Home > 19th Century, Balzac Honoré de, Classics, French Literature, Novella, Romanticism > Golden eyes maybe, but certainly not a golden book

Golden eyes maybe, but certainly not a golden book

January 21, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

La Fille aux yeux d’or (1835) by Honoré de Balzac.

Translated as The Girl With the Golden Eyes. The translation I found online is by Ellen Marriage.

I’ve decided to read this novella after reading contradictory and strong comments at the end of Guy’s post on The Chouans. I was curious. Well sometimes curiosity is a bad master.

Paris, 1835. Henri de Marsay, 22, walks in the Jardin des Tuileries and meets a beautiful young girl with golden eyes. Henri has everything, he is handsome, rich, witty. He likes partying, and though he is still young, this dandy is already blasé. After several meeting and glamorous glances in the Jardins, Henri is sure the girl fancies him too. He follows the carriage in which the girl leaves the Jardins to try to discover who she is and where she lives. Henri sends his valet to meet the postman and learn as much as he can about her. Her name is Paquita Valdes, she is Spanish and kept from men by an army of servants. Henri suspects an old jealous lover.

Henri finally finds an incredible way to reach her, through secret contacts, drugs and tricks. However, when Paquita organizes their meetings, everything is so well put up that Henri wonders if she as innocent as she seems. He intended to play with her. She plays with him. It’s a dark story of manipulation and violence. Who manipulates who? Are there true feelings somewhere?

It’s Romanesque in the worse meaning of the word.

I really disliked this book. The sentences are long, full of adjectives. They sound pompous. I don’t like the Balzac I can read through the lines. He sounds conceited, misogynistic – this is not a surprise – and racist. Everything foreign is suspicious and full of clichés. He generalizes and lacks of subtlety. For example:

Nous prenons tant de choses des Anglais en ce moment que nous pourrions devenir hypocrites et prudes comme eux. We take so many things from the English just now that we could become as great prudes and hypocrites as themselves.

On a literary point of view, this text is a melting pot of several influences, as if the writer had not found his voice yet.

The most evident one is Romanticism. The introduction about the mores of the Parisian people is a grotesque lecture. There is a trace of Romanticism in the way he despises the society he finds corrupted by money, ambition and material pleasure. He depicts a disenchanted society dominated by pettiness and boredom. Right. Alfred de Musset will brilliantly explain the same things in La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (The Confession of the Child of the Century) in 1836. Musset is a lot better for the style and the depth of the analysis. This part was too long according to me. There were too many pages just to say:

Qui donc domine en ce pays sans mœurs, sans croyance, sans aucun sentiment ; mais d’où partent et où aboutissent tous les sentiments, toutes les croyances et toutes les mœurs ? L’or et le plaisir What, then, is the dominating impulse in this country without morals, without faith, without any sentiment, wherein however every sentiment, belief and moral has its origin and end? It is gold and pleasure.

It is interesting to see that what he describes could be applied to nowadays society too. People run after time to earn money, do not make effort to think or learn.

The Spanish theme is common in the French literature of that time. Hugo’s Hernani dates back to 1830 and was a huge scandal. It is the landmark of Romanticism in France. So, Spanish protagonists are a way to link this novella to the Romantic current. Hugo will also write a poem named Guitare in 1840 with Spanish characters. In 1847, Mérimée will write Carmen. Spanish women represent passion and violence in the French imagery of that time. The other reference to Romanticism is when Henri uses the name of Adolphe to meet Paquita. I think it refers to Adolphe by Benjamin Constant, a Romantic novel published in 1816.

I could also see the influence of theatre, especially Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Laurent, the valet, made me think of Sganarelle, a famous character in Molière. Balzac openly refers to comedy:

Il fallait jouer cette éternelle vieille comédie qui sera toujours neuve, et dont les personnages sont un vieillard, une jeune fille et un amoureux : don Hijos, Paquita, de Marsay. Si Laurent valait Figaro, la duègne paraissait incorruptible. Ainsi la pièce vivante était plus fortement nouée par le hasard qu’elle ne l’avait jamais été par aucun auteur dramatique !   He was about to play that eternal old comedy which will always be fresh, and the characters in which are an old man, a young girl and a lover: don Hijos, Paquita, de Marsay. If Laurent was the equal of Figaro, the duenna seemed incorruptible. Thus, the living play was supplied by Chance with a stronger plot than it had never been by dramatic author! 

Molière is also present through Henri de Marsay, who looks like Dom Juan. He wants Paquita. He knows he can seduce her. I also thought of Marivaux and Musset for the disguise and the playing with sentiments.

What truly made me yawn and roll my eyes are the two scenes where Henri has a rendezvous with Paquita in a mysterious place where he is led with his eyes bandaged. Balzac makes a reference to Ann Radcliff’s novel. (Oops, that hurts) The room is decorated with white, gold and red. The allusion to oriental settings is obvious; it made me think of the Turk Bath by Ingres, thought it was painted years after this book was written. Paquita is a virgin but well instructed in all the pleasures. (sic!) It is all ridiculous and dripping with mawkishness and at the same time quite pervert.  Balzac needed pages to tell what Baudelaire will later put in two verses:

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté
There, everything is order and beauty,
Luxury, calm and voluptuousness

So how can I sum up my impressions on this novella? I disliked it because it is a patchwork of several genres. There are two many themes and none is well treated. I thought the story ridiculous, even if the revelation of the name of Paquita’s lover is quite a surprise and an unexpected theme for that time. I was more than irritated by his vision of women as brainless beings. There are too many references to books (Rousseau, Radcliff, Molière, Constant…) or paintings (Boticcelli, Delacroix…). It’s heavy, it’s clumsy, it’s arrogant.

Well Balzac was not Balzac yet when he wrote this. Don’t start reading Balzac by reading The Girl With the Golden Eyes.

  1. January 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Didn’t I tell you? Imagine, it was my first Balzac. I had to read it in school. It took me almost 10 years to overcome the shock.My next Balzac was Letters of two brides (Mémoires de deux jeunes mariés). It was slightly better but it took Le père Goriot to convince me to go on reading more. The rendezvous scene is what stuck in my memory and makes me associate the story with something sticky and putrid…

    Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm

      I’ve been thinking of you when I was reading it. I know exactly what you meant by ‘syrup bath’ about the rendezvous scenes. Sticky, that’s the word, a setting sweet to nausea and yet perverse. The kind of fantasy men have about harems melt with stupid Romantic romance with great feelings and death wishes. Yuck. It’s like Balzac wanted to write something fashionable for his contemporaries but failed because this style, these kind of stories weren’t truly his.
      I wonder why your teacher chose this one. In school we usually read La peau de chagrin (The Magic Skin), Le père Goriot or Eugénie Grandet. I took me years to read Balzac again after studying The Magic Skin and Father Goriot in school, so maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything for you.

      I liked Letters of two brides, btw.

      Like

  2. January 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I want to reread the Lettters. I was a bit too young. I think our teacher chose La fille… because there are two novellas in the book , I remember now we read La duchesse de Langeais and La fille aux yeux d’or. I believe he wanted to contrast them. I did like La duchesse de Langeais but then we read La fille… and that was it for me. Plus Les contes drôlatiques… Bad first choices. I didn’t mean syrup in the sense of sweet and romantic, as you say, I really meant boudoir stuffiness like perfumes that make you nauseous. I didn’t remember anything perverted but maybe I din’t get it at the time. I just found the atmosphere oozing from those pages revolting… I am very sensory, I really see, feel, smell books… Yuck

    Like

  3. leroyhunter
    January 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    It’s an odd one to be given to study in school!

    Strong reactions from you both, Caroline & bookaround. And that’s absolutely fair enough: I agree the book is lurid, perverse and over the top. Does that necessarily make it a bad book? Well that depends on the reader clearly. I didn’t think so.

    I’d suggest it’s misanthropic rather then misogynistic, as none of the characters are remotely sympathetic. The men, I recall, are monstrous (Henri), idiotic (his “friend” – forget his name) or conniving lackeys, like the valet. And of course (as you ask in your review) – who is actually doing the manipulating in all this?

    Another point I picked up – I think “racism” is much too strong a term to use here. Does a Frenchman slagging off the customs of the English count as racism these days?? Or using an archetype of a “hot-blooded latin”? They may be cliched, or unsatisfactory, or formulaic, or lazy..but I don’t really think racist is a fair charge.

    I agree completely that there’s a strong strain of exoticism in it that comes off as a tawdry version of the Arabian Nights, and that clearly struck you (and Caroline) as particularly off-putting. For me it lined up with movements such as decadence and symbolism, which are kind of badly-behaved offspring of Romanticism. Of course, their conventions only work if you’re willing to go with the ridiculous elements.

    I think another problem is that Balzac wants to have his cake and eat it: on the one hand, write a scandalous potboiler with all the signifiers you’ve referred to (Hugo, Ingres etc); on the other, yoke the story to a (supposedly) high-minded critique of the prevailing culture etc, which results in the long introductory section you mention. I think this “intro” is interesting and probably fairly sincere, but it doesn’t sit with or lead into the story that follows in any particularly convincing way.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling on, it’s interesting to get such viscerally different takes on this – by contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been revolted by a novel…

    Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 4:11 pm

      The male characters are shallow but there aren’t any comments on men in general, whereas there are on women. And misogynistic ones, I confirm the word. Balzac is misogynistic, let’s face it.

      I agree, the term “racist” is too strong but there was a hole in my English vocabulary there. What shocked me is that every thing foreign was ‘bad’ and described with clichés and without any nuances.

      I recommend you to read the first chapters of The Confession of a Child of a Century by Musset. (you can find it online) You’ll see why Balzac’s analysis is weak and badly written in comparison. I’ve read this Musset a couple of months ago and it’s fresh in my mind.

      Don’t be sorry for ‘rambling’, I’m interested in your views. Like you said the ‘viscerally’ different reactions made me read it. It’s always interesting when a book generate such opposite reactions.

      You’ve never been revolted by a novel? I’ve been infuriated with Julien Sorel, I felt physically awful when reading If this is a Man and typing this quote about vomit by Zola the other day gave me nausea.

      Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 4:17 pm

      PS : On “I agree the book is lurid, perverse and over the top. Does that necessarily make it a bad book?” Yes I think it is a bad book because it is badly written. It’s pompous and heavy.

      Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm

      Lurid and peverse. Count me in!

      Like

      • January 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm

        Well, we’ll see if you’re still that lit up when you read it.

        What number is it on your list ? I’m getting more and more curious to read your response to it.

        Like

  4. January 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I read that this is part of a trilogy. Do you think reading the trilogy would help? Looks like it was written just a year before Pere Goriot. Has anyone read Passion in the Desert (saw the film)?

    Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm

      Perhaps you’re right, it makes more sense in the trilogy. It may help. I even wondered if it was a pastiche, if he was serious when writing this or just making fun of a genre. (you know, like I’ll spit on your graves)
      But I haven’t read anything confirming this. I have just read he was trying to show to Delacroix that he could do with his pen what Delacroix could do with his brushes. I have to say Delacroix isn’t my favourite painter, so my reaction has some consistency.

      My guess is that you’ll dislike it as much as I did when you get to it on your list, but I may be wrong. (I even HOPE for you I’m wrong, because it’s never agreeable to read something we don’t like). I’ll be curious to read your review on it, really.

      I haven’t read Passion in the Desert. The title in itself would prevent me from choosing such a book. Was it a good film?

      Like

      • January 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm

        I liked the film, but it was weird. But then again perhaps the story was weird.

        Like

        • January 21, 2011 at 7:11 pm

          How weird? Surreal things like in The Magin Skin ? Or oriental stuff like in The Girl With Golden Eyes?

          Like

  5. leroyhunter
    January 21, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    I haven’t read enough Balzac to know if he is or isn’t misogynistic as you describe, bookaround, I just didn’t particularly see it here (in amongst all the other generalisations and degradations the book contains).

    I’ll look for the Musset, thanks for the suggestion.

    It’s not my intention to defend this – I’m not saying it’s particularly a valuable or brilliant book – I do think it’s a curio though and not totally worthless. I didn’t get that sense of bad writing or a pompous tone…maybe that’s the translation getting in the way of what the book is really like? I don’t know.

    Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 5:33 pm

      I haven’t noticed anything in the translation when I looked for the quotes, but I don’t know which translation you read.

      I can’t tell if other women are like me, but I can always feel when a man is misogynistic. It’s in his looks, in his way to talk to me or to react to what I say. It’s a subtle but clear message. Balzac is probably just a man of his time.

      In life, I’m pretty direct in my speech (you can probably perceive it through my post and my comments) and I always think that the shortest way to go from point A to point B is a straight road. As a consequence, I have little patience with tortuous sentences and periphrases in literature. (except for Proust) So I have difficulties with Romanticism and in another genre, felt that way when reading Conan Doyle’s short stories. It’s like I’m thinking “Come on, go to the point!”

      Like

  6. leroyhunter
    January 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    On the other point: I’ve read plenty of things that have left me profoundly moved, upset, angry, whatever…but that physical reaction you describe is a mystery to me. My wife describes something similar but it just doesn’t happen to me. Certainly not from fiction (non-fiction or memoir such as Levi is a different matter).

    Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm

      It only happens from time to time but when it does, it’s strong. That’s why I can read crime fiction but rarely watch violent movies.

      Like

  7. January 21, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    It’s the story of Passion in the Desert that’s weird–the relationship between a French officer who gets stuck in a desert oasis and a lioness. I haven’t read it but it seems a far cry from the Balzacs I have read. Balzac was interested in the occult, wasn’t he?

    As for when I’ll read it, I’m not sure. I still haven’t firmly decided on a plan. Madame Vacquer mentioned one suggested/recommended sequence, but I’ll probably just do the boring old chronological approach.

    Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm

      It sounds weird but intriguing because it’s also far from the Balzacs I’ve read too. I’ve found the text online it’s only 248 locations on the kindle, so it’s very short. I’m curious (Of course. I’m always curious when it comes to books). I didn’t remember Balzac as being interested in the occult, but I’ve checked, you’re right. I thought it was more the end of the 19th century that was interested in these things.

      If I had the project to read all Balzac, I’d choose chronological order too. After all, life is chronological. I agree with what you said about reading Zola : it mixes good & less good books. Plus you see how the writer progressively built his style and how he changed (or not) his vision of life.

      Like

    • January 22, 2011 at 1:25 am

      Looked up the film, and it’s a leopard not a lioness. Anyway, weird but interesting.

      Like

  8. January 21, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    “The Passion in the Desert” is wonderful (and very short)! My second favorite Balzac, out of the 34 or 35 I have read. It has nothing to do with the occult. Balzac is not really an occultist – when he gets interested in mesmerism and whatnot, he thinks he’s being scientific. His philosophical ideas, as such, some sort of cooked pseudo-scientific Swedenborgism, are most explicitly on display in the novella “Louis Lambert,” my second least favorite Balzac, after the ethically apalling “The Girl with the Golden Eyes.”

    I agree with basically everything our host has said about it, except that I would call the descriptive parts of the story well-written.

    Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 10:30 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting and for the input on Balzac.

      I wonder if there is something about the translation of The Girl with the Golden Eyes that makes it more easily digested in English than in French.

      Like

      • January 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm

        Wait, what did I say? I kind of botched the spelling of “appalling.”

        I read The Girl in English and found it highly indigestible!

        Like

        • January 21, 2011 at 10:38 pm

          I thought you found the descriptive part well-written. What is the descriptive part then ? The lecture on how the society is corrupted?

          Like

      • January 21, 2011 at 11:01 pm

        The lecture? Oh, no. The descriptions of rooms, furniture, weird lights, sensuous perfumes, all of that nonsense. Descriptions of things.

        “Below the muslin the poppy turned to rose, that amorous color, which was matched by window-curtains, which were of Indian muslin lined with rose-colored taffeta, and set off with a fringe of poppy-color and black.”

        All of that decadent atmospheric stuff – the stuff that gives the syrupy feeling. I don’t like it, but it works – it does Balzac wanted.

        Like

        • January 21, 2011 at 11:06 pm

          You’re right, I don’t like it either but it works. It’s silly but you can see it in your mind. (nice translation btw, it’s nice to read how the words bounce in the sentence) I hadn’t seen things that way, thanks for that.

          Like

    • January 21, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      Just to clarify: I didn’t mean to imply that Passion in the Desert was about the occult. What I meant to say, I suppose, is that Balzac has other sides that I haven’t seen yet. The occult being one of those. Which are the occult novels? Aren’t there some with shades of the occult?

      I watched Passion in the Desert without knowing anything about the plot. At that time, it seemed to be a complete departure from the Balzac novels I’d read.

      Funny thing, I read a bit about Louis Lambert this morning.

      Like

      • January 21, 2011 at 11:08 pm

        I don’t remember any occult business, but I wouldn’t take that as proof of anything, and I don’t want to argue a term I’m likely defining too narrowly. The Swedenborgian stuff, as in “Louis Lambert,” maybe should be included in the “occult” category.

        La Peau de chagrin is a story about a magic charm. Does that make it occult, necessarily?

        Besides, there are 60+ stories I haven’t read.

        Balzac certainly has many sides.

        Like

      • January 21, 2011 at 11:31 pm

        I’ve read Passion in the Desert, Guy. It’s a wonderful text. The story isn’t weird but it’s unexpected for Balzac and the style is sober, beautiful.
        It makes me think of Le Lion by Kessel.

        Like

  9. January 22, 2011 at 1:39 am

    Book Around the Corner.Kessel. Is that the same Belle de Jour Kessel?

    Amateur Reader: I have this distant memory of reading something or another about the occult influence in Balzac.

    Like

    • January 22, 2011 at 2:44 am
    • January 22, 2011 at 8:44 am

      Yes it is the same Kessel. I’ve studied Le Lion in collège (school after grammar school) and I was bored. I’ve never read any Kessel since, but I have Belle de Jour on the shelf, bought after your recommendation.

      Like

  10. January 22, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Actually I always saw Balzac as a writer with a strong “occult” interest. Works like Séraphita, Louis Lambert and many more bear testimony of this. One of the most important being La recherche de l’absolu. It is not widely known but we were taught so at the uni. My former professor Robert Kopp is one of the most renownend Balzac specialists (he edited many a critical Balzac edition), guess, he would know. Balzac showed his attemps at creating ” a new spirituality” in Séraphita. He was influenced by the illuministes, Swedenborg but still kept strong Christian influneces that can pe perceived in works like Le lys dans la vallée.

    Like

    • January 22, 2011 at 8:41 am

      I’ve only read something like 10 to 15 Balzacs and somehow managed to avoid the ones with references to the occult. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and it is clear in the books I read.
      Have you read any biography about him? It must be interesting. There’s a sort of intriguing dichotomy between Father Goriot or Eugénie Grandet and the idea of occult interest and search for a new spirituality.

      Like

      • January 22, 2011 at 9:29 am

        I actually didn’t mention that I did also NOT like Séraphita and am defintely not very interested in this side of Balzac. It is only interesting if you have to analyze the counter-culture that was a reaction to the literature of Enlightenment. In parallel there was a development of mystical/dark fantasy literature that was at a height during romanticism but started way earlier. Voltaire’s Zadig is a parody of this type of literature. Anyone who hates or dislikes fantastic fiction should read it. He will enjoy it immensely. Voltaire really dissects it. But, this is before Balzac, of course. I just meant to say, the “occult” Balzac is inetersting if you want to dig deeper into the history of French literature… Else, stay away from it.

        Like

  11. January 22, 2011 at 9:39 am

    I just saw that there is a book in the French edition of La comédie humaine in which they have put Les chouans and Une passion dans le désert together… My favourite professor, Claude Blum, wrote the introduction. He teaches at Paris IV, Sorbonne. A Montaigne specialist… If you ever get a chance to hear him, don’t miss it. He used to teach in Dakar as well and I saw he also issued Contes africains (might interest amateur reader) and a barnd new book on Voltaires forbidden texts… Unfortunately his English is not good at all that why he doesn’t publish in English…

    Like

    • January 23, 2011 at 6:08 pm

      Strange idea to put Les Chouans and Une passion dans le désert in the same book. The only common point I believe is that there are soldiers in both. That would be interesting to read the introduction to understand the choice.
      It must be something to study at La Sorbonne, so many famous ghosts there. I don’t know Claude Blum or any university teacher btw, since I’ve never been to university.

      Like

      • January 23, 2011 at 6:42 pm

        Balzac put those two together. They are the two – the only two – entries in the category “Scènes de la vie militaire.”

        Like

  12. hec hogan
    April 6, 2016 at 5:04 am

    I am reading peau de chagrin and the thought came to me that maybe the sparkling prose is drug-inspired. Looking on google took me to the girl with the golden eyes.

    Kipling said tha words, of course, are the strongest drug available to humans (or words to that effect).

    Like

  1. April 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm
  2. January 1, 2012 at 1:10 am

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

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: