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The dangerous non-liaisons

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Pretended Mistress, by Honoré de Balzac. A story from La Comédie Humaine, published in 1841.

In 1835, Clémentine de Rouvre marries Comte Adam Mitgislas Laginski, a Polish exile living in Paris. Adam was a soldier and took part in the uprising led by Polish Cadets against Russia in 1830, during which he met Thadée Paz. They became close friends, and their attachment is intensified by their being brothers in arms.

Clémentine and Adam’s marriage is a happy one. Thaddée, who comes from a noble but poor branch of a Polish family, decides to stay with Adam and work for him as his steward. He is afraid that Adam’s carelessness and Clémentine’s ignorance of business matters will lead to their ruin. So he takes everything under his control and they become prosperous. For example, he managed to negotiate the price of their beautiful home to their advantage.

Why such a devotion? Apart from the brotherly affection he feels for Adam, Thaddée has been madly in love Clémentine from the very first moment he met her. Clémentine, blind to his attachment, does not understand why her husband’s fine best friend stays in the shadows and does not participate to their Parisian life. She insists on his going out with them and sharing their diners.

During one of those evenings, Thaddée, handsomer than Adam, realizes that she may fall for him. Out of loyalty, he sacrifices his own happiness for the sake of Adam’s. He invents himself a mistress in the person of Malaga, a circus acrobat. He picked the name in his head, having seen her on a poster earlier on the street. To corroborate his story, he has her moving in an apartment he pays for and makes up every detail to keep up appearances. As soon as he has fabricated the evidences, he is caught by his lie as a fly in a cob web.

Although Blazac states that “Nothing so resembles the Divine love as hopeless human love”, I see evil in their relationships anyway. Indeed, their love triangle in based on lies, although Thaddée is the only member of the triangle who actually knows he is in such a triangle. Unlike the malignant lies of The Dangerous Liaisons, these ones are told for honourable reasons but produce the same kind of mischief. Thadée manipulates Clémentine for her own sake, and whatever the motive, manipulation cannot be justified. The two non-liaisons – the one between Thaddée and Clémentine and the one between Thaddée and Malaga – hover over them and sour the atmosphere.

We can wonder “Why such a sacrifice from Thaddée?” Balzac, sardonically answers through Adam’s voice:

Friendship, my dear angel, knows nothing of bankrupt sentiments and collapsed joys. Love, after giving more than it has, ends by giving less than it receives.”

 It is as if Thaddée were making a reasonable choice, searching the security in friendship and fleeing from the dangers love could bring.

 Apart from the original plot, the style of the book is a treat. From the first lines, Balzac unleashes his irony and addresses to the reader:

“In September 1835, one of the richest heiresses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Mademoiselle du Rouvre, the only daughter of the Marquis du Rouvre, married Comte Adam Mitgislas Laginski, a young Polish exile. We ask permission to write these Polish names as they are pronounced, to spare our readers the aspect of the fortifications of consonants by which the Slave language protects its vowels,—probably not to lose them, considering how few there are.”   

I was much entertained by his witty tone. In the first pages, Balzac describes the background of Clémentine de Rouvre and explains the origins of Polish exiles living in Paris, ie they took refuge in France after the Cadet Uprising was routed by the Russian army. I was quite interested by this introduction and was curious to know more about the uprising of Poles against Russia, (See here for more details). This introduction is necessary for us to understand the roots of the comradeship between Adam and Thaddée. It is based on life-threatening experiences and relies on an absolute trust between the two men.

 But I also suspect that Balzac takes advantage of this story to expose political ideas. For example, here is the description of Clémentine’s boudoir :

Such is a lady’s boudoir in 1837,—an exhibition of the contents of many shops, which amuse the eye, as if ennui were the one thing to be dreaded by the social world of the liveliest and most stirring capital in Europe. Why is there nothing of an inner life? nothing which leads to revery, nothing reposeful? Why indeed? Because no one in our day is sure of the future; we are living our lives like prodigal annuitants.”

The last sentence relates to the political uncertainties that France had known for 50 years when Balzac writes this and echoes Musset in Confession of a Child of the Century, which I reviewed here.

The Pretended Mistress was also translated under the title The Imaginary Mistress, but I like “pretended” better than “imaginary” to translate the adjective “fausse” used in French. Imaginary means that Malaga does not exist. But she does, she just pretends to be Thaddée’s mistress. By the way, I think that the English translation I found is a bit flat compared to the French original text.

  1. September 18, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    I haven’t read this one (yet). It’s translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley as Paz or The Imaginary Mistress on my Kindle version.

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    • September 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

      That’s the translation I found on line (there is the link in the post).
      I’ve seen you’ve changed your header. “La Comédie Humaine” : I guess Balzac was chosen over T. Hardy.
      Have you read The Magic Skin ? I’m interested in reading your thoughts about this one.

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  2. September 22, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Yes, it’s going to be Balzac but it’s going to be a long, long project, so I’m not going to get too steamed up over it. I’m also going to start Casanova too.

    No I haven’t read The Magic Skin (yet).

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    • September 22, 2010 at 7:06 pm

      How are you going to do ? Read them chronologically ? That’s a nice project. I’ll follow it with interest.

      A friend of mine told me I should read Proust every 20 years as a life project. I’m thinking about it. This is my second reading, 20 years later. It’s even better than the first time. I might have enough time for 2 other readings.

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  3. October 4, 2010 at 7:35 am

    An informative and interesting review. I only started to read Balzac this year and am enjoying the experience greatly as you seem to be. My next one is Lost Illusions and I am looking forward to starting it.

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    • October 4, 2010 at 12:52 pm

      Actually, I’m coming back to Balzac, now that I’ve forgotten the miserable experience I had studying him at school.
      The good news is that you have a lot of good reading to expect, since you started reading him this year.

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  1. April 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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