English readers are no doubt familiar with the dozen major novels by Honore de Balzac, and if you are not, a glorious feast of the imagination awaits you, for Balzac (1799-1850) is one of the supreme novelists of world literature.

For every practicing novelist, he remains what he was for Henry James: a novelist from whom James had learned “more of the lessons of the engaging mystery of fiction than from anyone else.” Oscar Wilde wrote of him: “The 19th century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac”, and added, “We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary addition, the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist.” Balzac’s statue by Auguste Rodin shows him to be the magnificent giant that he was; his life, fascinatingly captured in Prometheus: The Life of Balzac by André Maurois, is a delight to read, though the more recent Balzac: A Biography by Graham Robb is recommended as a more detailed and informative study.

Together with the widely known Illusions Perdues [Lost Illusions] and Le Père Goriot [Father Goriot] is one of Balzac’s novels that’s not so frequently referred to: Le Peau de Chagrin [The Wild Ass’s Skin], a singular gem one misses when there are many jewels to choose from. From its very first sentence, presenting a young man entering a gambling den in Paris, to the end of the novel, where he gives his life to “the queen of illusions”, the reader is enraptured by the unfolding of the story, entirely gripped by the succession of events in the young man’s life, even when what happens next is not the unexpected.

The sentences flow so naturally that the narrative gives the impression of having sprung from the air without any human intervention, and we never question the truth of what we observe. At the same time, there are passages where it is clearly Balzac, and not some objective narrator, who is presenting the story, long sections where it is his intellect with its amazingly encyclopaedic storehouse of knowledge that is in command. What in a lesser novelist would be narrative chaos worse than any formula-driven hack writer could produce, in Balzac is breathtakingly absorbing.

Balzac was not a careful stylist of French prose, unlike Gustave Flaubert. He just let the words pour out at great speed. We know from Flaubert’s letters how, when writing Madame Bovary, he sometimes spent a whole day working on one sentence. In Balzac’s correspondence, we hear him saying to a friend — when sending him a synopsis of a novel he was working on and asking the friend to write a part of it — that if he could not write 60 pages a day, then to forget it. That must have been the speed at which he himself wrote, for how else could a man who died aged 51 have composed over a hundred novels?

He lived a rich social life in Paris, was hugely in debt, was thrown into debtors’ prison for a while (and even when in prison invited his friends to a dinner that he had catered by the best restaurant in Paris), married a Russian countess and went on a long trip to her homeland, and yet made the time to write by drinking gallons of coffee and working most of the night. He wrote novel after novel to make money, only succeeding to make enough close to the end of his life, when he built a mansion in the aristocratic heart of Paris for his life with his countess wife, only to die soon after.

Flaubert set himself strict rules and established the pattern for an objective narrative style that has influenced succeeding novelists. A genius such as Balzac, however, follows no rules, for what makes him tower over lesser mortals is the vast design conceived by his imagination, inspiring his intellect to present as his vision of the universe.

Balzac designated that as the “Human Comedy”, and when we behold the world presented in the 20 or so of his major novels, we are taken into the heart of that vision. Struck by the illusion of reality, every great artist — and, indeed, scientist or mystic prophet — constructs a visionary framework that brings a consolatory belief to the troubled soul, substituting the illusion invading the senses with one in the mind.

If we are but shadows in Plato’s cave, or Samuel Beckett’s “the lost ones”, looking up from the black hole in which we are sunk, then are we not in a confusing world where meaning eludes us? As in the quest for truth in William Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, all we can conclude is, “And here we wander in illusions.” In his La Comedie Humaine [Human Comedy], Balzac has us wandering in a labyrinth of lost illusions.

For the reader new to Balzac, The Wild Ass’s Skin is a good introduction to his Human Comedy. The story is not an unfamiliar one. The young man who enters the gambling den loses his money and comes out determined to drown himself in the river Seine. However, he’s drawn to an old curiosity shop and finds himself “smothered under the debris of fifty vanished centuries”, lost among the relics of ancient empires which were once priceless, but now are collecting dust where they’re heaped as junk. Coins on which great fortunes were once based, are worthless pieces of metal. We are again looking at Ozymandias and the proud grandeur of the self sunk in the desert.

As he wanders from floor to floor of the old shop, the “whole of known creation” is revealed to the young man, only to plunge him in dejection, the sorrow in the soul that comes from the knowledge that to have conquered the world ends with having possessed nothing. Only death. And yet the desire to possess so consumes humans, even the risk of certain death does not prevent one’s dream of survival and the acquisition of riches.

The young man, Raphael de Valentin, is offered the ultimate temptation by the old owner of the curiosity shop, who suddenly appears before him like the devil incarnate. He shows Raphael a strangely brilliant piece of shagreen — the Wild Ass’s skin — a talisman on which a message is engraved in Arabic, declaring that anyone who possesses the skin and makes a wish will have his wish granted. However, each granted wish will shrink the skin and, at the same time, reduce the number of days left him to live.

Raphael holds the skin and, as if to mock the old man for taking the talisman seriously, makes a wildly extravagant wish, adding that his need is “to enfold all the pleasures of heaven and earth in one last embrace.” The old man remains serious and stares pityingly at Raphael who, beginning to walk out of the shop, flings more mockery at the 102-year old man by saying that he wishes him to fall in love with a ballet dancer, and leaves the shop with the skin rolled up in his pocket.

The plot involving the vanity of human wishes is not an unfamiliar one. No sooner does Raphael leave the shop than his first extravagant wish begins to come true. Though one expects predictable events to follow and for the skin to shrink proportionate to Raphael’s wishes, Balzac creates a multidimensional narrative that profoundly engages the imagination and both fulfils and shocks our expectations.

On exiting the shop, Raphael runs into friends who take him to a party in a luxurious salon where “the most outstanding young men in Paris” were assembled. Balzac portrays a glittering gathering of artists, writers and critics, all of whose only talent is how to push themselves into national recognition, though there’s nothing in their work to show they have a grain of actual talent. Balzac captures them perfectly: “Young authors devoid of style stood beside young authors devoid of ideas”, each extolling the other’s mediocrity with unabashed flattery.

When his grandest wish has been granted and he lives as a rich aristocrat in a mansion, Raphael becomes the prisoner of his own vanity: the skin has so shrunk that he dare not do anything nor talk to anyone, in case in a forgetful moment he makes another wish. The shrinking skin has relentlessly claimed Raphael’s body, and the novel’s real shock is the realisation that what Balzac has created is a metaphor for the human condition.

The novel’s English title, The Wild Ass’s Skin, is a correct translation of the French La Peau de Chagrin, but the French “chagrin” also connotes “grief.” We welcome birth with joy, but the growing awareness of our being, the knowledge of the presence within us of the tormented other, the alien rejecting the present in which the self remains unfulfilled and is always seeking a brighter elsewhere, stifles that initial joy.

We live in a state of continuing dissatisfaction, wishing each day for an illusory, more luxurious future. Each fulfilled wish creates a new anxiety-filled desire. To some, religion’s incredibly rich promise of a wonderful afterlife of unrestricted personal gratification is enough to endure any pain; to others, there’s no escaping the skin of grief. It wraps, tightening, around us, and even when our wishes procure our residence in the Sheesh Mahal [Palace of Mirrors] of our dreams, the reflections show us to be vanity’s heap of broken illusions in a palace of shattered mirrors.

The columnist is a novelist, literary critic, Professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 29th, 2020

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