Dear Balzac

LETTERS TO MEN OF LETTERS, Part 8

/ by Diane Joy Charney

 

We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.

I write them letters.

 

 

Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799-August 18, 1850) began life as Honoré Balssa, the son of a mother 38 years younger than his ambitious father who was intent on moving up in society. Never one to think small, Balzac, with his Comédie Humaine composed of forty novels and other writings, set out to produce novels that would offer a panoramic view of society. This was after having failed at a number of professions--politician, publisher, literary critic, speculator--and after having been an unpopular, disobedient student who took refuge in books. Balzac excelled at creating ambitious, energetic characters who don’t give up, and even when writing potboilers under pseudonyms, he proved himself a skilled renderer of objects with an eye for the telling detail. His diverse admirers include Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, James Baldwin, Roland Barthes and Camille Paglia.

 

Dear Balzac,

 

I’m picturing the literally pocket-sized powder-blue paperback of your Père Goriot—the expurgated version, probably intended for impressionable high schoolers like myself, from which anything deemed too sexy had mysteriously vanished. Even without the juicy parts, I was transfixed by it. That was back in Middletown, New York in 1964—a long way from Paris. By the way, when we read Voltaire’s “Candide,” there was no cleaned-up version available. In order to comply with the school board’s idea of decency and not get fired, our enterprising teacher, Madame Van Eseltine, had to tell us which passages to skip: “Students, whatever you do, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT read the following pages.” You can imagine how well that worked!

 

My literary love affairs have followed a pattern: There’s that first, blown-away naïve contact with a book and then, years later, I revisit it and begin to feel that I understand what I’m loving.

 

When I finally got to Paris in 1966, I saw Rodin’s looming statue of you every day, and walked by the places you wrote about and inhabited. That was during my Junior Year Abroad (a rite of passage that probably would have perplexed you, since young ladies of your class and generation tended to have to fulfill their ambitions closer to home).

 

Indeed, the closest equivalent to which I think you may be able to relate was The Grand Tour, which was more often the province of young gentlemen. Just ask Flaubert about how that turned out for him and his traveling companions. Although they wrote some wonderful letters that we readers have as a souvenir, they themselves came back with some "souvenirs" of their own in the form of syphilis or other diseases that would haunt them, and not in a good way.

 

But back to you, who didn't have to go far to indulge in some non-health promoting habits--not that you had a choice. Writers driven by deadlines and passion do what they have to do to keep going. Me? One drop of caffeine, and I don't sleep; a few sips of wine, and I'm practically comatose. Some of us are not cut out for 19th-century Paris society, even though we love to imagine it and read your accounts of it.

 

A propos of that, while teaching a storied Yale creative writing course called Daily Themes--a class that you certainly didn't need--I got the idea of trying to write each of the daily prompts along with my students. That meant coming up with 5 pieces per week times 13 weeks.

 

The first year, I only managed to eke out a few. I'm wondering what you will think of this one, in which the assignment was to describe a place. On the morning that I wrote it, I looked up and around my bedroom from a cozy prone position--a bit like from where I'm writing you now, albeit in another country. Two years later, I still like this piece that I found myself writing in a “Père Goriot” moment.

 

In any case, I am indebted to you for helping me with my own writing. I never could have done it without you.

 

UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS

NOW WHAT?

 

From the vantage of bed, I survey my inner sanctum. Formerly on the floor below, we have moved up. I think of the old French boarding houses like Père Goriot's, where each ascension meant the opposite: fortunes depleting, life oozing, spirits dashed.

 

Is my trajectory so different? This space feels master-suitely luxurious. Self-sufficient. Flooded with light. Honeyed Pear on the walls and ceiling. Playful touches of turquoise punctuate here and there, and the Tudor-ish timbers and shelves gleam dark cherry. Although there's no kitchen, it feels like all I'd ever need.

 

1907 was a good year to build. Servants used to live up here, and it took some hundred years to realize, "Hey! That's the best part of the house! Keep it for yourself!"

 

In this space repose some favorite things--better-controlled clutter than elsewhere. Having reached the divestment phase of life, could I be outgrowing my hoarding?

 

No way around it. Taxes are up, and I may have to move on. This was not part of the plan. I figured I'd be carried out of this house--a soothingly wrenching prospect. When you are a child whose parents were born during the Depression, to downsize feels like death.

 

I think of my brave Russian ancestors who traded the Old Country for this one. And now, I am poised to do the reverse.

 

The bottom line? We are just the caretakers. Everything is on loan. It will all end up behind us. If we are lucky, the aura will remain.

 

 

*

 

Four years after writing this piece, I have to admire my own prescience in what I just said above, and I need to heed my own painful wisdom about letting go. According to an article in, of all places, the “Yale Alumni Magazine,” Buddhists understand this. “Sweeping away the mandala teaches the lesson of impermanence: Remove attachment. Everything is going to change.” My mantra has always been: hang on for dear life to everything. You never know when you’re going to need it. Insulate yourself! (THAT has got to change!) But maybe it’s easier if you’re Buddhist, not Jewish? In any case, our beautiful house is for sale, and we will soon be downsizing.

 

Our son was nine months old when we moved in, and he will celebrate his thirty-eighth birthday this fall. In my fantasies, a nice family (or two) with a French sensibility will fall in love with the house, start a bidding war, offer a cash deal with no contingencies, think (as does my husband) that we have priced the house far too low, and buy it on the spot. This has been a wonderful house in which to raise a child. We have tried to be good caretakers, and our time here is up. I hope we will have left a good aura behind us. At least the new homeowners will be able to see that unlike for Père Goriot, the top floor is indeed the best part of the house!

 

 

*

 

Now, dear Balzac, I want to change gears a bit and tell you about how you and I ended up reconnecting in a different class setting. It was your short story, “The Red Inn” (“L’Auberge Rouge”) as taught by my Yale colleague Shoshana Felman, that brought me back to you in 1994. As an undergraduate, I had specialized in French Literature, but the intellectual dynamos around me were all involved in the relatively new field of Comparative Literature. While teaching at Yale, I got a second look at these favorite texts by auditing Comp. Lit courses like Felman’s.

 

“The Red Inn” had all of us in Felman’s class mesmerized. (By the way, I think that as an early fan of Franz-Anton Mesmer’s ideas about occult magnetic forces, you would approve of my choice of that word.) Although Amazon did not exist at the time, we fans of yours would have been shocked to hear from an Amazon reader who titled her “Red Inn” review, “A short story—probably just as well:” “This will kill a short space of time, probably good if you are used to sitting outside schools or discos waiting for your kids to emerge. There are better things to read out there” (M. Dowling, Amazon.co.uk). Joe, on the same site, kept his remarks very brief, giving the story just one star, and one word: “nil.” Others piped up to say, “ditto.”

 

Before we talk more about your “Red Inn,” a tale within a tale that has what appear to be many digressions, here comes a True Confession that I know you won’t mind: I am what Yale Writer-in-Residence, Anne Fadiman colorfully calls “a carnal reader.” I’ll explain.

 

My husband gave me Fadiman’s book of essays, “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.” After hearing her speak at a Master’s Tea, I thanked her for writing it and asked her to autography my copy. I told her that her essay, “Never Do That To A Book” really hit home for me because of my and my husband’s different approaches to reading. Fadiman divides readers into two categories. She looked me in the eye and asked which type of reader I was, courtly or carnal.

 

After I told her, she wrote in my copy, "For Diane, Please feel free to spill coffee and muffin crumbs all over this book."

 

Now, Honoré, if I may call you that, I feel certain that you, like me and Anne Fadiman, would proudly call yourself a carnal reader. Every photo I’ve seen of you looks way more carnal than courtly. Your white (?) shirt typically appears a bit rumpled, and your mustache does not look as if you just stepped out of the French equivalent of George F. Trumper’s, which since 1875 has been offering everything a well-groomed gentleman would need. Moreover, I doubt that you, a keen observer, will take offense at my observations and speculations. I mean them in the nicest way.

 

Can you tell that I am stalling about getting to why I was so taken with your “Red Inn?” Are you ready for another confession? My well-marked copy (the margins of which are likely filled with brilliant comments and observations) currently resides on a groaning, messy bookshelf in another country. The good news is that I will soon be returning there, but I’m tempted to try something that I would never have imagined myself doing.

 

I found on the internet a copy of your story that I can read right now. It’s true that it’s in English, which we French teachers refer to as a “langue barbare.” But maybe it will be good to take a fresh look at it now that we’re having this conversation. And if I’m lucky, some of my old insights will materialize along with some new ones. In the spirit of experimentation, let’s see what happens.

 

*

 

OK, mon cher Honoré. I just finished reading what turned out to be your 15-page story (at Classic-Literature.co.uk, Free Public Domain Books from the Classic Literature Library) ably translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley (1830-1908), a Civil War nurse and your contemporary who found time to translate your entire “Comédie Humaine.” Unlike the aforementioned Joe, however, who was able to reduce his review to one negative word, I’ll bet I have taken about 15 pages of notes. Now I have to decide what, if anything, to do with my current complicated ideas on the subject. When I get back to my well-marked French copy, I can compare them with the old ones. Regardless, I’ve been having fun reflecting about my process.

 

One thing I noticed for the first time is your dedication of “The Red Inn” to Monsieur Le Marquis de Custine, who, I learned from en.m.wikepedia.org, “became known as France’s most distinguished and notorious homosexual.” Victim of a savage homophobic attack by soldiers he, during his marriage, established a lifelong romantic rapport with the Englishman, Edward Saint-Barbe. “Even though the literary salons, as opposed to the society salons, remained open to Custine, many…who were friendly with him sneered…behind his back.” I see from another source that he and you, “who had a weakness for aristocrats” had a long friendship that lasted until your death. (“Balzac and the Marquis de Custine” by Francis J. Crowley in “PMLA” Vol. 58, No.3 Sep.,1943, pp.790-796.) You and Custine may seem like an odd couple, but I can see how your openness to delving into all forms of sexuality, and your personal and literary preoccupation with insider-outsider status could be part of the attraction.

 

Here are a few things that have come to mind on this reading of “The Red Inn.” I’m reminded that although with you, what you see is not to be confused with what you get, many readers who don’t seem to notice the irony of so many of your comments are satisfied with the entertainment value a story like this can offer. This diverting effect mirrors the story itself, which is set in motion by a coquettish request for an after-dinner frightening story, but that ends up giving all concerned way more than they bargained for. In this story that has multiple frames, we hear about a man who was framed for a murder he likely did not commit. To entertain his dinner guests, the unnamed Narrator repeats a story he once heard badly told by a German merchant named Hermann. In your story, each man has a “treasure” about which he feels guilty, and the way you go about focusing on the unconscious nervous habits of each one anticipates what Freud would «discover» about the psyche after you were long gone. There are many gaps alluded to in this story that foreshadow those that will later become the key issue in trauma theory.

 

According to the unnamed Narrator, Hermann the egocentric raconteur and original source of the story claims to have heard the tale directly from the story’s French protagonist, Prosper, who had been condemned for a horrific murder he had been tempted to commit, but did not. Yet this would-be murderer who struggled but stopped himself in time feels as guilty as if he had, in fact, done the deed. Prosper judges himself guilty for merely having dreamt about committing a crime that would have given him enough wealth to help his impoverished mother. He allows himself to be convicted on the most circumstantial of evidence, whereas it is obvious that his “friend” who disappeared at the same time as the money, is the true guilty party. Hermann presents himself as an empathic friend who offered the condemned Prosper consolation and a sense of absolution. He also fancies himself a reliable observer of who is guilty and who is not. But Dr. Balzac, we know who the most reliable observer of the lot is, n’est-ce pas?

 

Hermann, who takes it upon himself to avenge the injustice by ferreting out the true murderer (who happens to be among the listeners), has his own moral concerns. In your multi-layered story there is plenty of guilt, ambition, greed, hubris, and self-punishment to go around. You call into question the motives of Raconteur Hermann the self-appointed Avenger when Hermann reveals his own anxiety about marrying the innocent heiress who happens to have become rich through the ill-gotten gains of her murderous father. The odd behavior of Hermann’s future father-in-law and likely murderer seated at the table reveals his own guilt by his nervous reaction to Hermann’s story. You, Dr. Balzac, repeatedly call attention to the gaze of the unnamed Narrator who has a passion for interpretation. Indeed, YOU are the true provider of the post-prandial entertainment.

 

Further, you have your Narrator say things that could have come from the mouth of a Freudian analyst. This Narrator (you?) calls himself “a seeker after impressions.” Of Hermann’s story, the analytic Narrator states, “I now write it down in my own way…” While relating what Hermann said, the Narrator jumps in to notice details like “the slight trembling of the hand and a moisture on the brow” of the truly guilty guest whenever the name of Prosper, the falsely accused murderer, is mentioned. In the quoted words of Hermann, we hear, in the context of his after-dinner entertainment story, pseudo-analytic observations of the tableside murderer like “unable to disguise altogether some secret apprehension, or possibly some anxious care.” Hermann declares that the “perfectly natural motions” of the listener-murderer he hopes to trap “were noticed by me, only.”

 

We expect psychoanalysts to be more perceptive than the average listener, and to be capable of making interpretive observations such as this one of a story’s falsely accused protagonist: Prosper “believed himself both innocent and guilty…He judged himself; and he felt that his heart was not innocent after committing that crime in his mind.” Did this sort of remark of yours inspire Freud’s theory of the super-ego?

 

Prosper feels so guilty that he has even convinced himself he might have committed the crime not just by his intent, but while sleepwalking. The story, anticipating Freud’s theories about the Unconscious, alludes to “the terrible agony of the too sudden reunion of our two natures separated by sleep.” The gap in Prosper’s consciousness about the crime is in harmony with what will be later known in Freudian circles as trauma theory. Poor Prosper who has been framed becomes feverish during his struggle NOT to commit a murder from which he could profit financially and fufill his dreams of pleasing his mother.

 

Your Prosper “begins to plan a crime theoretically,” but he becomes his own judge when he says, “Deliberation was, undoubtedly, already crime.” In doing so, this character anticipates the quite modern concept that one can be legally innocent of a crime, but be what Comparative Literature professor Arnold Weinstein calls “psychically guilty.” The usual order of events is that one commits a crime, and then is punished. But current psychoanalytic thinking suggests otherwise—that guilt can precede the crime. And in this counter-intuitive-seeming scenario, the perpetrator commits the crime in order to be punished. Further, your Narrator will, with his self-vaunted “divinatory skill” appropriate Hermann’s story: “I have written it in my own way…” This Narrator will take credit for “anything poetic or interesting there may be” in his self-proclaimed superior version of the story. But you make fun of him, too, by implying that his version of the story is just as tainted.

 

Freud would have a field day with so many details of the story, and I would love to hear him try to get to the bottom of it. The murdered man’s stolen treasure was stored and will be carried off in a heavy case. The room where the murder will be committed had been thoroughly secured against any intruders, making it clear that any trouble had to have come from within—an “inside job.” They just happened to pin it on the guy who hung around long enough to look and sound guilty. In “The Red Inn,” you, Dr. Balzac, refer to the “moment before sleep, when images arise confusedly in our minds and when often, in the silence of night, thought acquires a magic power.” In dreaming about what he could do with all that wealth, the ironically named Prosper who will be condemned fails to distinguish between the idea and the act. A divided character whose conscience is too strong, Prosper double-judges himself for his unconscious wishes. As is the case with the primal scene of a trauma, the crime is committed while Prosper sleeps, so for him, the central traumatic event of the story is missing.

 

There are many additional ironies in the story, not the least of which is that in trying to restore order by imposing the law and executing Prosper, society commits a further crime. Society has what may look like scrupulous rules to be followed in the event of a murder, but the outcome of their application can be wrong. Another gap is Prosper’s absence of testimony on his own behalf. He can’t be his own witness because he had a lapse of consciousness. He does a far better job of defending his obviously guilty friend who has gone missing along with the treasure. He in effect “passed judgment on himself and did not find his heart pure, after committing the crime in his thoughts.” He even finds himself guilty of killing his own mother, who he is sure will die if she thinks he’s a murderer. Dr. Balzac, where were you when this poor man needed your help?

 

What I find intriguing about these details is how you, Balzac, appear to intuit what will later become psychoanalysis. Or is it the other way around? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? We know that Freud came up with many of his theories based on the literature he read. Numerous sources mention that on his deathbed, the last book Freud read was one by you.

 

To come back to Hermann’s vows to be the Avenger, after his Avenger status is mentioned, a more meta, analyst-like voice stands outside the action to comment: “Often the avenger is as cowardly as the victim.” Hermann the Avenger shows himself to be guilty of the same self-serving reasoning as the evil side of Prosper. If Hermann marries the heiress he loves (even though her rich father is a murderer) and uses the money for good, will he be absolved? And Honoré, what about you, yourself, who profits from so brilliantly portraying so many vices? Do you feel guilty about this?

 

The punchline of your story implies that Hermann, the conscience-stricken lover is responsible for his own dilemma: In seeking the truth about whether the father of his intended was indeed a murderous profiteer, he ended up being hoisted by his own petard. His hunch was right that his father-in-law-to-be was indeed the murderer in question. Is the moral of this complex story that we are all guilty? That no one is without sin? That ignorance is bliss? That we shouldn’t try, as Hermann did, to play God by exposing the murderer? Are we seeing here an anxiety on the part of you, yourself, as the inventor of characters like Hermann (Everyman?) who do that?

 

Critic Peter Brooks states, in his introduction to “The Human Comedy: Selected Stories,” that you were in fact haunted by the belief that you might be creating too much—“overreaching, usurping a power that should only be wielded by God the Father.”

 

How do you feel about that?

 

Well, Honoré, our time is up for today, but we can talk more about this whenever you are ready.

 

*


Dear Honoré. Yes, some time has passed since our last visit, but I’m still here, and I have more to say about your “Red Inn.” Here’s my two cents.

In addition to the unexpected order in the notion that guilt precedes the crime, you’ve now got me thinking about some other reversals of order.

When I first read your “Red Inn,” it was before my study of Kafka’s The Trial, but five decades after my first brush with Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger. Now I’m thinking about what these authors might make of your character, Prosper, and, for that matter, of Hermann the ostensible narrator of your story who reminds me a lot of you. In each of these three works, there is some version of a trial.

In The Trial, Kafka’s Josef K is caught up in a nightmarish, incomprehensible system that appears to have judged him guilty, but for an unnamed crime. It’s not as if he has much of a choice about whether to be executed for this unspecified crime, but even if he did, he would likely have accepted the punishment. Indeed, he does not protest when taken away by two men to have a knife driven into his heart.

Meursault on the other hand has to be persuaded that he is guilty of a crime punishable by guillotine. The so-called logic of traditional rules of crime and punishment completely eludes him. Furthermore, as I think about it, with respect to the theme of crime and punishment, mothers play a key role in Camus’, and in your story, as in the life of Kafka himself.

I’m sure I need to think more about the role of the mother in Kafka, in general. His Letter to His Father remained unsent as a result of his mother’s intervention. Although she frequently tried unsuccessfully to protect Franz from the outsize wrath of his looming father, it’s never been entirely clear to me just whom she was protecting by imploring Franz to promise not to deliver that letter.

The role played by Prosper’s mother in what transpires in your “Red Inn” is similarly ambiguous and multifaceted. Yes, as we learn in Hitchcock’s Psycho, “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” And when your mother is poor, to have within reach a treasure that could make her life easier is a huge temptation, as is the appealing idea of being her savior.

But what if she, like Hermann in your own story, knew that her benefit had come from ill-gotten gains? And that the price might be her son’s life and the shame of having produced a son who would violate everything she had taught him? Execution might seem preferable to the humiliation of having to face such a situation.

Let’s return to Meursault’s mother in The Stranger—the mother he loses his head over because he allegedly didn’t care enough to know which day she died. We know little about her except her presence/absence in the first line of the novel. Yet she will become a pretext used by those pretending to care about her to justify taking the life of her “monstrous” son.

Oh, dear. We mothers have a lot to answer for, right, Sigmund and Honoré? (But not necessarily in that order?)

 

Here comes one last word—and this time I mean it—about how prescient you have been in marking both reader and writer. Although you were born too soon for Netflix, I think you would have loved an irresistibly compelling recent film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which also artfully plays with the tension between technical innocence and psychic guilt. This film does so in a way that makes it impossible to know the extent to which the seductive and aptly-named Grace Marks is a murderess, a victim, or both. According to the publicity for the trailer (https://youtu.be/hMj_wraH3Ms), “Famed murderess Grace Marks told the man who came to study her mind that she’d lost her memories. But it could be that she’d rather not remember.” Like the budding psychiatrist who in the film tries to get to the truth, we the audience are putty in Grace’s hands. And as is the case with the rapt audience for Hermann’s after-dinner tale, your “Red Inn” keeps us definitively in your thrall.

....
Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.

 


Related