Sunday, November 29, 2009


Ferragus (1834) is one of the novellas in Balzac’s short Histoires des Treize series, and, I think, the least well known of the three. These three works have in common the notion that behind the workings of Parisian society there lurks a mysterious secret society, made up of young aristocrats and at least one master criminal, that has the ability to pull strings, both official and illicit, to get what its members want. All this is rather non-explicit: we know the names only of a few members of the Thirty, and the precise nature and mode of operation of the group is murky.

A key member of the group is Ferragus, a master of disguise and a criminal. He is also known by many other names, and is wanted by the police. He moves from residence to residence, and among other disguises, appears in polite society as de Funcal, a rich Portuguese gentlemen under the protection of that country’s embassy.

Uncovering the mystery of Ferragus and what he wants is the key narrative structure of this story, which uses three separate “detectives, “ two of whom lose their lives.

The opening is typical Balzac readers. In the early evening in winter, a young man of fashion, a flâneur, is walking in a rather seedy section of Paris. He finds himself following a woman who he eventually identifies as “the most beautiful woman in Paris,” an untouchable young wife for whom he has a platonic crush. He is amazed that this elegant creature might be found alone at this hour in this filthy neighborhood, so he quietly follows her. She enters a yellowing, four-story tenement. The assumption is that this seemingly virtuous woman is having an adulterous assignation in thus slum.

We gradually learn the identity of the young man, Auguste de Maulincour, a young officer, and we also learn about the lady, Madame Jules Desmarets, the wife of a wealthy young financier. Enraged with jealousy, the young officer later returns to the mysterious house, discovers that the inhabitant’s name is Ferragus, and finds a pretext to meet the shadowy older man face-to-face.

From that point, as series of mysterious but clearly intentional misfortunes occurs to Maulincour, starting with masonry falling from a construction site on his carriage, killing his driver and wounding him; the collapse of the repaired carriage when an axle breaks after having been tampered with; and finally, despite all precautions, a poisoning. All are warnings for him not to talk to the husband about the wife’s behavior, but the determined Maulincour on his deathbed, informs the husband of his suspicions.

Meanwhile a clever valet employed by Maulincour discovers something about the identity of Ferragus, only to lose his life by suspicious means.

The husband now takes up the cause. He asks his servants, to his shame, to spy on his wife. He intercepts a letter from Ferragus to his wife, unseals it, learns of a rendezvous at another seedy address, and has the letter resealed and delivered. He managed to find a way of overhearing so he can spy on the meeting of his wife and mysterious Ferragus.

The climactic revelation is that Ferragus is his wife’s father, not her lover. And that Ferragus has behind the scenes arranged for much of Jules’s financial success. Jules doesn’t die from the discovery, but his wife seems to fade away after his lack of trust is revealed.

In this book, as in so much of Balzac, Parisian life exists on two levels, the wealth and glitter of the patrician lifestyle, and the dark world that underlies it, and – in many cases – finances it.

The often misquoted* adage from Père Goriot is hinted at here: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu'il a été proprement fait.” (The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.) For so much of nineteenth-century French literature, the border between high and low, orderly and chaotic, beautiful and ugly, is a very thin one.

* It usually comes out as the much less subtle “behind every fortune lies a crime” or the like.

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