Friday, March 2, 2012

"Le Peau de Chagrin" by Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac (1799 - 1850)

French novelist and playwright extraordinaire, Balzac was one of the pioneers of Realism in European literature. His magnum opus, La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), is a collection of interconnected novels portraying French society during the Restoration and July Monarchy. 

As you can see, not for the weak of heart to plunge in and read such an opus!

Balzac inspired novelists such as Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Marie Corelle, Henry James, William Faulkner and Jack Kerouac.

An aside: just read Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs' And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, a brilliant forerunner to the Beat Movement, which consequently led me to devour more of William S. Burroughs' works (already have read much Kerouac). Je me regale! 

Bon, I digress! 

As Balzac was an early pioneer of Realism, he had a sharp eye for detail and gave readers an unfiltered representation of society. Balzac sought to present his characters as real people, neither fully good nor fully evil, but fully human. 

Balzac lived in a time of great political and sociological change, a time when brilliant authors were penning great epics, a time when magic and creativity were prevalent. (See the film Impromptu for an eye candy visual of cette époque.)

One of my favorite novels by Honoré de Balzac is Le Peau de Chagrin or The Magic Skin

One year prior to commencing his magnum opus, La Comédie Humaine, Balzac wrote Le Peau de Chagrin using fantastic elements to create a realistic portrayal of the excesses of bourgeois materialism. The central theme of the novel is the conflict between desire and longevity, the magic skin represents the owner's life-force. 

The novel consists of three sections: Le Talisman (The Talisman), La Femme sans cœur (The Woman without a Heart) and L'Agonie (The Agony). 

In the first section, The Talisman, a young man named Raphaël de Valentin wagers his last bit of money, loses and goes towards the River Seine to drown himself. On his way, he is drawn into a curiosities shop. 

The shopkeeper shows him a piece of shagreen, or rawhide, inscribed with what the old man calls Sanskrit, but what is really imprecise Arabic. The skin promises to fulfill any wish by the owner, shrinking each time a wish is fulfilled. 

The shopkeeper offers the skin to Valentin at no charge, while at the same time urging him not to accept the offer. Valentin takes the skin, ignoring the warnings and immediately wishes for a royal banquet filled with wine, women and friends. He is greeted by friends in the street who invite him to such a banquet. 

The second section, The Woman without a Heart, is a flashback to his life prior to receiving the magic skin. He tells a friend of his early days as a poor scholar, living with an elderly landlady and her daughter, Pauline. Valentin is blind to Pauline's affections, and tries fruitlessly to win the heart of a beautiful and aloof woman named Foedora. His tutor encourages him to immerse himself into the world of high society as a means to win Foedora's heart. Valentin succeeds in maneuvering into her social circle, only to be unable to gain her affection. He becomes the miserable and desperate man found at the beginning of section one. 

In the third section, The Agony, Valentin has used the magic skin to achieve a large income, but we find both his health and the skin dwindling. He panics. He is terrified that more wishes will hasten the end of his life. 

To avoid making any further wishes, he arranges for his home and his life to want for nothing. Yet events beyond his control oblige him to wish for various things, and the skin continues to shrink. 

Pauline, daughter of the elderly landlady from Valentin's life as a poor scholar, comes to visit him. She expresses her love for him. When she learns the truth about the magic skin and her role in Valentin's demise, she is horrified. Valentin cannot control his desire for her and she rushes into an adjoining room to escape him and so save his life. He pounds on the door and declares both his love and his desire to die in her arms. She, meanwhile, is trying to kill herself to free him from his desire. He breaks down the door, they consummate their love in a fiery moment of passion, and he dies.


Reading Balzac's The Magic Skin is a journey into another time. I sometimes found it to be dense and difficult, but with patience, I came to love and adore his writing and the story. 

An aside: George Sand was one of the first people to read this novel, prior to publishing it. I adore this  French female author, you can learn more about her in my blog entry.)

Bon, happy reading et bon weekend à tous!



  1. Excellent post, Charley. It's been many, many years since I read "Peau de Chagrin" - any other Balzac novel for that matter. Funny you should mention the movie "Impromptu:" It is sitting on my desk right now, a loan from a French student of mine, and I plan on watching it tonight! Hope "le Book" is going well ;-) Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  2. Veronique, oh, oh, oh, please let me know how you liked Impromptu! One of my all time favorite films, so much fun, so rich, daring and dashing with 19th century exuberance. "Les books" are coming along quite well, thanks. :-) Happy weekend!!