6 February 2008

Honore de Balzac - The Wild Ass's Skin

This is a strange book. One of Balzac's Contes philosophiques, it supposedly contains elements of his rather opaque mystical beliefs, a mix of Swedenborg and Mesmerism and several other early 19th century theories. But those are subsumed beneath an odd tale about a magic talisman, that allows its owner unlimited fulfilment of his desires, at a price of reduced lifespan.

The book is in three parts. The first tells of how Raphael, the main character, intending to kill himself due to despair at a rejection, and at his gambling debts, is given the eponymous talisman by a strange ancient art shop owner on the banks of the Seine. He is told of the qualities of the skin, and the penalties, and immediately desires a huge banquet with his friends. Upon leaving the shop, he encounters his friends, who take him to a huge party, at which there are debates on recent politics - this was written, and is set, just after the 1830 July Revolution, and no doubt represents contemporary debates among Balzac's acquaintance.

The second part is a very long relation by Raphael of a doomed love affair, based in part upon Balzac's own failures with Madame de Castries. There are some good passages, and a notable scene in which Raphael hides in the lady's bedroom, about which many rumours arose, and denials by Balzac, of which woman in real life this incident was based on. But it is overlong and indulgent, which Balzac acknowledges in sardonic asides from the listeners in the book.

The third part is the tragic unravelling of the story - he continues to pursue Foedora, the woman from the second part, but becomes aware of her coldness, and also of the love of Pauline, his landlady's daughter, an archetypical Balzac heroine. This part has much of what Balzac became known for - fast-paced narrative, sharp dialogue and believable actors.

This was Balzac's second 'proper' novel, and his first critical success. It contains a lot of good writing, but is uneven, and doesn't compare to the careful plotting of Cousine Bette. There are typical touches of humour though - as Raphael is walking along the banks of the Seine considering suicide, he notices some booksellers, and is about to go and haggle for a book when he realises the pointlessness of it. All bibliophiles will recognise that with a chuckle. And the energy of Balzac's writing is infectious - supposedly he wrote as he spoke, irrepressibly. In this work you see the seeds of his later masterpieces, but I don't agree that this is included among them.


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