Fever, infatuation, and Colonel Chabert

I’ve been re-reading Your Face Tomorrow, in which Jacques Deza spends several months separated from his wife, Luisa. He is in London while she remains in Madrid, in their apartment, with their children, and he thinks about her every day. This, naturally, includes imagining what she might be doing without him—and with whom.

Toward the beginning of the first book, Fever, he considers:

And yet, illogically, I believe that Luisa will not take this new love or lover back to the apartment where she lives with our children or into our bed which is now hers alone, but that she will meet him almost secretly, as if respect for my still recent memory imposed this on her or implored it of her—a whisper, a fever, a scratch—as if she were a widow and I a dead man deserving to be mourned and who cannot be replaced to quickly, not yet, my love, wait, wait, your hour has not yet come, don’t spoil it for me, give me time and give him time too, the dead man whose time no longer advances, give him time to fade, let him change into a ghost before you take his place and dismiss his flesh, let him be changed into nothing, wait until there is no trace of his smell on the sheets or on my body, let it be as if what was had never happened.

marias javier infatuationsThis idea wasn’t one I’d remembered from my first reading of Your Face Tomorrow, and I believe I’ve already found one more allusion to it in the first volume. But I’ve seen Marías work it up into a whole novel: The Infatuations.

That novel also involves a woman named Luisa, and this Luisa is indeed a widow. The narrator is curious about the death of her husband, and becomes involved with Luisa and with a family friend named Díaz-Varela. The narrator’s death investigation is a significant part of the novel, but The Infatuations is also preoccupied with the fact of the dramatic changes triggered by a sudden, unexpected, and violent death.

The death’s effect on Luisa is the main thing, and there are conversations both real and imagined about what will happen to her. Will she see anyone romantically again, and if so, how long will it take? Will she kill herself? Will she ever “get over” her husband’s murder? And so forth. The main thing is, what effect will time have on her?

Díaz-Varela is sure that she will marry again, after an appropriate period of mourning. He describes how she will change over the next few years, first becoming used to the idea “I’ve been widowed” or “I’m a widow,” until, one day

“…she won’t be, and will say instead, ‘I lost my first husband, and he’s moving further away from me all the time. It’s such a long time since I saw him, whereas this other man is here by my side and is always by my side. I call him “husband” too, which is odd. But he has taken the other husband’s place in my bed and by virtue of that juxtaposition is gradually blurring and erasing him. A little more each day, a little more each night.'”

It is “odd,” but there it is, time can change “husband” from one man to another. As Luisa’s dead husband said in a conversation imagined by the narrator, “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes, and falsifies it too without the past getting a chance to speak, protest, contradict or refute anything.”

Díaz-Varela explains to the narrator that he recently read a book, Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, “which agrees with me as regards Luisa, as regards what will happen to hear in the fullness of time.” A few years ago, when I read The Infatuations, I read this too. It’s about a French soldier in Napoleon’s army who is counted among the dead at the Battle of Eylau but is, in fact, saved. By the time he makes it back to Paris, his wife—his widow—has already married another man, and the last thing she wants is the return of a ghost who threatens her social position. Colonel Chabert struggles with his impossible existence, wishing he’d lost his memory along with everything else.

J’ai été enterré sous des morts, mais mantenant je suis enterré sous des vivants, sous des actes, sous des faits, sous la société tout entière, qui veut me faire rentrer sous terre!

I was buried under the dead, but now I am buried under the living, under contracts, under facts, under all of society, which wants to put me back underground!

The awful power of the present is such that it cannot readmit this figure from the past, and Colonel Chabert may have been better off dead.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac

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.