Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Balzac, La Bourse (1832)

This urban fairy tale is a pretty minor Balzac novella. Based as it is on a misunderstanding (she steals his purse, he thinks she’s a thief, but she only took it to embroider it). it reads more like Maupassant’s “La Parure” without the keen edge or rather like O. Henry's “Gift of the Magi”, the sentimental American version of Maupassant/

The hero, Hippolyte Schinner, is a newly fashionable painter, not unlike the hero of La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, written a few years earlier. The artist, who is clearly a projection of Balzac, is a tireless late night worker, breathing life into portraits and landscapes through the reproduction of carefully observed detail.

When he visits the apartment of the heroine, the daughter, the only child of am impoverished widow, he looks on to what no painter of that time would yet portray, a kind of genteel squalor.
Aucun peintre de mœurs n’a osé nous initier, par pudeur peut-être, aux intérieurs vraiment curieux de certaines existences parisiennes, au secret de ces habitations d’où sortent de si fraîches, de si élégantes toilettes, des femmes si brillantes qui, riches au dehors, laissent voir partout chez elles les signes d’une fortune équivoque.

(No painter of manners has dared to initiate us, perhaps from shame, into the truly curious interiors of certain Parisian existence, unto the secret of these dwellings ––from which women leave so fresh, so dolled up, so brilliant on the outside –– that inside betray everywhere a precarious financial situation.)
With a painter’s eye, the artist eyes everything (cracks, stains, dust, junked), yet we are told, decently, on the sly. With every detail of decay lovingly catalogued, this is the radical innovation of Balzac – to see the grimy, shoddy world with the idea of a painter is something I can’t imagine any writer more than vaguely sketching squalor before him.

Three other notes:

• The mother is a widow of a Napoleon-era hero, and her claims for a pension were denied after the Bourbon Restoration. It’s no coincidence that after the Revolution of 1830, here and elsewhere, Balzac starts writing with real sympathy for Napoleonic officers and their widows (see Une double Famille).
• Some of the same elements here as with La Maison du chat-qui-pelote. Schinner’s pals, the other artists, lead him to mistrust the mother and daughter, as in the earlier story they make fun of and then reject the innocent, unsophisticated new bride. We don’t see here what happens after the marriage; the story ends with the proposal.
• Like so many Balzac heroes, Schinner – with his Alsatian surname –– is an outsider who is in the process of conquering Paris by dint of genius and hard work. But unlike his counterpart in chat-qui-pelote and unlike a lot of Balzac heroes, he has no pretence at nobility – he is a bastard, the son of the daughter of an Alsatian farmer, seduced by a rich man – not even, it seems, a nobleman.

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