Anything Can Happen in Balzac: Redaction and Deception, Vice and Virtue in the Shadow of Notre-Dame
By Stuart Mitchner
Let’s say you’re a publicist crafting a blurb for a book that scored a million dollar advance only to be greeted with negative reviews, including one that gives you a workable sentence: “Although this is an overwritten, derivative, deeply flawed travesty of reality, the deluded author seems to think it’s the great political novel the world has been waiting for.” Cut the first part, capitalize the “t” and you’ve got “[T]he great political novel the world has been waiting for.” You can get away with this trick as long as you cover your tracks with that handy little bracket around the “T,” thus transforming a total trashing into a cause for celebration. And in the unlikely event of a lawsuit, one small, well-placed punctuation mark has given the publisher legal cover.
Last month the attorney general of the United States employed an almost identical act of typographical subterfuge to sabotage a crucial sentence in the Executive Summary of Volume 1 of the Mueller report. All he had to do was cut the first part: “Athough the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” By deep-sixing the incriminating reference to Russia’s perceptions and the Campaign’s expectations with that sly “[T]” for a “t” sleight of hand, Willliam Barr gave the hungry media a bogus, anodyne headline: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in election interference activities.” Having found no punctuation mark with which to mask the damning “no exoneration” conclusion, the AG simply dismissed the obstruction of justice issue, setting the stage for a “total exoneration” celebration. Break out the champagne!
[A]nything Can Happen in Balzac
In the wake of the Mueller report and the burning of Notre-Dame, I felt in need of a super caffeinated boost from Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), the author of the Human Comedy and poet laureate of perfidy and subterfuge. While most journalists in search of literary reference points for the burning of Notre-Dame went right to Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and his eponymous novel, others cited Balzac’s The Wrong Side of Paris, more than half of which takes place in the shadow of the cathedral. Originally published as L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine in 1848, the novel was translated into English as The Seamy Side of History (a fitting title for this post-Mueller moment) and revived in 2005 by the Modern Library with the new title. Translated by Jordan Stump, the book carries a back-cover blurb from Linda Coverdale — “[A] fresh and fluent translation” — which naturally reminded me of the attorney general’s handiwork, except this time there were no ulterior motives, only a question of space due to the length of Coverdale’s full statement.
A prize-winning translator herself, Coverdale ends her appreciation of Balzac by declaring that he “will always remain among the most modern of writers.” How modern is made clear in Adam Gopnik’s introduction. Calling Balzac “the first and far from the least magical of all the magic realists,” he compares the tension between Balzac’s satirical surrealism and social observation to that of late-twentieth-century writers like Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, whose readers know “what it feels like to pass, in the compass of thirty years, from middle-class security to the ravages of a fascist dictatorship through a communist insurrection, only to return to middle-class comfort at the end.” Gopnik observes that a similar “kaleidoscope of constant change and insecurity was the common experience of Balzac’s first audience, too,” because in his work he “shares with the great Latin American writers the constant sense that anything can happen [Gopnik’s emphasis].” And “the right novel for a society in which anything can happen is one in which any style might contain the truth.” Gopnik concludes by noting how Balzac’s “sudden switches from plain tale to folktale, from the credible to the frankly incredible” reflect his awareness of a public that “had been made and scarred by the free play of possibility” and “by the force of romantic ideas.” When Gopnik calls Balzac’s art “a tribute to the power of a romantic imagination to go wild and still be sane,” he’s suggesting how it feels to ride a rollercoaster narrative propelled by the force of the author’s fascination with crime and punishment, sin and redemption, justice and injustice, money and power, and good and evil.
In the Heart of Old Paris
The Wrong Side of Paris begins in the area of the Île de la Cité known as the Cloister, which is located “to the north of the cathedral and hence in its shadow.” The opening paragraph “summons up dreams of Paris,” from the city of the Romans and the Franks to the city of Napoleon and Louis-Philippe. Balzac puts you right there (“Behind you rises the magnificent apse of the cathedral”) and then offers evidence of “constant change and insecurity”: “The Hotel de Ville speaks to you of Paris’s many upheavals, the Hotel-Dieu of her many miseries.”
The Cloister of Notre-Dame is “the very heart of old Paris … the city’s loneliest and most melancholy spot,” where “the waters of the Seine clap against the quay, shrouded in the long shadows of the cathedral,” one of the novel’s numerous intimations of the all-encompassing presence of the Church. A few pages later Balzac describes the cathedral “as the last gleams of the setting sun” flood “over the stone, its beams filtering through the flying buttresses.” While the towers “stand resplendent in their halo of light,” the quay is plunged in shadow” amid “the moving, sacred harmonies of the cathedral bell.”
The Glamour of Conspiracy
As you read the first and longest of the novel’s two episodes, you may find yourself wondering “Where’s the wrong side?” Is Balzac doing a William Barr? Has he redacted the dark, seamy, anything-can-happen side of Paris? Not to worry. Balzac delivers it with a vengeance in the wild and whirling second episode, which was written three years after the first and begins with a sentence that links them: “Sublime good can be every bit as contagious as evil.”
One of the splendors of Balzac is his determination to make good deeds and goodness as fascinating and mysterious as evil acts and evildoers. In Balzac and His World (1966), Felicien Marceau discusses how the author of the Human Comedy can turn “even good works into a matter for conspiracy.” One of L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine’s first titles in English, along with The Seamy Side of History, which best fits the second episode, was The Brotherhood of Consolation, which refers to the secret society of good deeds joined in the first episode by the book’s existentially despairing 30-year-old protagonist Godefroid. The initiate is told of the group’s secret signs, the rule that in public they are never to show that they know one another, and are never to use Christian names, thus Godefroid is always Godefroid. Soon he’s “no longer just one man but a being with the strength of ten” who carries this “power in his heart,” experiencing “a plentitude of vitality, a noble inner strength that carried him to the heights.” This passage makes Marceau suspect that the man he thought was Saint-Vincent de Paul has energies in common with the master criminal Fantômas.
In fact, he sounds less like Fantômas than like Balzac himself. As the poet Swinburne has observed, every character in the Human Comedy is infected, for better or worse, with the author’s genius. Consider Godefroid’s thoughts as he takes part in his first mission for the Brotherhood: “To be a real actor in an unending drama — the very sort of drama that holds us spellbound when we read of it in the works of a famous author … I never thought Virtue could be more enticing than Vice.”
When Madame de La Chanterie, who presides over the group, tells Godefroid, “My child, you have been seduced by the poetry of misfortune,” she might as well be Balzac talking to Balzac.
Degradations and Mutilations
It’s fair to say that Victor Hugo was no less devoted to the poetry of misfortune in Les Miserables (1862). Although the same might be true of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), the only time I “read” it was in the Classic Comic of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a dumbed down variation on the legend of Beauty and the Beast played out by Quasimodo, the ogre of the bells, and Esmeralda the dancing girl.
Having just perused the opening chapters of the real novel during a news cycle ranging from the burning of Notre-Dame to the redacted Mueller Report, plus the attorney general’s twisted preview and the malign activities of the current administration, I found some parallels in Hugo’s prose, where he writes, almost two centuries ago, “The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.”
That passage begs for an American update, like maybe replacing Notre-Dame, “the venerable monument,” with “democracy” or “justice.” Even so, Hugo gets the eternal point across by adding a quote in Latin, Tempus edax, homo edacior, which he translates as “time is blind, man is stupid .” Online translations have it as “Time destroys, man destroys more.”