Balzac’s Women

Paul Klee, "The Angler" 1921

Balzac’s approach in the depiction of his female characters sharpened the quest for human dignity.

The nocturnal and caffeinated fury in which Honoré de Balzac (1799-1859) composed almost one hundred novels did not stop him from enjoying in detail the portraiture of his women. He married only once, and died a few months later blown by an overdose of insomnia to the heart. Yet he cuddled only as true lovers can “that immense clap and joint descent into the same turbulence” María Luisa Bombal captured in her masterpiece novel, The Shrouded Woman.

Much to the taste of the well-tempered reader, Balzac never rushes into the panting hurriedness so common in today’s greenhorn novelists. The chubby and ragged writer from Tours, who died sunken in debt, feasted above all on the kind of nibble that fills the soul. Centered, effusive, meticulous, and always dressed in a monk’s attire when writing, he retreated at night to grasp the real world in its most penetrating edge.

Will and Power, or the Impulses that Kill

The key to his success had flourished in the novel he entitled La Peau de chagrin (The Magic Skin, 1831). Here an elderly wise man discusses one of the gravest dilemmas in the human drama. Two pernicious urges, he postulates, drain most of the inner force of our existence: will and power.

Only the search for wisdom brings perpetual calmness. Lofty thoughts appease those desires that kill. From this scene in the story, Balzac garnishes the warning to its full splendor, coining in turn the expression according to which life shrinks in proportion to every imprudent desire fulfilled, as with the talisman skin.

Wisdom and tranquility: this is how Balzac conquers women. A fold on the ear of a woman, a copper-colored ringlet nested on her back, a hint of a cleavage drawn by her toes, a peculiar nose twitch. All these fixations in his writings liberates her to the extent that today some critics have dared to tag his novel, A Woman of Thirty (1842), as a classic precursor of feminism.

Feminism and Humanity

Balzac would have objected to such a label. His concerns derived in the main from his palette as “a great painter of humanity.” “Nobody loves a woman because she is handsome or ugly, stupid or intelligent,” he said. “We love because we love.”

This how he loved many women, free from the leanings tailored by the indulgences of the bourgeoisie. He sketched from the young and old, pure and corrupted, rich and poor, native and foreigner, provincial and fashionable. Even his own mother and sister served him as live models for the refinement of details.

Ungrateful Interpretations

The otherwise plain Balzac received some 12,000 letters from his female readers. He sensed that without their love he would never earn a worthy recognition. One of the virtues that women indeed applauded arises from the respect he granted them in his literature, though the crudeness and scope of his ironies have often led to ungrateful interpretations.

When he claims for instance that a woman’s emancipation conduces to her “corruption,” he was in reality re-visioning the common term used then to deny her an education, or enslave her to an unfair marriage moreover sanctioned by the Napoleonic Code. Besides, it was still an extended practice for husbands to sell their spouses like hogs to the highest bidder.

The “science of desire” and magic in Balzac’s work inspired women to fend for themselves at all times. On occasions, he would pretend to alert a man against his wife’s disloyalty while siding with her plight. Discretion, he would advise her from his oblique angle, and persevere by demanding respect!

One of his most meriting and today forgotten protagonist, Beatriz, knows that too often contempt and abandonment follows a man’s rosy promises. That is what desire unearths, “more gravel than pearls.”

Superior Harmonies in Love

Far from engaging in facile maxims, Balzac shows instead how unforeseen compatibilities can reach a superior degree of harmony. His magnetic lenses and other “instruments conceived by the anxiety of living and not understanding” (Ezequiel Martínez Estrada), stirs the stationed currents of passion and channels them to their most vital outlets. He honors the infinite possibilities in lovemaking, and refutes his society for denying them to women.

True, “great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.” His mix between reality and imagination bolstered nonetheless his love for humanity. The profuse master died satiated by this conviction. On his last breath, he asked to see “doctor Bianchon,” one of his literary characters. From now on, prayed Victor Hugo on his final bid to Balzac, we should rely “not only on the heads that reign, but on heads that think…” On those who think without haste, and far beyond the desires that kill.

[November 12, 2010]

Image: The Angler by Paul Klee, 1921