At the Sign of the Cat and Racket or La Maison du Chat-Qui-Pelote by Honoré de Balzac

La maison du chat-qui-peloteLa 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!

La Maison du Chat-Qui-Pelote

Monsieur Guillaume
~ source Wikimedia Commons

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.

Blue Lovers Chagall

Blue Lovers (1914) Marc Chagall
~ source Wikiart

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.

Posthumous portrait of frederic bazille

Posthumous Portrait of Frederic Bazille (1885) Pierre-Auguste Renoir ~ source Wikiart

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.

merchant at a table near window

Merchant at a table near window – Abraham van Strij
~ source Wikiart

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 ⇒


14 thoughts on “At the Sign of the Cat and Racket or La Maison du Chat-Qui-Pelote by Honoré de Balzac

  1. First of all, I really like the cover of the book and always enjoy the art you post. I have never been all that interested i Balzac, but this does sound interesting. I have to hand it to a writer who is able to write convincingly of real life issues and make his characters believable.

    But what is it about European men and their mistresses. I just don’t get why this is acceptable. My sister has a good friend from France and she grew up with her father having a mistress. Their family lived under a cloud of unhappiness because their mother was always sad. Yet no one questioned that life should be any other way.

    • Thanks, Sharon. Finding the art does take time, but I enjoy it!

      I think Balzac is going to be very interesting. His writing is excellent and his insights penetrating. However, with the number of books he wrote, I do wonder if some are going to be repetitive. I’ve heard the earlier ones might be and it’s good to intersperse them, but so far I’m enjoying him immensely!

      I know! I wonder if it’s because one used to marry based on money, and the mistresses was chosen for love or some sort of feeling at least. One thing ….. I’ve heard the comparison that the French have mistresses but Americans sleep around. Of course, neither situation is healthy but the French situation seems more human to me. Again, not that I endorse it. Lately I’ve been around two people who have been married for around 50 years and they’re both so devoted to each other. It’s been work but I think there’s nothing better than a monogamous relationship where you can trust the other person, know they’ll be there for as long as they live and that they have your back. Just lovely!

  2. i keep trying to comment, but not much luck so far… don’t know what the problem is, comments just won’t go… sigh…

    • I was wondering where you were! This one came through. Do you think it’s fixed now? I haven’t had any other complaints. But if people can’t comment, I guess I won’t know, ha, ha!

  3. 91 published works! Talk about a prolific writer. My knowledge of french literature is basically non-existent but I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review, as always. You have convinced me that I need to read this at some point and to keep Balzac on my radar.

    I was particularly struck by what you wrote about love and relationships in the story: “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.”

    I can certainly relate to this regarding past relationships that ended badly because we were not on the same page or just had completely different values and needs. You’re absolutely right about healthy relationships requiring lots of work on both sides.

    Your reviews are always so insightful and a pleasure to read. I have so much to catch up on!

    ~ Jason

    • Thanks for visiting, Jason! It’s great to have you back! I get the feeling, unless you love French literature and the themes, reading a number of popular Balzac’s may be enough. I find the feeling of hopelessness in both Balzac’s and Zola’s writing but on the other hand, they certainly don’t shy away from reality.

      You are so right that for relationships to be healthy, they need tons of work! Even friendships. But for the most part people tend to just like to coast along and hope everything turns out great. With my read-alongs of The Four Loves and The Art of Loving, I tend to agree with Lewis and Fromm (and Cicero) that there are few relationships that exhibit true love and few friendships as well. Rather disappointing.

      Thanks for your kind words! You’re always welcome here! 🙂

  4. i don’t know very much about French lit, except a few books i’ve read about it. In spite of my genetic heritage (i’m partly French), it all seems like a tempest in a teapot somehow… personalities and behavioral problems whirling around like Alice in Wonderland without much resolution… but maybe your remarkably civilized posts will arouse my interest?

    • You hit the nail on the head, Mudpuddle. There is much tragedy and little resolution. As I said to Jason though, they don’t shy away from reality, however perhaps they tend to concentrate too much on the negative aspects of it. I think for the general person, a couple of the more popular Balzac’s would be worth reading but more than that all depends on the reader and situation. We’ll see how I do.

  5. I’d never even heard of this one! I’ve read a few Balzacs, in no sort of order, and enjoyed them, and have Cousin Bette yet to read on my Classics Club list, but I’m not certain I will ever manage them all…

    Were you reading it in French? I read them strictly in translation.

    • I think I’d like to read Cousin Bette sooner rather than later. I’ve read that it’s best to disperse some of his better known books into the lesser known ones of the comedy cycle otherwise you can become bored with too much of the same.

      I didn’t read it in French. I could have tried, as it’s a short book, but it would take me ages. It would be a good place to start to get my French going again. Hmmmm …. now you have me thinking …. 😉

  6. Kudos to you to tackling the Rougon-Macquart series as well as The Human Comedy! I have read a couple books from each series only, though I did have this crazy idea to read all of the Rougon-Macquart books a few years ago but never got too far. Two down, 18 to go. Ha ha. As for Balzac, I’ve only read (possibly his most famous titles?) Cousine Bette and Pere Goriot.

    Isn’t it wonderful to have that link from the Eric Fromm book to the themes of La Maison du Chat-Qui-Pelote? I love it when my reading links up serendipitously like that!

    • I still would like to read through the Rougon-Macquart series but I never seem to get going again on it. I haven’t read any of Balzac’s famous works so hopefully I have some treats in store.

      Yes, making links between texts is the highest form of reading, isn’t it, according to How To Read A Book? I’ll have to practice doing it more often!

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • You’re so welcome. I was reading your very excellent Hawk review and some of it so resonated with me. Life does become full of holes and one must learn to live within the gaps. Peace to your heart.

      I wish I was impressed by my reading! 🧐

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