La Maison du Chat-Qui-Pelote: “Half-way down the Rue Saint-Denis, almost at the corner of the Rue du Petit-Lion, there stood formerly one of those delightful houses which enable historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy.”
I quite love French literature and wish I had time to read more of it. I’ve begun reading La Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola which consists of 20 novels of which I’ve read four. Honoré Balzac has surpassed Zola’s series in great magnitude with his La Comédie Humaine (originally called Etudes des Mœurs or The Study of Manners) which is comprised of 91 finished works and 46 unfinished works. The sheer volume of reading is daunting but if one never begins, one never conquers, right? So I’ve started with one book in a sub-series called Scènes de la vie privée or Scenes from a Private Life, La Maison du Chat-Qui-Pelote. Originally titled, Glory and Misfortune, elements of it echo in Balzac’s private life: his fabric merchant uncles, the impassive and unresponsive behaviour of his family, etc. It’s a wonderful start to his magnum opus as he begins his examination of the motivations, mistakes, pleasures, modes and experiences of human life!
Monsieur Guillaume, a merchant draper or cloth merchant, whose business, The Cat and Racket, is located on the Rue Saint-Denis in Paris, has two daughters, the elder, Virginie, who is prim and proper and plain like her mother, and Augustine who is beautiful and full of sweetness yet is sheltered by her parents. The steadfast and business-minded assistant, Joseph Lebas, is expect to marry Virginie as the eldest daughter must be married first but much to Guillaume’s consternation, Lebas has fallen in love with Augustine. However, unbeknownst to everyone, Augustine has been to the Salon, an art exhibition, and has fallen in love with Théodore de Sommervieux, a painter of creative intellect and from a good family and has painted a much admired painting of the interior of the Cat and Racket. Augustine makes her plea, her parents reluctantly concede to her wishes, and she is married to Théodore, while Joseph gives in and marries Virginie.
Théodore and Augustine have two years of conjugal bliss as they float on the wings of romantic love, however as their relationship continues Théodore realizes that his wife’s experience and intelligence are not a match for his. At first, he experiences a puzzlement but as his view of her becomes tarnished by the influence of others, he eventually comes to almost despise her. Augustine is perplexed and now terrified of her husband’s company, however, with unusual bravery she goes to seek help from the one person that she believes can give it: her husband’s mistress.
While Balzac’s story isn’t pleasant in itself, it does bring to light some very valuable insights into the peculiarities of love. While Théodore and Augustine fall passionately in love, that love cannot sustain them in the realities of life, and the foundation of their marriage crumbles as the emotions fade. Excess of feeling and emotion, however pleasurable, appears to eventually breed an unnaturalness that one cannot ignore. However, Joseph and Virginie’s marriage is a solid one. While Virginie knows that her husband did not initially love her, she works to build a relationship with him on a more steadfast and concrete foundation of respect, where love is then able to grow.
Balzac seems to be showing the reader that a relationship where intellect and ideals (and hopefully values) are unequal and where the expectations are that the relationship should remain strong with little effort, there is bound to be strife and vexation, however if one chooses a partner who is able to meet one on an equal footing and is willing to work on the relationship, that marriage will become increasingly stable and enduring.
As often is the case with people who attempt a deeper examination of love, we are exposed to what went wrong and what not to do instead of what will make love grow and flourish. In this novel, we are given an examination of Théodore and Augustine but we learn little about Joseph and Virginie and how they made their marriage grow and prosper. There are echoes of Erich Fromm’s treatment of love in The Art of Loving, a read-along I hosted late last year: much on what not to do but little on what to do.
My first exposure to Balzac was an enjoyable experience but this small novel echoes of a talent that has not yet matured. The story was initially developed well but once Balzac had presented his physiologie du marriage, the story tends to weaken with an emphasis of shock-effect at the ending, a moment of tragedy. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued to begin with the next story, The Ball at Sceaux to see Balzac begin to refine his art.
The Ball at Sceaux ⇒