There are a number of authors I’ve never read among the Art of the Novella crowd, and sometimes I wonder how good an introduction one of these books might be—perhaps The Girl With the Golden Eyes should not have been my first work by Balzac. You see, I’ve heard so many good things. And this…well, it was not bad, but strange, unexpected, disagreeable. The flap reassures me; this “is perhaps ths most outlandish thing he ever wrote.” Outlandish is a good word here.
The story is all cold heat. Henri de Marsay, a callous, wealthy, and aristocratic young man, lives only to gratify his passions, and just now his passion is for a girl with golden eyes that he’s seen walking in the Tuileries. He demonstrates to his friend just how well he is able to get anything his heart desires, if only for a short time, if only to destroy it, if only to immediately despise it on possession. And Henri’s depravity may not even be the deepest of anyone in the novella.
Balzac opens the novella with a 28-page (of 120) rant about the different social classes in Paris. He seems to hate everyone, and he does a truly impressive job of inverting the concept of social mobility to make it seem like a bad thing (when a man’s children end up in a higher class than he was, it’s an indication of the money of the lower classes flowing to the higher classes—even though it’s the people taking the money with them). It’s really a sort of overture to the novella. It pretends only to set the scene, to explain everyone from the petit bourgeoisie up to the rich idle class de Marsay belongs to. But it does more to prepare the ground for the story of de Marsay and the girl with the golden eyes than just that.
[N]ow let us approach the grand, airy, gilded drawing-rooms, the mansions with gardens, the world of the rich and idle of private means. Here the faces are pallid, eaten away by vanity. Here there is nothing real. Doesn’t the search for pleasure imply finding boredom? People in high society early on exhausted their true nature. Concerned only with creating joy for themselves, they quickly abused their senses, just as the common laborer abuses strong drink. Pleasure is like certain medicinal substances: To obtain the same effects, you have to keep increasing the dose, and death or mental exhaustion is inherent in the latter. …[I]n these people you will see tastes but not passions—just romantic fantasies and timid affairs. Here impotence reigns; here there are no more ideas, the motive-force is lost in the playacting of the boudoir, in feminine antics. …Embraces mask profound indifference, politeness masks continuous scorn. Here the other is never loved.
Here, before we have met him, we have de Marsay, and before we have heard any of it, we have much of the story of the novella. I said above that Henri lives to gratify his passions, but as Balzac warns us, he doesn’t really have passions at all, except perhaps for himself and his own pride. His scorn for all others and self-obsession are some of the most disturbing things about the novel, and Balzac has let me know that that is the point.
I don’t like this method. I don’t know what to say about it that isn’t totally subjective. Do I think it’s ineffective? I find it somewhat boring, often provoking, and usually moralistic, but I also think that might be the point. Or at least, that one of the three might be the point.