Monday, February 06, 2012

mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, again.

For people who share my odd taste for out of fashion and nearly forgotten authors, is a treasure-house. The next thing I downloaded was Honoré de Balzac's Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, serialized 1841, published 1842) - this is wonderland! A Balzac book I didn't know anything about, in audio for my long commuter trip. If that appeals to you and you want to listen to it while you are as innocent of expectation as I was, then don't read on.

(To create a break, here's Balzac's Dedication to George Sand:



Ceci, cher Georges, ne saurait rien ajouter à l’éclat de votre nom, qui jettera son magique reflet sur ce livre ; mais il n’y a là de ma part ni calcul, ni modestie. Je désire attester ainsi l’amitié vraie qui s’est continuée entre nous à travers nos voyages et nos absences, malgré nos travaux et les méchancetés du monde. Ce sentiment ne s’altérera sans doute jamais. Le cortège de noms amis qui accompagnera mes compositions mêle un plaisir aux peines que me cause leur nombre, car elles ne vont point sans douleurs, à ne parler que des reproches encourus par ma menaçante fécondité, comme si le monde qui pose devant moi n’était pas plus fécond encore ? Ne sera-ce pas beau, Georges, si quelque jour l’antiquaire des littératures détruites ne retrouve dans ce cortège que de grands noms, de nobles cœurs, de saintes et pures amitiés, et les gloires de ce siècle ? Ne puis-je me montrer plus fier de ce bonheur certain que de succès toujours contestables ? Pour qui vous connaît bien, n’est-ce pas un bonheur que de pouvoir se dire, comme je le fais ici,
Votre ami,

Paris, juin 1840.

[(Free translation based on my limited French:) - This, dear George, won't add anything to the lustre of your name, which will certainly cast its magic reflection on my book; but this is not calculation or modesty on my part. For I wish thus to testify to the true friendship that has persisted between us through all our travels and absences, in spite of our labours and in spite of the wickedness of the world. These warm feelings, I am certain, can never alter.  The procession of friends' names that accompanies my compositions brings me one pleasure in compensation for all the pain that those numerous compositions has caused me. For they are not without pain:  to give but one example,  the reproaches incurred by my disturbing fecundity... As if the world that stands in front of me were not so much more fecund! But George,  isn't it pleasant to suppose that, one day in the far-distant future, some antiquarian of destroyed literatures is sure to single out from this cavalcade just those great names, those noble hearts, those holy and pure friendships, the shining lights of our era? Can't I be just as proud of that definite prospect as of a literary fame that remains always doubtful? For anyone acquainted with you, what a happiness it is just to be able to style himself, as I do here,
Your friend,

I don't for a moment think that Balzac's dedication has anything sly about it -- that doesn't fit my idea of his character -- but there are undeniable resemblances between Sand and the character Louise, who is a great and unconventional lover, and (in passing) the cultivator of a Paris salon.

This is a bit of a Librivox blockbuster. Kara Shallenberg and Michelle Crandall take the two leads (Louise and Renée, respectively), supported by a quartet of others for the male characters - Peter Yearsley with a faint Hispanic accent for the sombrely incandescent Hénarez, and David Barnes again, this time cast against type as the fervent 23-year-old-poet Gaston. But this is Kara's and Michelle's book; the former is brilliant as the initially lovable, eventually rather appalling, mocking, hurtful, forgiveable, Louise -- the only challenge she doesn't quite rise to is the total despair of Louise's second calamity; but perhaps Balzac doesn't either... Michelle is (like Renée) at first strictly secondary, then grows in power and authority to the desolating cry of the closing lines.

Balzac is really the most astonishing of novelists -- (yes, even more than Dickens) -- I've read a dozen of Balzac's other books, but I'd never have foreseen that he could also do what he does here. Perhaps this novel, more than most, deserves to be called a "study"; there is little or no intrigue, nothing at all gothic. The most astonishing things, to my eyes, are Renée's accounts of childbirth, infant convulsions (I suppose this is neonatal tetanus, now virtually extinct in the west because of innoculation), and the mother's ecstatic but painful sensations of breastfeeding.

That is, unless the most astonishing thing is Louise's paean to the joys of consummated sex in Letter 27. I am making an interpretation here. Louise says only that she is talking about love, and she spends some time emphasizing that the only true kind of male lover is a man of genius, who understands that love is spiritual more than it is sensual. But the way that the topic emerges, out of the banter about "Moorish perfidy" on their wedding night, implies that she means sexual abandon. At any rate, it is a highly erotic kind of love. Perhaps I'd concede that the over-developed spiritualization of Louise's experience is what in the end destroys her, as she foresees in this very letter. Certainly it's on this plane that she accounts for her enslaving tendencies and her uncompromising jealousy.

As always with Balzac, the ending of the book suddenly steeples and induces a crash of reorientation. The epistolary novel was then a venerable, even outmoded form, but Balzac did new things with it. He did it, in a way, by NOT doing old things. The epistolary novel had tended to involve intrigue in which the characters are always criss-crossing each other and the letters themselves ingeniously become stage-properties, in which much depends on who heard what from whom. But Balzac's two principal correspondents rarely meet and to an apparently large extent get on with their separate lives -- as I said, there's no intrigue, except for a perfunctory little top-knot in the final chapters. Yet this very separation of the correspondents, the long time-gaps, Balzac's resistance to using the letters as plot-devices: all these work together to expose something more interesting about the correspondence.

Contrasted heroines was another cliché of novel-writing (think Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, Rose Bradwardine and Flora MacIvor...). In those earlier novels character contrasts had been merely a piquant fact of life. In Balzac's book we see the contrast coming into existence. The two "sisters" begin to drift down separate paths; each muses on and regrets that contrast repeatedly; each compares herself constantly with the other: envying, sympathising, defending, condemning. At first it seems to them a contrast of circumstance; then it is understood as a contrast of character; but perhaps it is really willed. The more Renée becomes Renée, the more Louise becomes Louise. When the correspondence ends, only then do we realize how much each depended on the other, how each one's conception of herself depended on her conception of her friend, and on her friend's conception of her. In one sense they had drifted apart. In another sense neither can be understood without the other; nor indeed, without the correspondence itself; in those days, letter-writing was the cyborg extension of a literate person's brain.

Louise (Letter 39, the Rome letter): "Rome is the city of love; it is there that passion should celebrate its feast, with art and religion as confederates. "

"Rome est la ville où l’on aime. Quand on a une passion,
c’est là qu’il faut aller en jouir : on a les arts et Dieu pour complices."

Renée (the infant convulsions letter): "My God! by what tortures do you bind a mother to her child! To fasten him to our heart, need the nails be driven into the very quick? Was I not mother enough before? I, who wept tears of joy over his broken syllables and tottering steps..."

"Ô mon Dieu ! par quelles douleurs attachez-vous
l’enfant à sa mère ? quels clous vous nous enfoncez au
coeur pour qu’il y tienne! N’étais-je donc pas assez mère encore,
moi que les bégaiements et les premiers pas de cet enfant ont
fait pleurer de joie!"

As you can see from these quotations, R.S. Scott (who translated the novel back in the 1890s for Saintsbury's 40-volume edition) is a very bold and easy translator: the Librivox readers make the translation sound like a much more modern one; I haven't yet fathomed exactly why that is.

The heroines are not treated quite equally. We are apt to agree with the soundness of Renée's judgments on Louise, but not vice versa. Nothing seriously goes wrong for Renée, she has some of the stillness of a typical figure, representing motherhood (it's when listening to her letters that I tend to think of the novel as a "study"). But is this right? Should we really, for instance, accept Renée's accusation that Louise caused her first husband's death? (That Louise accepts it is neither here nor there.) Was the marriage really so unhealthy? It's true that Hénarez dwindles from a heroic champion of Spanish liberty to a mere society butterfly, but he is happy and highly respected. Isn't the issue partly an economic and political one; that rich exiled nobles don't really have anything significant to do with themselves? As for Renée herself, I would love to know if her behaviour as a mother was typical for the time. She seems unexpectedly modern in her beliefs about bringing up children (which of course I warm to), yet also perhaps a little too cossetingly absorbed in them. And she is frankly materialistic, to the point of being unprincipled, in her pursuit of her family's interests. Balzac does not make these judgments; but his naturalism certainly permits them to come into view.

[This novel is being rediscovered in the Anglophone world. See Morris Dickstein's essay in the NYRB, January 2018:

... One of the things I learnt is that Henry James wrote a Preface to a 1902 edition of the novel.]

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