Monday, January 2, 2012

Balzac, Le Cabinet des Antiques (1839)

This novella exemplifies a variety of typical Balzac tropes. Namely;

1.  The decline of the old nobility

The cabinet of antiques of the title, in fact, denotes the royalist salon of a French provincial town, a gathering of generally aged and mildly impoverished nobility and gentry. (A situation very similar to that in La Vielle Fille, written in1836.

Hosting the salon is the d’Esgrignon family, which survived the Revolution in slightly better shape than most emigrés, thanks to the efforts of a loyal and skillful notary, Chesnel. The old marquis and his still-attractive spinster sister hesd that faction, that is careful to exclude any recently-titled parvenus..

2.   The rise of the bourgeoisie

On the other side is a salon of the bourgeoisie and the new nobility, the people with real money and power in the department. The head of that party, Du Croisier , who made his money as a war profiteer during the Napoleonic era, once tried to arrange a marriage with the marquis’s sister. He was refused in a humiliating manner. Since then, he has looked to get his revenge.

3.  A young aristocrat from the provinces comes to make it in Paris,

The old count and his maiden sister have raised and spoiled a handsome young viscount, the product of a late marriage by the Marquis, Idle and mendacious, he gets into trouble in the small town, trouble that needs to be hushed up by Chesnel the notary at considerable expense to the family.  The viscount is sent to Paris, in the naïve hope that the restored Bourbon king will award a young aristocrat for his family’s loyalty during the exile. In fact, the court has other priorities, there are too many young noblemen in the same fix, and without a patron or money, the viscount doesn’t have a chance.

What he does have is stunning good looks and manners, and he is immediately taken up by the usually set of Balzac dandies – Rastignac, de Marsay. Blondet and the rest. He becomes the lover of a beautiful and fashionable older woman, the duchess of Maufrigneuse.  And like so many Balzac juveniles, he runs through the little money his family can spare (lavishing it on clothes, carriage, gifts, and gambling), and ends up in debt to Gobseck and other moneylenders, eventually forging letters of credit.

4. The battle for the documents

Chesnel has to go war against Du Crosier, who has kept close track of the viscount’s excesses, and sees a chance not only to ruin the d’Esgrignon family financially, his original aim, bit also to have the visocunt thrown in jail for forgery. Through a complex series of financial and maneuvers (something Balzac was quite expert in through personal experience), the notary saves the day. The viscount has to abandon his ambitions and is reckoned yet another failed comet of  Parisian  society.

In fact, after the unbending marquis finally dies, the viscount ends up marrying the wealthy niece of du Crosier, It's indicated that he returns to Paris and proceeds to waste his wife’s fortune.


Debt, forgery, bankers, usurers, and notaries, an older mistress, claims of nobility, warring salons, defy machinations  _ this novella is another retelling of the Balzac mythos of ambition and class insecurity.

1 comment:

  1. Is the title of this work a reference to the "cabinets of curiousities" that were popular among the nobility in the 17th century?