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What can Balzac tell us today?

Reflections on Trompe-la-Mort — By Agathe Novak-Lechevalier and Pauline Andrieu (Illustration)

Balzac has never been so relevant to the present time! Such is the message running through the production of Trompe-la-Mort, headed by Luca Francesconi and Guy Cassiers. The composer-librettist and the director of this world premier are both emphatic: the world depicted by Balzac, in which fortunes are made and marred in an infernal perpetual motion, in which the social contract has been seriously undermined and society is in danger of collapsing, in which the past, ultimately, greedily devours the future, casts a crude but eloquent light on our own contemporary reality. A specialist in 19th century literature, Agathe Novak-Lechevalier has examined the “Balzac case”. We asked her to tell us more about the relevance of this novelist and his eponymous character.

To portray “the illicit classes”, the milieu “of spies, kept women and people at war with society that swarm through Paris”: that was Balzac’s project in writing a novel with the suggestive title, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. At the heart of the plot: the ex-convict with multiple identities, Vautrin / Jacques Collin / Carlos Herrera, king of the criminal classes, chief among gaolbirds, he who, by means of stratagems, subterfuges, evasions and resurrections, finally earns the nickname Trompe-la-Mort; and Lucien de Rubempré, the Adonis through whom he exacts his vengeance on the world, and with whom Collin maintains a passionate and highly troubled relationship, concealed, in high society, by the modest veil of euphemism. Daredevil existences, a thrilling plot, unpredictable digressions, an odour of sulphur… pure page-turner? Doubtless – and by Balzac’s own admission, given that he entered the literary arena during the 1840s in an attempt to usurp the throne of his rival Eugène Sue. However, it would be a mistake to limit our definition of this dark and powerfully subversive novel to a flash of brilliance as ephemeral as the newspapers at the bottom of which it appeared. The exploration of low life, as announced in the title like a fanfare, misled readers in search of facile exoticism or a convenient source of titillation. By plunging into the “underworld” of the social state, Balzac was farther than ever from renouncing his project of depicting the present time, of stripping bare the social mechanisms, “revealing the hidden meaning” in his immense frieze of the figures of an era – his era, which is without doubt still somewhat our own. For in his desire to provide “History revealed in its nakedness”, Balzac took the risk of unveiling its skeleton – and that skeleton still haunts us.

“The Charter proclaimed the reign of money, success becomes, then, the supreme rationale of a godless era”. It is within this diagnosis of general vacuity that Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes belongs: religious vacuity, absence of legitimate power, absence of meaning, a void filled only by sheaves of banknotes. It is no coincidence, therefore, if the other couple in the novel brings together the banker, Nucingen, “prince of Speculation”, that is to say, as Balzac explains, “legalised thief”, and the courtesan Esther, queen of the “female pariahs”. The ignoble and necessary link established between them reveals with disturbing and overweening impudence the two mainsprings of the emerging capitalist system: sex and money, or, as Balzac put it, “gold and pleasure” – the hidden motors of the great social machine, - all-powerful motors, invisible and undecipherable, the objects of all desires and all fantasies. Esther is therefore right to affirm with heavy irony: “Harlots and thieves all well-assorted.” So much so that the banker and the courtesan symbolise the strange mechanism that regulates the life of society: to the elephant, Nucingen, so bloated with his “millions to manage” that he finds himself afflicted with impotence, the unfathomable Esther, incarnation of desire and profligacy, who wastes everything including her life, provides the ideal counterpart. Accumulation, dilapidation; systole, diastole: thus beats the gangrenous heart of the new society.

In Le Capital au XXIe siècle, Thomas Piketty claims to have found the source of the analyses he develops concerning economic inequality in reading Le Père Goriot.

With astonishing lucidity, the novelist takes hold of the process establishing itself before his eyes; at its very origin and at close quarters, he grasps the logic underpinning the rise of capitalism. It comes as no surprise that Thomas Piketty, in Le Capital au XXIe siècle claims to have found the source of the analyses he develops concerning economic inequality in reading Le Père Goriot. In this novel, published in 1834, Jacques Collin (already) teaches the young Rastignac the rules of the worldly theatre, and gives him the following cynical and bitter lesson: there is no point in working in the hope of one day making your fortune, for no effort, no profession can ensure the affluence provided by a rich inheritance – the only worthwhile option for a penniless young man is therefore artfully to court a wealthy party. No more the meritocratic ideal: thus tolls the death knell of the ideals propounded by the Revolution. In a masterly exposition, Balzac reveals, according to Piketty, fundamental mechanisms highly comparable to those that characterise our economical situation today.

What the economist does not mention, but which is also part of the novelist’s vision, is the corrosive effect of money on social relationships, the development of individualism, generalised swindling, man reduced to merchandise. Nobody escapes, no emotion survives: madly in love with Esther, Nucingen may well, in his characteristic pidgin, fire at Asie (Jacques Collin’s sidekick who plays the role of the Madame) that she is a “vicked seller off human flesh”, he knows, when necessary, how to bargain for the delivery of the woman he loves and is flattered to hear it said that, in Esther, he has made “an excellent acquisition”. As for Lucien, who likes to think of himself as a poet: his “poetry” is but “paltry”, as Jacques Collin abruptly retorts; here, “we stick to prose”.

The school of disenchantment that Balzac portrays is not without moral, social and political repercussions. Far from the simplistic black and white vision of melodrama and therefore also from any reassuring conformism, Balzac does not separate the goodies from the baddies, the pure from the impure. On the contrary – and it is here that the plurality of the title shines out in all its subversive irony: given that Esther is the only official prostitute among the main characters of the novel, the reader will search in vain for others and will quickly discover that prostitution taints the whole of society: here, one bargains and sells at every level, and even if one doesn’t necessarily barter one’s body, one peddles one’s soul wholesale; one hawks one’s conscience without a qualm. The filth of crime often stains, therefore, the ermine of the aristocracy. Not only do “the grand ladies whose days are spent in the art of style and noble sentiments write like the girls act” (to quote the author: “Philosophers will find the reason behind this reversal of roles”), but in depicting a society of courtiers, the novelist reveals them to be just so many courtesans in the making. Judge Granville, that noble hero who poses as a paragon of moral integrity, does not vacillate for long before bestowing his favour upon Vautrin who, in effect, holds in his hand “the honour of three great families”, aristocratic families – which is to say that the interests of the State are involved. So one tosses off a speech or two on charity and religion and smothers the affair as fast as possible: appearances will have been kept up. Rather than condemn him to death, in an ultimate coup de theatre, and a grim joke, they offer Vautrin the post of … chief of police: the Balzac novel is also that “horrible farce” indicating a total inversion of values, and in which the criminal, that “figure of popular rebellion”, is ever prone to “cut the executioner’s throat”. The twilight of idols, the sovereignty of the Stock Market, a corrupt elite, the spectral figure of terror… But rest assured: “Splendeurs et misères” was written about a hundred and fifty years ago – any resemblance to contemporary situations or existing persons is, clearly, a coincidence.

© Pauline Andrieu / OnP

Once the illusions have been lost, the masks fallen, what remains? First of all, ledgers and figures: an embezzled heritage, but also –the moral order is preserved! – a large sum of money miraculously restored to some thoroughly good people, Mr and Mrs Crottat (one admires the choice of name). Is that all? No. The flames of an irresistible and irrational desire, the only force capable of pulverising normality, imposing its incandescence and resisting the flatness of the world. Memories of the “monumental existence” that Trompe-la-Mort offers to Lucien, an existence that radiates the “poetry of evil”. Fragments of a sumptuous feast, worthy of the Opera masked ball, at which dubious loves shine, identities are exchanged, where lights blaze in an attempt to obliterate for a moment the disturbing figure of the “blank domino” – the omnipresence of death.

“The literature of dying societies is mere raillery” stated Balzac in the preface to La Peau de chagrin, which is why “today we can only laugh at ourselves”. It is hardly surprising, then, that Jacques Collin, the hero of a disintegrating world, is described as “that cold-hearted scoffer”. But to outwit death is to embark upon an eternal pas de deux with it. We can’t be sure that we have finished with “the cadaverous stench” of a dying era; or that we today are not still the children of the century that dawned in 1800 but which, from the day of its birth, gave its contemporaries the impression that it was endlessly dying.

   

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