits. His wife was expecting their first child. He saw some friends again. During the tedious discomforts of the year when a young wife is nursing an infant for the first time, he worked, no doubt, with zeal, but he occasionally sought diversion in the fashionable world. The house which eh was best pleased to frequent was that of the Duchesse de Carigliano, who had at last attracted the celebrated artist to her parties. When Augustine was quite well again, and her boy no longer required the assiduous care which debars a mother from social pleasures, Théodore had come to the stage of wishing to know the joys of satisfied vanity to be found in society by a man who shows himself with a handsome woman, the object of envy and admiration.

The story then moralises on the importance of art, marriage, love, Augustine visits her husband’s mistress, the Duchess de Carigliano where she is advised of how to reconquer her husband’s heart.

To avoid spoilers I will not continue with the narrative precis.

As mentioned in a prior piece about ‘La Comédie humaine’, Balzac touches on the structure of his works in the introduction to the Everyman’s Edition:

I may repeat here, but very briefly, what was written by Felix Davin — a young genius snatched from literature by an early death. After being informed of my plan, he said that the Scenes of Private Life represented childhood and youth and their errors…

This work does capture the innocence of youth, the early love and marriage commitment, the inability to see art as more important than one’s self, however it does also touch on many other subjects, melancholic characters, delicacy, beauty, societal standing, blind love…

The habit of seeing always the same face leads insensibly to our reading there the qualities of the soul, and at last effaces all its defects.

As this work appeared on two lists as the first in Balzac’s ‘La Comédie humaine’ I thought to read it first. I have subsequently learned of William Hobart Royce’s study “Balzac As He Should Be Read: The Comédie Humaine arranged in logical order of reading according to Time of Action” and may work through the works in his suggested order. An impossible project:

What I do unhesitatingly affirm, without fear of contradiction, is that the tremendous scope and quantity of Balzac’s novels – comprised under the generic title of  La Comédie Humaine – present a formidable mass, even to the scholar, and much more so to the casual reader. This huge bult of fiction has been compared to a mountain, the summit of which may be attained only by a 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, than which nothing can be more difficult or more terrible to contemplate, to comprehend, to controvert, and to conquer.

That is a challenge if I ever saw one, a “mountain…a tortuous ascent of blazed trails”. I have read other parts that are out of sequence to William Hobart Royce’s suggested order…. but a structure? That’s something to think about….