April 27, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 23: The Girl With the Golden Eyes


the girl with the golden eyesTitle: The Girl With the Golden Eyes

Author: Honoré de Balzac

First published: 1835

Page count: 120

First line: One of the most appalling spectacles that exists is undoubtedly the general appearance of the Parisian population, a people horrible to see, gaunt, sallow, weather-beaten.

When I first discussed this project with the kind people at Melville House – a project to read all of their Art of the Novella series in a year, blogging about them as I went – I made a grand and slightly pompous play for my editorial independence. If I don’t like a book, I said, I’ll lay into it, no question. No question, they replied, or shrugged, really. The kind of people who publish the Senate report on torture are not going to come over all squeamish about a little free speech, are they?

Well, thus far I haven’t had to play that card. Most of the two dozen or so books I’ve read have been the good stuff. Unsurprisingly, you might say. But here is where the buck stops. This book – this thing by Balzac – I read through increasingly gritted teeth. I couldn’t believe how tedious it was, how overwrought and overwritten, how unfunny, how fundamentally pointless. To apply the absolutely lowest test of literary worth, none of the sentences made me want to read the next sentence.

As it happened, I met up with the publishers themselves mid-read. Don’t worry, they said. It gets better.

Well, it got better, but not better enough.

I was a French undergraduate student back in the twentieth century, and I read some Balzac back then. Have I read some since? No. Have I read more Flaubert, Gide, Zola, Duras, Sartre, Camus since? Yes. Balzac, no. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but part of it must be that, whatever the intentions of the writer’s particular brand of realism, he seems programmatic now, an example of the novelist as demagogue, as builder of ever more elaborate train sets in his garden shed, who marvels that the express always arrive on time, unless it is derailed by an accident entirely of his own invention.

That alone would not be enough to make me hate this book so much as I did. It was the writing style, which is, shall we say, of the supplementary or cumulative type. If the current received wisdom of Creative Writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, then Balzac is very much of the tell, tell, and tell again’ school. Here’s some, as an instance. Don’t feel the need to read it all.

The worker, the proletarian, the man who uses his feet, his hands, his tongue, his back, his arm alone, his five fingers in order to live. This one more than anyone else should economize on his vital principle, but instead exceeds his strength, yokes his wife to some machine, wears out his child and harnesses him to a wheel. His boss, the manufacturer, a sort of subsidiary string whose jerks move the workers, who with their dirty hands shape and gild porcelain, sew suits and dresses, temper iron, cut timber, forge steel, spin hemp and yarn, polish bronze, etch crystal, trace flowers, embroider wool, tame horses, plait harnesses and braids, trim copper, paint carriages, pollard old elms, steam cotton, treat cloth with sulphur, cut diamonds, buff metals, slice marble into slabs, polish stones, fashion thoughts, color, bleach and dye everything – well this subsidiary power has come to promise to this world of sweat, willpower, study, and patience, a high salary, either for the sake of the city’s fashions, or on behalf of the monster named speculation.

I think you might have missed an occupation out, Balzac.

Oh, no. My mistake. You didn’t.

Now there are writers in whom I like this style, or something like it. Think of the long, looping sentences of Javier Marías, as in this passage from near the beginning of his masterwork, Your Face Tomorrow:

People cannot help but go and tell what they hear, and they tell everything sooner or later, the interesting and the trivial, the private and the public, the intimate and the superfluous, what should remain hidden and what will one day inevitably be broadcast, the sorrows and the joys and the resentments, the grievances and the flattery and the plans for revenge, what fills us with pride and what shames us utterly, what appeared to be a secret and what begged to remain so, the normal and the unconfessable and the horrific and the obvious, the substantial – falling in love – and the insignificant – falling in love.

Isn’t that wonderful! An equally high comma quotient to the Balzac, but look at the elegance of the internal rhythm, how the list proceeds not through simple accretion – another tiny brick added to the scale model of reality – but through echo and reversal, a kind of intuitive dialectic; there is also the fact that Balzac is outwards-facing, and Marías inward. He is, you might say, is as much a realist as Balzac, but a realist of the interior.

Back to Balzac. The book, the novella, opens with a 25-page section painting a picture of Paris as a kind of Dante-esque hell, working up from the gutter to the mansions, and showing awful everyone is. It is, as I say, awful, and under normal circumstances it would have  defeated me; I would have simply binned the book.

Things do improve. We are finally gifted a protagonist, an individual among all this catalogue of generalities. This is Henri de Marsay, “the prettiest boy in Paris” and rich to boot, who among his various dalliances develops an obsession with a young woman he sees strolling in the Tuileries garden. This is the titular girl with the golden eyes –

“…like tiger’s eyes; a golden yellow that gleams, living gold, gold that thinks, gold that loves and wants more than anything to come nestle inside your watch-pocket!”

(Yes, Balzac’s characters suffer the same disease as their author.)

She is as rich and gorgeous as Henri, but is alas unapproachable, guarded on her walks by a ferocious duenna, and locked away for the rest of the time no one knows where. Well, you can guess the rest of the plot, now that we finally have a plot. Henri must have her. She seems as taken with him. They pass messages, he tracks her to her residence, plans an assault; she, too, is active – sending a mulatto servant to blindfold him and bring him to an assignation.

Matters step up from the over-voluble satire of the opening sections to a quasi-Sadean intrigue. There are intoxications and boudoirs, strange silent old women, lashings of decadence and, although no actual lashings, certainly cross-dressing, voyeurism and passionate outbursts that he or she will kill her or him, or him- or herself, if he or she can’t have him or her, or if anyone else does. (The most outrageous moment of the novella, meanwhile, is the comment on (the illegitimate) Henri made by his (English) father when he finally catches sight of him as a grown and gorgeous man:

“Ah! He is my son. What a pity!”

There’s the English for you…)

Much of the couple’s secret courtship and consummation is wearyingly melodramatic, the pair of them permanently poised on the threshold of fainting or violence, but there are more delicate and downbeat touches too, such as this comment on Henri following the moment when the couple eventually do sleep together:

There sometimes occurs in a man who has just feasted on pleasure a slope into oblivion, a strange kind of ingratitude, a desire for freedom, a wish just to go outside for a walk, a tinge of scorn and perhaps disgust for his idol – inexplicable sentiments arise that render him loathsome and base.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we guys? (And gals – I mean, I’m sure you get those post-coital loathsome and base sentiments, too…)

But it’s the “wish just to go out for a walk” that I love, that chalks up a definite plus for Balzac. A minor key, light-as-a-feather touch of bathos among all the clunking satire and borrowed-clothes sexiness.

I won’t say I saw the ending of the book coming, but I will say that it left me rather nonplussed. What comes before is so muddled, yet at the same time pitched so high, like a singer straining at the top end of their range. Although it is undoubtedly a novella in length and form, it could hardly be counted as a great one. The dreadful first third puts paid to that, and the ending – the guts of the story – seems to play at transgression, but it is poking and prodding at borders that had been comprehensively ruptured, decades earlier, by the Maquis himself. Enough. I despair of this book. On to the next!


Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.