Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Balzac, L’Interdiction (1836)

The mild eccentricity of the marquis d'Espard consists of living separately from his wife; raising his two sons to be honest, hard-working, and humane; repaying reparations to a family once defrauded by his father; and indulging modestly in scholarly pursuits. All of which makes him crazy by Parisian standards.

His wife, on the other hand, has squandered the considerable money he left her with; refused to be a mother for her two adolescent sons lest her true age be made obvious to society; and had a series of lovers now including Eugène Rastignac. Her aim is to have her husband declared incompetent through a legal "interdiction" and to have his remaining fortune managed in her favor.

This novella contains some of the typical elements of a Balzac novella, elements we have seen in, for example, Le Colonel Chabert. First and most typical is a scheming, social-climbing middle-aged noblewoman. Second is a relatively innocent if old-fashioned husband who is the victim of the wife. Third, there is a raisonneur figure – here two, a doctor (Bianchon) and a judge (Popinot). These two, as the professional mediators and the witnesses/arbitrators of the ugly, secret life of Paris, can see through the illusions of apparent wealth and beauty that dazzle others.

The two raisonneurs in some ways prefigure Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes in their ability to see beneath the surface. Bianchon quickly assesses both the real age of the marquise and her hidden finical desperation.

As Bianchon tells the (willfully) less observant Rastignac:
Crois-moi, les médecins sont habitués à juger les hommes et les choses ; les plus habiles d'entre nous confessent l'âme en confessant le corps. Malgré ce joli boudoir où nous avons passé la soirée, malgré le luxe de cet hôtel, il serait possible que madame la marquise fût endettée.

Believe me, doctors are accustomed to judging people and things; the cleverest of us confess the soul by confessing the body. Despite the pretty boudoir, where we spent the evening, despite the luxury of this house, it is possible that the Marchioness is in debt.
Popinot, despite his living in a stator of personal filth and disarray (a typical Balzac theme), is even more perspicacious. He briefly interviews the principals in the case, sees through the lies of the wife, and quickly ferrets out the honesty of the husband.

Add to this the fact that Bianchon and Popinot are among the few kind characters of La Comédie humaine. Rgey both spend much of their time helping the deserving poor, Bianchon with his medical skills and Popinot as a prototypical microlender.

But unlike the usual detective tale, the discovery of tehhidden reality comes to naught, The marquise and her allies, aware of the skepticism of the judge, pull levers to have him taken off the case and put into the hands of a sympathetic judge. Justice, as so often in Balzac, favors the well-connected. And the few honest countercurrents to the sewer of Parisian society are once again thwarted. This ain't Dickens.

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