Balzac and an Enigmatic Squiggle

Honoré de Balzac, La Peau de Chagrin.

Published by H. Delloye and Victor Lecou, Paris 1838.

The next time you open a book, take a close look at the title pages. They can contain a lot of information about the content of the entire work. And I’m obviously talking about much more than the title itself! (Hopefully, you already know the title before buying the book.) The two title pages of this edition of Honoré de Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin (Engl. The Wild Ass’s Skin) already outline what happens (the plot) und how it happens (the style), that is, how the story relates to the world, namely in a mixture of realistic and fantastic elements.

Title page I, detail.

What can you see in this picture? In the foreground there is a dug grave, a young man and an allegorical figure of death, depicted as a skeleton that drags the man by his hair into the grave. In the background are dancing ladies, some gentlemen talking at tables, in short: a society that is dancing and enjoying itself, perhaps in one of the many coffee houses of Paris. And that, in principle, tells the whole story.

The young Raphael de Valentin gambles away his last funds and decides then and there to take his own life. Eventually, he changes his mind, and finds an enchanted piece of skin (the wild ass’s skin the title refers to) in an antique store that is supposed to fulfil every wish of its owner. Of course, there is a catch – or rather a price: the leather shrinks with every fulfilled wish, and once there is nothing left of it, the life of the owner – i.e. of good Raphael – will end too. He becomes rich, celebrates lavish parties, falls in love and must die in the end, because no trick in the world prevents the damned wild ass’s skin from disappearing eventually, as does Raphael for his sin of consuming it (quite fittingly, he dies from consumption). So, on the one hand, the book’s about Raphael’s struggle with death and, on the other hand, about a portrait of the decadent French society in the early 19th century – just as the drawing suggests.

Title page II.

An Enigmatic Squiggle

Let’s turn a page. Here we encounter a strange squiggle. Below it, you can read “Sterne (Tristram Shandy, ch. Cccxxii).” Apparently, Balzac quotes Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the 322nd chapter to be precise. Indeed, such a squiggle can be found in Sterne’s novel – however, it is depicted in volume 9, chapter 4 – there is no 322nd chapter. What does that mean? Perhaps, the original quote from Sterne will help.

It comes from this scene of Tristram Shandy: Tristram’s uncle Toby is talking to his servant, Corporal Trim, about being a bachelor. The Corporal, who is usually known for talking nineteen to the dozen, gives an unexpectedly taciturn reply. He says: “Whilst a man is free –” and completes the sentence with a sweeping gesture of his cane, drawing a curly line into the air, which is depicted on the page. Shandy replies: “A thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy” – a picture is worth a thousand words.

What is the meaning of all this? Well, there are several interpretations. The energetic gesture with the stick might more adequately express the freedom and vivacity that a bachelor feels than many words could. Just as well, you can interpret the squiggle as winding paths of life, human errors and confusions and the impossibility of retelling all this following a straight line. What is remarkable about it is that such a depiction does not exactly comply with the conventions of literary realism. That is to say: realism wants us to forget that we are reading when we do, and to perceive only the narrated world. Of course, realisms knows that stories aren’t “real”, that they are made up. But it wants us to forget about this illusion and read them as if they were true. So it doesn’t match realism at all to interrupt the flow of the text with such an impudent squiggle – it breaks the illusion, it literally interrupts the flow of reading.

With Sterne, that’s one thing, because the entire book is quite absurd. It claims to be an autobiography but isn’t like anything we would expect of when we think of a typical biography. It doesn’t start with Shandy’s birth, we only learn about it after three chapters. Furthermore, the text contains redacted passages, chapters with just one sentence and all sorts of other experimental stuff. With Balzac, things are different – after all, he’s considered one of the forefathers of French realism. So why did Balzac use this sign?

Realism and Fantasy

On the one hand, The Wild Ass’s Skin is meant to be social criticism just like many other works by Balzac. The novel is part of Balzac’s monumental project La Comédie Humaine (Engl. The Human Comedy). With this work, he wanted to depict the entirety of 19-century French society in a planned 137 (!!!) stories, essays and novels – an oversized portrait of manners and morals. (He “only” got as far as 91 before he died, by the way.) This portrait shows people from all classes of society – doctors, politicians, aristocrats, dandies, artists, gamblers, bankers and courtesans – and looks at their relationships with money, with morals, with each other. The Wild Ass’s Skin, too, is about these fundamental questions of the time: Raphael tries to lead an ascetic life, then a hedonistic one – and neither works out well. His friend Rastignac embodies unrestrained hedonism and egoism, while Raphael’s lover Pauline is an example for altruistic persons. So much for the realistic part of the novel.

A deal with the devil (Compendium Maleficarum, 1608).

Moreover, the story also contains fantastic elements, starting with the magical wild ass’s skin that can grant wishes. By the way, this is a version of the well-known deal with the devil. You know: sell your soul to the devil and you will get love/money/a longer life, like Faust did, for example. This intrusion of fantastic elements into a realistic work is – maybe – visualised by the oddly curved line on the title page, which Balzac borrowed from Sterne. Others interpret it as Raphael’s vitality, which is strong at first and then decreases while the enchanted skin becomes smaller and smaller. In terms of content, there might also be a connection between the bachelor scene in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and the extravagant parties in the salons of Paris. So we don’t come full circle but follow a squiggle that indicates that we sometimes have to resort to the fantastic, the non-real in order to better understand that what is real.


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