The City as Protagonist in Balzac

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

The City as Protagonist in Balzac

Introduction to an Italian translation of Balzac’s Ferragus, 1973.

To make a novel out of a city, to represent the streets and the various districts as dramatis personae, each one with a character in conflict with every other; to give life to human figures and situations as if they were spontaneous growths from the cobbles of the streets, or else protagonists in such dramatic contrast with them as to cause a whole string of disasters; to work in such a way that at every changing moment the true protagonist was the living city, its biological continuity, the monster that was Paris—this is what Balzac felt impelled to do when he began to write Ferragus.

I should say that he started out with a completely different idea in his head: the power wielded by mysterious personages by means of the invisible network of secret societies. But in fact he had two particular cores of inspiration, which he aimed to blend into a single cycle of novels. On the one hand were the secret societies, and on the other the mysterious omnipotence of a single individual on the fringes of society. The myths destined to mold both popular and cultured fiction for over a century all pass through Balzac. The Superman who takes his revenge on the society that has outlawed him by transforming himself into a totally elusive demiurge features throughout all the volumes of La Comédie humaine in the manifold guises of Vautrin, and was later reincarnated in all the Counts of Monte Cristo, the Phantoms of the Opera, and even the Godfathers whom best-selling novelists are now putting into circulation. The sinister conspiracy that stretches its tentacles on every side was destined—part in jest and part in earnest—to obsess the most urbane English novelists from the beginning to the end of the nineteenth century, and rise again in our own age with the mass production of tough spy thrillers.

With Ferragus we are still in the full flood of Byronic Romanticism. In a March 1833 issue of the Revue de Paris (a weekly to which Balzac was bound by contract to contribute forty pages a month, amid continual rebukes from the publisher for the lateness of the copy and for making too many corrections on the proofs), we find the preface to the Histoire des treize, in which the author promises to reveal the secrets of thirteen resolute outlaws bound by a secret pact of mutual aid that rendered them invincible. He announced the appearance of a first part: Ferragus, chef des dévorants. (The word dévorants, or devoirants, traditionally meant the members of a trade association, “companions-in-duty,” but Balzac was certainly playing on a false etymology of dévorer, which is far more suggestive and would mean “devourers.”)

Though the preface is dated 1831, Balzac did not begin work on the project until February 1833, and he did not succeed in delivering the first chapter for the week following the publication of the preface; so, two weeks later, the Revue de Paris brought out the first two chapters together. The third chapter held up publication of the next issue, and the fourth and last came out later in a supplement during the month of April.

But the novel as published was very different from the one that had been announced. The old project no longer interested the author. He was concerned with quite a different thing, which made him sweat over his manuscripts instead of tossing off pages at the rate demanded, and led him to scatter the proofs with corrections and additions that made a hash of the typographer’s work. The plot he used is still breathtaking, with its mysteries and totally unexpected coups de théâtre, and the shady character going by the Ariostian nom de guerre of Ferragus has a central position in it, but the adventures to which he owes his secret authority as well as his public infamy are left unsaid, and Balzac only showed him in his decline. And as for the “thirteen”—or, rather, the twelve other members—it almost seems as if the author forgot about them, for he showed them only in the distance, as decorative “extras” at a splendidly pompous funeral Mass.

What was now arousing Balzac’s enthusiasm was the topographical epic poem of Paris, following his first intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture, the streets that “impriment par leur physiognomie certaines idées contre lesquelles nous sommes sans défense,” the city as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations. For years Balzac had been publishing sketches of Paris life, cameos of typical characters, and now he aimed to organize this material into a kind of Parisian encyclopedia with space for a mini-treatise on how to follow women down the street, for the genre painting (worthy of Daumier) of passers-by caught in the rain, for the classification of tramps, for the satire on the building mania then afflicting the city, for the portrayal of a slut, for a record of the speech of the various social classes. When Balzac’s dialogues shed their habitual declamatory emphasis, they succeed in conveying fashionable fads and neologisms and even tones of voice, as when we hear a saleswoman say that marabou feathers give a lady’s hair style “quelque chose de vague, d’ossianique et de très comme il faut.” The treatment of the exteriors is matched by that of the interiors, luxurious or squalid as they may be, with studied pictorial effects such as that of the vase of géroflées in Widow Gruget’s hovel. The description of the Père-Lachaise cemetery and the intricacies of the bureaucracy of “funeral directors” crowns the whole design, as if the novel that opened with a vision of Paris as a living organism were to close on the level of the Paris of the dead.

The Histoire des treize has been transformed into an atlas of the continent called Paris. And when Balzac had finished Ferragus (for his obstinacy did not permit him to stop a project in the middle) and, having quarreled with the Revue de Paris, wrote two further parts to complete the trilogy for other publishers, the result was two novels vastly different from the first and from each other. But what they do have in common, far more than the fact that their protagonists turn out to be members of the mysterious association (a detail quite secondary to the plot), is the presence of ample digressions that add further items to his Parisian encyclopedia. The second chapter of La Duchesse de Langeais (a love story lent impetus by an event in his own life) provides a sociological study of the aristocracy of the Faubourg Saint-Germain; La Fille aux yeux d’or (which is far more substantial, and is one of the central texts in a line of French culture extending without interruption from Sade to the present day, to, for example, Bataille and Klossowski) opens with a kind of anthropological museum of Parisians divided into social classes.

If this wealth of digressions is greater in Ferragus than in the two other novels of the trilogy, this does not mean that Balzac puts the whole elaborate force of his writing into them alone. The inner psychological drama of the relations between the Desmarets couple also engages the author to the height of his powers. We may be less interested in the story of this all-too-perfect pair, given our own reading habits, which at a certain pitch of sublimity enable us to see only dazzling clouds and prevent us from distinguishing movements and contrasts. And yet the way in which the shadow of a doubt, which cannot be dispelled, does not succeed in making any external dent in their loving faith in each other, but corrodes it from inside, is achieved in a way that is very far from banal. Nor must we forget that pages that might appear to us as mere exercises in conventional eloquence, such as Clémence’s last letter to her husband, were tours de force that Balzac was especially proud of, as he himself confessed in a letter to Madame Hańska.

As for the other psychological drama, the one concerned with excessive fatherly love, it is less convincing to us, even as a first sketch of Père Goriot (though in this case the egoism is all on the father’s side, and all the sacrifices on the daughter’s). How differently Dickens managed to deal with the reappearance of a convict father in that masterpiece Great Expectations.

But even granting that the stress laid on psychology tends to push the adventure plot into the background, we still have to admit how much the plot has to do with our pleasure as readers. The suspense works, even though the emotive core is constantly shifting from one character to another. The speed of events is hectic, even if many parts of the plot do limp slightly because of inaccuracy or illogic. The mystery of Madame Jules’s visits to the street of ill repute is one of the earliest criminal enigmas to confront a self-made detective, even if the solution does come too soon and is disappointingly simple.

The strength of the whole novel is maintained and condensed by its being based on a mythology of the metropolis—a metropolis in which, as in the portraits of Ingres, all the characters appear to be the owners of their faces. The era of the anonymous crowd has not yet begun; there is only a little while to go, the twenty years or so that separate Balzac and the apotheosis of the city in the novel from Baudelaire and the apotheosis of the city in poetry. To make this shift clear, we might use two quotations from readers of a century later, both of whom, in their different ways, were interested in such problems.

Balzac discovered the big city as a den of mysteries, and the sense he keeps ever-alert is that of curiosity. It is his Muse. He is never either tragic or comic; he is curious. He is always delving into a tangle of things with the air of a man who scents a mystery and promises one, and dismantles the machine piece by piece with biting, lively, triumphant gusto. Look at how he approaches new characters. He scrutinizes them from every angle as rarities, he describes them, he sculpts them, he defines and comments on them, he brings out all their singularities and promises marvels. His judgments, observations, harangues, and maxims are not psychological truths, but the tricks of a suspicious examining magistrate with his hands on a mystery that must at all costs be solved. Therefore, when the search, the hunt for the mystery, abates, and—at the beginning of a book or in the course of it (never at the end, for by that time all is revealed, along with the mystery)—Balzac discourses on his craze for mystery with sociological, psychological, and lyrical enthusiasm, then he is truly admirable. Look at the beginning of Ferragus or the opening of the second part of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. He is sublime. It is Baudelaire who is being heralded here.

The writer of these sentences was Cesare Pavese, in his diary of October 13, 1936, when he was still a young man.

At more or less the same time, in his essay on Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin wrote a passage in which we have only to replace the name of Victor Hugo with the even more fitting name of Balzac to continue and complete the argument quoted above:

One may look in vain, in the Fleurs du mal or Spleen de Paris, for anything analogous to those frescoed townscapes at which Victor Hugo was peerless. Baudelaire describes neither the population nor the city. And it is just this renunciation that enabled him to evoke the one in the image of the other. His crowd is always that of the metropolis; his Paris is always overpopulated… . In the Tableaux parisiens one can nearly always feel the secret presence of a crowd. When Baudelaire is concerned with the light of dawn, in the deserted streets there is something of the “swarming silence” that Hugo feels in Paris at night… . The crowd was the wafting veil through which Baudelaire saw Paris.