How to read Balzac?

I imagine that if you are French the question of “How to read Balzac?” is pointless, but it’s a real question for Anglophones reading his works in English. I see from Goodreads that Chris gives two stars (out of five) to The Girl With the Golden Eyes, observing that the first fifth of the novel, a dissection of Paris and Parisians, seems to have little connection with the rest and that the characters are thinly drawn and the plot absurd. An American university teacher reports that most of his students don’t finish a novel that can be read in three hours with ease.

I sympathise: it is hard to see the connection between the first fifth of the novel and the rest; the characters are not credible; and the plot is absurd. But this is a delicious novel, a feast full of delights–like the most evocative poem. It is, I suggest, better read as a poem with the rich ambiguity that implies than as a novel with a clear message.


But perhaps the best way to read the novel is to think of it as an attempt at “writing a painting.” Balzac gives us (or at least me) this notion when he describes Paquita, the “girl with the golden eyes”: “She is the original of that ravishing picture called La Femme Caressant sa Chimere, the warmest, the most infernal inspiration of the genius of antiquity; a holy poem prostituted by those who have copied it for frescoes and mosiacs; for a heap of bourgeois who see in this gem nothing more than a gew-gaw and hang it on their watch-chains— whereas, it is the whole woman, an abyss of pleasure into which one plunges and finds no end.”

As is my wont when a book I’m reading describes a picture I searched for the picture on my I-phone. There is, I discovered, no such picture, but there are pictures that might be the picture. The richness, extravagance, and absurdity (a naked woman caressing a parrot) of the pictures fit exactly with the novel. The novel is both gothic and romantic, like a painting by Gustave Moreau or Eugene Delacroix.


The only way to read this novel and at least some others by Balzac (The Duchess of Langeais) is to abandon yourself to it.


Some delicious quotes follow:

Paris, that vast workshop of delights.

In Paris everything is tolerated: the government and the guillotine, religion and the cholera.

She belongs to that feminine variety which the Romans call fulva, flava— the woman of fire. And in chief, what struck me the most, what I am still taken with, are her two yellow eyes, like a tiger’s, a golden yellow that gleams, living gold, gold which thinks, gold which loves, and is determined to take refuge in your pocket.

Is not Chance a man of genius?

If desire gives a man boldness and disposes him to lay restraint aside, the mistress, under pain of ceasing to be woman, however great may be her love, is afraid of arriving at the end so promptly, and face to face with the necessity of giving herself, which to many women is equivalent to a fall into an abyss, at the bottom of which they know not what they shall find.

Women are prodigiously fond of those persons who call themselves pashas, and who are, as it were accompanied by lions and executioners, and who walk in a panoply of terror.

The girl of the golden eyes might be virgin, but innocent she was certainly not. The fantastic union of the mysterious and the real, of darkness and light, horror and beauty, pleasure and danger, paradise and hell, which had already been met with in this adventure, was resumed in the capricious and sublime being with which De Marsay dallied. All the utmost science or the most refined pleasure, all that Henri could know of that poetry of the senses which is called love, was excelled by the treasures poured forth by this girl, whose radiant eyes gave the lie to none of the promises which they made.

True love rules above all through recollection. A woman who is not engraven upon the soul by excess of pleasure or by strength of emotion, how can she ever be loved?

Man is a jester dancing upon a precipice.

It is man’s despair that all his work, whether for good or evil, is imperfect. All his labors, physical or intellectual, are sealed with the mark of destruction.

That seraglio which a loving woman knows how to create and which a man never refuses.



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