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.


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.

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….

Honoré de Balzac’s ‘La Comédie humaine’ (‘The Human Comedy’)

Honoré de Balzac’s ‘Introduction’ to an antique book I picked up somewhere, sometime, a book published in approximately 1900, is very interesting and given it is not freely available I thought some of the ideas presented may interest a few readers of his ‘La Comédie humaine’ (‘The Human Comedy’). However, before the interesting parts, a short look at ‘La Comédie humaine’ for those who are not familiar with this massive work. It would be a reading project to beat all reading projects!

Honoré de Balzac’s ‘La Comédie humaine’, depending on where you look runs between 91 and 96 titles. Wikipedia says “La Comédie humaine consists of 91 finished works (stories, novels, or analytical essays) and 46 unfinished works (some of which exist only as titles).” The article then goes on to list ninety-five titles, four being a subset of Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (Splendeurs et Misères des courtisanes)!!!

Looking at the Wikipedia list, the books are broken into three categories, Studies of Manners , (“Études de moeurs” with 69 or 73 titles), Philosophical studies (“Études philosophiques” with 20 titles), and Analytical studies (“Études analytiques” with 2 titles). The Studies of Manners is then broken down into twelve sub-groups:

  • Scenes for private life (Scènes de la vie privée) – 28 titles
  • Scenes from provincial life (Scènes de la vie de province) – 2 titles
  • The Celibates (Les Célibataires) – 3 titles
  • Parisians in the Country (Les Parisiens en province) – 2 titles
  • The Jealousies of a Country Town (Les Rivalités) – 2 titles
  • Lost Illusions (Illusions perdues) – 3 titles
  • Scenes from Parisian life (Scènes de la vie parisienne) – 14 titles (18 if you count the subset of “Splendours”)
  • The Thirteen (Histoire des Treize) – 3 titles
  • Poor Relations (Les parents pauvres) – 2 titles
  • Scenes from political life (Scènes de la vie politique) – 4 titles
  • Scenes from military life (Scènes de la vie militaire) – 2 titles
  • Scenes from country life (Scènes de la vie de campagne) – 4 titles

I have an old edition of the first title on the list of the Studies of Manners, ‘At the Sign of the Cat and Racket’, published somewhere between 1895 and 1909. Clara Bell’s translation was made in 1895 and the book is inscribed April 14/1909 inside the front cover. The “Introduction” lists Balzac’s works that make up ‘La Comédie humaine’, there are different groupings and some titles appear on different lists than the Wiki listing and there are three titles on the Wiki list not listed at all in the book!!!

  • A Passion in the Desert (Une passion dans le désert, 1830),
  • Sarrasine (1830), and
  • The Girl with the Golden Eyes (La fille aux yeux d’or, 1835)

This was not meant to be an exercise in reconciliation of titles, or an investigation into what really makes up ‘La Comédie humaine’ – my writing was to present a few interesting passages by Balzac in the ‘Introduction’.

The idea of The Human Comedy was at first as a dream to me, one of those impossible projects which we caress and then let fly; a chimera that gives us a glimpse of its smiling woman’s face, and forthwith preads its wings and returns to a heavenly realm of phantasy. But this chimera, like many other, has become a reality; has its behests, its tyranny, which must be obeyed.
The idea originated in a comparison between Humanity and Animality.
He goes on to discuss animal development in reference to their environment, and proceeds:

I, for my part, convinced of this scheme of nature long before the discussion to which it has given rise, perceived that n this respect society resembled nature. For does not society modify Man, according to the conditions in which he lives and acts, into men as manifold as the species in Zoology? The differences between a soldier, an artisan, a man of business, a lawyer, an idler, a student, a statesman, a merchant, a sailor, a poet, a beggar, a priest, are as great, though not so easy to define, as those between the wolf, the lion, the ass, the crow, the shark, the seal, the sheep etc. Thus social species have always existed, and will always exist, just as there are zoological species. If Buffon could produce a magnificent work by attempting to represent in a book the whole realm of zoology, was there not room for a work of the same kind on society? But the limits set by nature to the variations of animals have no existence in society. When Buffon describes the lion, he dismisses the lioness with a few phrases; but in society a wife is not always the female of the male. There may be to perfectly dissimilar beings in one household. The wife of a shopkeeper is sometimes worthy of a prince, and the wife of a prince is often worthless compared with the wife of an artisan.

The last four lines of that text have been underlined by a previous reader, the ink looks similar to the date and name inscribed inside the front cover, 1900’s thinking that females may have their own role to play!!! Balzac explains that his work needs to have a “threefold form — men, women, and things; that is to say, persons and the material expression of their minds; man, in short, and life.” Whilst reading the works of Walter Scott, Balzac advises us that he perceived his scheme for ‘La Comédie humaine’:

French society would be the real author; I should only be the secretary. By drawing up an inventory of vices and virtues, by collecting the chief facts of the passions, by depicting characters, by choosing principal incidents in social life, by composing types out of a combination of homogeneous characteristics, I might perhaps succeed in writing the history which so many historians have neglected: that of Manners.

In a short answer to critics, who reflect on Balzac’s tendency to focus on the ugly and vulgar themes, he quotes Bonald “A writer ought to have settled opinions on morals and politics; he should regard himself as a tutor of me; for men need no masters to teach them to doubt”.

As to the intimate purpose, the soul of this work, these are the principles on which it is based.
Man is neither good nor bad; he is born with instincts and capabilities; society, far from depraving him, as Rousseau asserts, improves him, makes him better; but self-interest also develops his evil tendencies. Christianity, above all Catholicism, being — as I have pointed out in the Country Doctor (le M
édecin de Campagne) — a complete system for the repression of the depraved tendencies of man, is the most powerful element of social order.

Explaining that a “preface ought not to be a political treatise’ the complex questions of religion and state are artfully avoided.

It was no small task to depict the two or three thousand conspicuous types of a period; for this is, in fact, the number presented to use by each generation, and which the Human Comedy will require. This crowd of actors, or characters, this multitude of lives, needed a setting — if I may be pardoned the expression, a gallery. Hence the very natural division, as already known, into Scenes of Private Life, of Provincial Life, of Parisian, Political, Military, and Country Life. Under these six heads are classified all the studies of manners which form the history of society at large, of all its faits et gestes, as our ancestors would have said. These six classes correspond, indeed, to familiar conceptions. Each has its own sense and meaning, and answers to an epoch in the life of man. 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, as the Scenes of Provincial Life represented the age of passion, scheming, self-interest, and ambition. Then the Scenes of Parisian Life give a picture of the tastes and vice and unbridled powers which conduce to the habits peculiar to great cities, where the extremes of good and evil meet. Each of these divisions has its local colour — Paris and the Provinces — a great social antithesis which held me for immense resources.


Such is the foundation, full of actors, full of comedies and tragedies, on which are raised the Philosophical Studies — the second part of my work, in which the social instrument of all these effects is displayed, and the ravages of the mind are painted, feeling after feeling; the first of this series, Wild Ass’s Skin, to some extent forms a link between the Philosophical Studies and Studies of Manners, by a work of almost Oriental fancy, in which life itself is shown in a mortal struggle with the very element of all passion.
Besides these, there will be a series of Analytical Studies, of which I will say nothing, for one only is published as yet — The Physiology of Marriage.
In the course of time I propose writing two more works in this class. First, the Pathology of Social Life, then an Anatomy of Educational Bodies, and a Monograph on Virtue.

As we know there was only one more addition to the Analytical Studies, ‘Little Miseries of Conjugal Life’ (Petites misères de la vie conjugale, 1846). As an aside the writer mentioned by Balzac, Felix Davin, has no works available in English at present.

Balzac concludes his introduction:

The vastness of a plan which includes both a history and a criticism of society, an analysis of its evils, and a discussion of its principles, authorises me, I think, in giving to my work the title under which it now appears — ‘THE HUMAN COMEDY.’ Is this too ambitious? Is it not exact? That, when it is complete, the public must pronounce.
Paris, July 1842

I will be back in the coming days with a short look at the oddly titled ‘At the Sign of the Cat and Racket’ (1830), explaining the title and seeing if the first work in Balzac’s Study of Manners Scenes of a Private Life represents “childhood and youth and their errors”. By the way, although somebody who commits to large reading projects, I am also somebody who doesn’t complete a lot of them, and in this case I have no intention of reading every single one of these books – although it would be a great challenge……

The Oblate of St Benedict – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Edward Perceval)

‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’ is the final instalment in J.-K. Huysmans’ tetralogy following the spiritual journey of Durtal, a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself. The sequence began with ‘Là-bas’, and is followed by ‘En Route’, ‘La Cathédrale’ (‘The Cathedral’) and ‘L’oblat’. For the Dedalus Editions of the four works the translators vary, with ‘Là-bas’ and ‘The Cathedral’ translated by Brendan King, ‘En Route’ by W. Fleming, and the final work by Edward Perceval.

A high level summary of our journey with Durtal so far, shows him dabbling with Satanism and attending Black Masses in ‘Là-bas’, before he begins to question decadence and enters a personal purgatory where he questions his faith, his sexual liaisons with a friend’s wife and turns to Catholicism, finally spending some time in a monastery, La Trappe, in ‘En Route’, before committing to a life of dedication to the Virgin Mary and being installed at Chartres where he reflects on the architecture, religious art, stained glass windows and the role it plays in Christian faith in the novel ‘The Cathedral’.

We now join Durtal ten years after his time at La Trappe, and now follow his his time as an oblate at Val-des-Saints and the Abbey of Solesmes. Whilst earlier novels dealt specifically with Durtal’s beliefs and his struggles to “covert” here we learn, on the opening page, his struggles with remaining cloistered, “the only monastic life that I could live is the life seen there!”, as opposed to being free to move about, unlike the monks:

And yet he could not forget how, every time he left the Abbey and sat in the carriage conveying him to Sablé station, he had breathed deeply, as a man might do when relieved of an awful load; how, too, directly he was in the train, he said to himself, “Thank God! Here I am, a free man again!” And yet, in spite of this, he really missed that feeling of discomfort and of restraint due to being with others, and was sorry for his deliverance rom set hours and from unlooked-for distraction and inevitable minor worries. He found it difficult to analyse these feelings or to account for such abrupt changes. “Yes, certainly,” he would declare, “Solesmes stands alone; there is no place like it in the whole of France; religion there has an artistic splendour to be met with nowhere else; the chant is perfect; the services are conducted with matchless pomp. Where else, too, could I ever hope to meet an Abbot as broad-minded as Dom Delatte, or experts in musical palaeography more skilled learned than Dom Mocquereau and Dom Cagin, or, for that matter, with any monks more helpful and engaging — quite so, but…”

Whilst the earlier works dealt with Durtal’s struggle with his spiritual vocation here the reality of the monastic rules plays havoc with Durtal’s reconciliation with his writing career:

“Supposing the Abbot allows me to work at my books in peace,” he said to himself, “and agrees not to meddle with literary matters (and so broad-minded a man as he can be trusted in this), that would be no use for I should be absolutely incapable of writing a book in this Abbey.  On several occasions I tried to write, but the mornings and the afternoons are so broken up by services that all work of an artistic kind is out of the question. This sort of life, cut up into little slices, may be first-rate for collecting materials and for amassing notes, but for turning out good literary work, oh dear no!”
And he remembered certain distressing occasions when, playing truant from one service, he had endeavoured to work at a chapter only to be oppressed by the thought that, directly he had begun to get under way, he would have to leave his cell and go to the chapel for another service. “Thus,” he concluded, “the cloister is useful for preparing materials for a book, but it is best written elsewhere.”

The theological struggle that we have seen in the earlier novels, has made way and he is now struggling with his art, throughout we learn of Durtal’s settling with his demons of the past:

By way of consolation it is well to bear in mind that the devil has no power over the will and very little over the mind, but an unlimited power of the fancy. There he is master and there he holds revel with his myrmidons; but all this riot is of no more consequence than the din of a military band which passes your windows. The panes rattle, everything in the room shakes and you are deafened. But you have only to sit tight and wait till the blare of the brass and the noise of the drums have died away; the tumult is without; we feel its effect, indeed, but we are not responsible for the effect, unless, of course, we go to the window the better to hear; then, there would be assent. All this is easily said, but . . . another question on which light is needed is that of charity ort brotherly love. Everybody admits that we must love our neighbour; but, in certain cases, where does love begin and where does it end? At certain times, too, we may ask what becomes of truth, justice, candour, under this cloak of charity! For, after all, hypocrisy, sloth and injustice are often separated from charity only by a thread’s breadth. To avoide giving offence you may help a bad cause; you do harm by professing no to judge another, and cowardice and a wish to avoid getting entangled in unpleasantnesses, play no small part. The boundary line between this virtue and these vices is so indefinite that you never know if you have not crossed it. The theological theory is all right in its way: we must be ruthless as regards evil deeds, but merciful to evil doers; but this general principle doesn’t solve the special cases, and all the cases are special. The border-line that must be crossed is ill-defined and dark; nor is there any fence or warning-board to prevent you breaking your neck.

As in the previous works there are detailed historical explanations of the religious orders, the roles of white and black monks, and more specifically the role of the oblate. They “occupy that position half way between Fathers and lay-brothers”, the live in, or near, the monastery (in Durtal’s case near), but they have not taken vows.

Like ‘The Cathedral’ this book can tend towards the tedious, wherein the previous work there were detailed descriptions of stained-glass windows, art works or sculptures, a la a guidebook for people who cannot visit Chartres Cathedral, here we dip into more ekphrastic pages again on art works and sculptures. Huysmans is returning to his earlier writing days as an art critic. Now with instant copies of images available on the internet, detailed descriptions of a painting can be seen as peripheral, however, to call up the art works and then read Huysmans descriptions helps you to see the works with his eyes, with his experience, his trove of religious knowledge. As he says religious art is the “best form of propaganda.”

There is also political subjects and the Communities Bill of the time, rulings impacting monks, and oblates, with Benedictines being banished from France. This leads to lamentations on the future of monasteries, his order, his role. And as we learned in earlier works the Dreyfus Affair, with the Catholics showing their anti-Semite views, also plays a part here:

Durtal – who had always been persuaded that eh Devil had his finger in the Dreyfus Affair, and looked upon it as noting more than a spring-board, set up by Jews and Protestants, from which to leap at the Church’s throat and strangle her…”

At times a work that causes frustration, even a questioning as to why I was even reading it, however a decent conclusion to a spiritual journey. In my mind the works peter out over the last two instalments, becoming overly involved with obsessions with the Virgin Mary and the endless theological arguments, then again they do capture the mind of a man who has become overtly converted to his religion. A long journey, and, at times, a tedious one, however one I am glad I undertook.

The Cathedral – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

“it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”
– Foucault

J.-K. Huysmans’ ‘The Cathedral’ is the third novel in his tetralogy tracking the conversion of Huysmans’ alter ego Durtal. the first two novels ‘Là-bas’ and ‘En Route’ I looked at over the last month and the final work, ‘L’Oblat’, I intend writing about in the coming weeks. The journey of Huysmans’ alter-ego is from decadence, satanism and black masses through a purgatory questioning of his spiritual self, ending with a journey and stay at a monastery. Here he is billeted at Chartres.

This hefty novel opens with the wind battering everybody in Chartres, refuge from the elements for our protagonist Durtal is in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

A massive Cathedral, mainly constructed between 1194 and 1220, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and said to contain the tunic worn by Mary at Christ’s birth.

Once inside Durtal gets to thinking:

He thought of the Virgin, whose watchful attentions had so often preserved him from unseen risks, from careless slips, from great falls. Was she not a Well of Kindness that never ran dry, a Benefactress of the blessing of Patience, a Visiting Sister for hearts that are dried up and closed? Was she not, above all, a living and benevolent Mother?
Always leaning over the squalid bed of the soul, she bathed the sores, dressed the wounds, consoled the fainting weakness of converts. Through all the ages, she remained the eternal supplicant, eternally praying, merciful and grateful at one and the same time: merciful to the unfortunates she alleviated, and grateful to them, too. Indeed, she was thankful for our sins, because if it were not for the sinfulness of man, Jesus would never have been born under the corrupt semblance of our image, and she would never have been the immaculate Mother of God. Our misfortune was thus the initial cause of her joy, and indeed this is the most bewildering of mysteries, that this supreme Good should result from the very excess of Evil, that this touching, though supererogatory, bond should link us to her, because her gratitude might seem unnecessary since her inexhaustible mercy was enough to attach her to us for ever.

This obsession with the Virgin is explained in the introduction to the novel:

But if the Virgin –- and the cathedrals and churches which were dedicated to her and with whom she was so closely associated – played a broader ideological role in fin de siècle social and political life, there were also deeper psychological reasons why Huysmans was drawn to her image. Containing within her the seemingly contradictory avatars of the Virgin and the Mother, she was able to fulfil her procreative role without involving the guilt and shame that Huysmans associated with sex. He had long been searching for a way out of the impasse of sexual desire, a way to reconcile his spiritual yearnings with his physical urges, which in the early years of the 1890s were given fictional expression through the phantasmagorial sexual excesses of Madam Chantelouve in Là-bas, and the obsessive, nymphomanic visions of Florence in En Route.

As mentioned in my brief look at the previous novels in this cycle, these are multi layered works, the Virgin not a theme I had only mentioned in passing, knowing I could address it in some more detail here. Even the novel ‘Drifting’ (translated by Brendan King) the protagonist thinks “There’s no way I can accept . . . the virginity of an expectant mother…”.

It is through the architecture, art, sculptures and stained-glass windows that we travel through the Chartres Cathedral, and the obsession with the Virgin is peppered throughout:

The Virgin is sovereign over all. She fills the whole interior, and even on the exterior, on the West and South Porches which aren’t set aside for her, she also appears, in a niche, on the overdoor, in the capitals, high up on the pediment, in the air. The Hail Mary of art has been repeated without interruption by the painters and sculptors of every age. Never has the pious thread of its rosary been broken. The cathedral of Chartres is truly the fiefdom of Our Lady.

This obsession continues throughout:

Nowhere else was the Virgin so admired, so cherished, so emphatically proclaimed mistress of the realm offered her; and one detail proved it. In all other cathedrals, kings, saints, bishops and benefactors lay buried in underground sepulchres; but not at Chartres, not a body had ever been buried there, never had this church been an ossuary, because, as one of its historians, old Rouillard, said: “it has the pre-eminent distinction of being the couch or bed of the Virgin.”

Early in this work there are mentions of Zola, who appears in other works once Huysmans moved from the Naturalist style toward the Decadent, here Zola is employed to write promotional material for Lourdes:

It’s this that really confounds the mind: Jesus resigning himself to employ the wretched artifices of human commerce, adopting the repulsive tricks we use to launch a product or a business!

Three months into Durtal’s residence at Chartres, “his soul has kept to its room, barely getting out of bed” the fog of praying like clockwork becomes an allegory for Edgar Allan Poe:

The rooms of his inner castle were empty and cold, encircled, like those of the House of Usher, by a tarn whose mists ended up penetrating and cracking the worn shell of its walls. And he would prowl, alone and uneasy, amid these ruined cells, whose closed doors would no longer open; his walks within his own mind were thus limited and the panorama he could contemplate was singularly constrained and constricted, contracted almost to nothing. He knew full well, moreover, that the rooms surrounding the central cell, the cell reserved for the Master, was locked, sealed with bolts that couldn’t be unscrewed, triple-barred, inaccessible. So he limited himself to wandering in the halls and passageways.

It is not only the halls and passageways of Durtal’s mind where the wandering occurs, we have 342 pages, plus an additional 22 pages of photos, where Durtal wanders through the Chartres Cathedral and gives us detailed descriptions of the artworks, the windows, the sculptures, the architecture and more. At times it reads like a guidebook, an 1898 Lonely Planet guide to the Cathedral. Huysmans extends this exploration of art, with detours, at one stage Durtal reading aloud an article he has had published about ‘The Coronation of the Virgin’ by Fra Angelico, held in the Louvre, this small excerpt, again, referring to the Virgin:

She is ageless; she is not a woman, yet she is no longer a child. And one wouldn’t even know that she’s an adolescent, a barely nubile girl, so sublime is she, above all humanity, beyond the world, exquisite in her purity, forever chaste.
She remains wholly without parallel in painting. Next to her other Madonnas are vulgar; they are, in any case, women; she along is truly the white blade of corn divine, the wheat of the Eucharist; she along is truly the Immaculate, the
Regina Virginum of the hymns; and she is so young, so guileless, that the Son seems to be crowning his Mother before she could even have conceived him.

Huysmans is returning to his roots, art criticism, and this work contains innumerable examples.

Iconography and the symbolism of colours, the inner and outer colours of cloaks in artworks, of the hues and brightness in stained-glass windows, of gemstones, plants, North, South, East and West, animals and their appearance in the Bible, it is all explored in minute detail, a guidebook that’s is also a set of research notes, wrapped up in a tale of a man’s journey through purgatory, an obsession with the Virgin and fear of women:

…the passage where that terrible monk takes up the seductive charms of woman, turns them over, flays them, and flings them aside like a rabbit eviscerated on a butcher’s stall?

In ‘En Route’ we read about Durtal’s travails and concerns of moving to a monastery, here those struggles of the soul continue, using a different lens, the concrete reality of monuments and art dedicated to religion:

The church symbolism, this psychology of cathedrals, this study of the soul of sanctuaries, so entirely overlooked since the Middle Ages by those professors of monumental physiology called archaeologists and architects, was so interesting to Durtal that, for hours at a time, he was able to forget the turmoil and struggles of his soul; but the moment he ceased applying himself to researching the real meaning of those outward forms, everything started again. The kind of ultimatum that the Abbé Gévresin had so curtly given him, to put an end to his procrastinations and make a decision one way or the other, was as disturbing as it was terrifying.

Through Durtal’s observations and detailed descriptions of the Chartres Cathedral, do we move closer to God? Do we take this ekphrastic approach and picture the divine in the mind’s eye? The benefits of living in the internet age is that I can look up each of the referenced works and alongside Huysmans detailed descriptions, observe the work in question, notice his embellishments, his mind’s eye.

Stained glass! isn’t it the art in which God intervenes the most, the art which man alone could never make perfect, because only heaven can animate its colours and give movement to its lines by a ray of sunshine; in short, man fashions the outer form, prepares the body, but must wait for God to infuse the soul.

Although a guidebook for the Chartres Cathedral, this also contains the multitude of the man’s soul and his struggles, the intricate detail of each section of the church and its innumerable artworks, as Foucault says, “it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.” And although Huysmans says a lot there is still much more to be seen. A visit to the Cathedral has been added to the bucket list.