Madame de La Chanterie
One fine September evening in the year 1836, a man of about thirty stood hunched over the parapet of a quay by the Seine. Facing upstream, he could survey the riverbanks from the Jardin des Plantes to Notre-Dame; downstream, his gaze followed the water’s majestic course all the way to the Louvre. There is not another such prospect in all the Capital of Ideas. Standing here on the Île de la Cité, one imagines oneself in the stern of some sea vessel grown to colossal proportions. The view summons up dreams of Paris, the Paris of the Romans and the Franks, of the Normans and the Burgundians; the Paris of the Middle Ages, the Valois, Henri IV and Louis XIV, Napoleon and Louis-Philippe. Each of these regimes has left some mark or monument hereabouts, insistently recalling its creators to the observer’s mind. Sainte Geneviève watches over the Latin Quarter, spread out beneath her dome. Behind you rises the magnificent apse of the cathedral. The Hôtel de Ville speaks to you of Paris’s many upheavals, the Hôtel-Dieu of her many miseries. From here you can glimpse the splendors of the Louvre; now take two steps and you will have before you that wretched huddle of houses between the Quai de la Tournelle and the Hôtel-Dieu, toward whose disappearance the city fathers are working even now.
Another edifying sight graced that wondrous tableau in those days: between the cathedral and the Parisian at his parapet, the Terrain, for such was the name of that deserted plot of land in times past, was still strewn with the ruins of the archbishop’s palace. Standing where the Parisian now stood, contemplating this inspiring prospect, with Paris’s past and present laid out together before your admiring gaze, you might think that Religion had chosen to settle on this island in order to reach out toward the sorrows of both banks of the Seine, from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine to the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. We can only hope that a setting so sublimely harmonious will one day be made complete by the construction of an episcopal palace in pure Gothic style, replacing the drab hovels now enclosed by the Terrain, the Rue d’Arcole, the cathedral, and the Quai de la Cité.
This, the very heart of old Paris, is the city’s loneliest and most melancholy spot. The waters of the Seine clap against the quay, shrouded in the long shadows of the cathedral as the sun sinks in the west. Such a setting gives rise to serious thoughts, particularly for one in the grips of a spiritual affliction. No doubt fascinated by the sympathetic harmony of his private preoccupations and the thoughts awakened by this panorama, the stroller stood with his hands on the parapet, lost in a twofold contemplation: of Paris, and of himself! The shadows grew longer, lights flickered to life in the distance, and still he stood motionless, caught up in a meditation pregnant with thoughts of the future, made solemn by the presence of the past.
It was then that he noted two figures approaching, their voices wafting to his ear from the stone bridge that links the Île de la Cité to the Quai de la Tournelle. No doubt they thought themselves quite alone, for they would never have spoken so loudly in a more frequented spot, nor if they were aware of a stranger standing close by. The voices from the bridge betokened a discussion which—from the few words reaching the ear of the involuntary witness—clearly involved a loan of money. As they drew nearer, one of the two men, dressed in the fashion of a worker, abruptly stalked off as if in despair. The other whirled around, calling the worker back to him, and said, “You haven’t even a sou to pay the bridge toll.” Handing him a coin, he added, “Take this, and remember, my friend, that it is God Himself who is speaking to us when virtuous thoughts come into our minds!”
The meditative Parisian gave a sudden start on hearing these last few words. Their speaker could not have known that his maxim had, as they say, killed two birds with one stone, that he had thereby addressed two separate miseries at once: on the one hand the despair of a defeated schemer, on the other the sufferings of a soul adrift; one a victim of what Panurge’s sheep call Progress, the other of what France calls Equality. These words, so simple in themselves, were made great by the speaker’s intonation, for his voice possessed a sort of mesmerizing charm. Are there not certain voices, calm and gentle, that strike the ear much as the color ultramarine the eye?
A glance at this stranger told the Parisian he was a man of the cloth; in the last glimmers of the setting sun he made out a pale face, noble but careworn. The mere sight of a priest emerging from the beautiful Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, on his way to give extreme unction to a dying man, was enough to bring the celebrated tragic author Werner to Catholicism. The Parisian was not far from a similar transformation as he gazed at the one who had unknowingly offered him solace; against the threatening horizon of his future, he glimpsed a long ray of light shot through with the blue of the ether, and he followed that gleam just as the shepherds in the Scriptures pursued the voice crying to them from on high: “The Savior is born!” The speaker of the healing words was now walking along the cathedral’s northern flank, heading—purely by chance, which is sometimes no inconsequential thing—toward the very street that had brought the wandering Parisian to this place, a street to which he would now return, lured ever onward by the many missteps of his life.
This wanderer went by the name of Godefroid. The reader of our story will soon understand why its actors must be referred to by their Christian names alone. Now, here is why Godefroid, who lived near the Chaussée d’Antin, happened to find himself by the apse of Notre-Dame at this hour.
The son of a shopkeeper whose frugality had earned him a sort of fortune, he was the sole vessel for his parents’ ambition, which was to see him one day made a notaire in Paris. Thus, at the age of seven, he was placed into Father Liautard’s academy, along with the scions of many distinguished families, who chose to educate their sons in this establishment out of devotion to a religion too widely ignored in the public schools of the Emperor’s reign. Among his school friends he remained blissfully unaware of the notion of social inequality; but in 1821, his studies at an end, Godefroid was placed in a notaire’s office, and here he realized how great was the gulf between himself and those with whom he had once lived so familiarly.
Forced into the study of law, he found himself submerged in a vast herd of bourgeois youth, who, with neither fortune nor hereditary distinction to their names, have no choice but to place their faith solely in personal merit or tireless work. His father and mother, now retired from business, conferred all their aspirations on Godefroid, encouraging his self-confidence but preserving him from vanity. His parents lived simply, like Dutch folk, spending only a quarter of their twelve-thousand-franc yearly revenue; the money thus saved, along with half of their capital, would be used to purchase a situation for their son. Oppressed by the laws of this domestic economy, and finding his present circumstances so distant from his parents’ dreams and his own, Godefroid lost heart. Among those of weak temperament, disheartenment soon gives way to envy. His fellows, for whom need, tenacity, or diligence took the place of natural talent, marched resolutely ahead down the path of bourgeois ambition; but Godefroid rebelled, yearned to stand out, to shine. Wherever things were bright and glittering, there he was inexorably drawn, but the light only hurt his eyes. He strove to reach the pinnacles; his efforts brought him nothing more than the revelation of his own inadequacy. Recognizing at last that his station would never match his desires, he conceived a hatred for social hierarchies, remade himself in the guise of a Liberal, and sought celebrity through the authorship of a book. But at his own expense he came to see Talent in the same light as Nobility. Having aspired successively to a career as a notaire, an attorney, and an author, and having each time met with the same disappointment, he finally resigned himself to a life in the magistracy.
It was then that his father died. His mother, in her old age, found she could easily survive on two thousand francs per annum and so ceded virtually the whole of the family fortune to him. Endowed at age twenty-five with an annual revenue of ten thousand francs, Godefroid thought himself rich, and so he was, compared with his younger days. His existence thus far had been composed of acts without will, of longings without consequence; but now, hoping to take his place in the world at last, to act, to play a part, he set out to find his way into some serious field of endeavor with the help of his newfound fortune. He first thought of journalism, whose arms are always open to anyone possessed of a bit of capital. To own a newspaper is to be an important figure, one who lives off his fellows’ intelligence, sharing in its fruits while assuming none of its labors. Nothing is so tempting to an inferior mind as this possibility of rising on the talent of others. Paris has known two or three parvenus of this ilk, and their success is a disgrace both to our times and to those who lent them the strength of their shoulders.
But here too, through the crude machinations of some, the prodigality of others, the wealth of his rival capitalists, the caprices of his editors, Godefroid was once again undone. At the same time, he was dragged into the many compromises of literary or political life, the habit of jeering from the sidelines, the endless distractions required by men whose intellects are never allowed to rest. He thus found himself in bad company, but at least he learned that he had an insignificant face, and one shoulder greater than the other, and no unusual gift for ruthlessness or special generosity of spirit to compensate for those flaws. The right to be rude is the salary that artists exact for telling the truth.
Short, ill-formed, with neither wit nor direction, our young man had little to hope for in an age when the finest mind has no chance of success without the concurrence of good fortune, or the sort of doggedness that makes its own luck.
The Revolution of 1830 came as a balm to Godefroid’s wounds; his hopes for the future renewed, he took heart—for courage can be born of hope no less than of despair—and, like so many other obscure journalists, found his way into an administrative post. But, confronted with the exigencies of a new political regime, his liberal ideals made of him a rebellious instrument; deeply committed to liberalism, he found he could not simply adapt his beliefs to suit his new circumstances, as so many superior men have done. Obedience to ministers he thought an abandonment of his principles. Worse yet, the new government seemed to be breaching the rules set out at its creation. Godefroid declared himself for the Party of Movement just as the Party of Resistance was in the ascendant, and he returned to Paris very nearly a poor man, but still faithful to the doctrines of the Opposition.
Frightened by the unbridled ways of the Press, more frightened still by the violence of the Republicans, he saw retirement from the world as his only choice, as the only existence suited to a man of imperfect faculties, too frail to withstand the jolts and shudders of political life, a man whose struggles and sufferings had produced not the slightest spark, wearied by a succession of abortive endeavors, without friends because friendship requires distinctive qualities or flaws, possessed of a nature given more to dreams than to profundities. Was this not the only course for a young man so often deceived by this world’s pleasures, a young man grown old from too much contact with a society as unsettling as it was unsettled?
His mother now called her son back to the peaceful village of Auteuil, where she was living out her final days. To be sure, she wanted him at her side; but at the same time, she hoped to set him on a path toward the simple, uneventful happiness that a soul such as his must require. She had taken stock of Godefroid, finding him at twenty-eight years of age with a fortune reduced to 4,000 francs interest income per year, his dreams withered, his potential come to nothing, his energies stilled, his ambition humiliated, and his hatred for any other’s legitimate success grown all the more bitter for his own failures. She hoped to marry Godefroid to an eligible young person, the only daughter of two retired shopkeepers, who might serve as a nursemaid for his diseased soul; but the girl’s father’s many years in trade had given him a calculating turn of mind, which he made no attempt to quell for the business of matrimony. After a year of frequent visits and careful cultivation of the prospective in-laws, Godefroid was finally turned away. For one thing, these thoroughly bourgeois parents were convinced that his former livelihood had led him into the depths of turpitude, from which he had likely not yet emerged; for another, he had once again dipped into his capital over the course of that year, as much to bedazzle the parents as to charm the daughter. This display of vanity—quite understandable, let it be said—ensured Godefroid’s dismissal by the girl’s family, who in their pious hatred of dissipation were profoundly shocked to learn that his capital had shrunk by 150,000 francs in six years.
To make this blow all the more painful for his bruised and battered heart, the girl was not even beautiful. Nevertheless, under his mother’s tutelage, Godefroid had come to recognize in his intended the merit of a serious soul and the immense advantages of a well-formed mind; he had grown used to her face, he had studied her physiognomy, he liked her voice, her ways, the look in her eyes. He had risked his life’s final stake on this liaison, and now he succumbed to the most bitter despair. His mother died, and he found himself—he whose desires had always followed the currents of fashion—with no fortune to his name but an annual revenue of five thousand francs; worse yet, he knew he would never recover any future losses he might incur, finding himself simply incapable of the activity implied in that terrible phrase earning one’s fortune!
Copyright © 2003 by Honore de Balzac. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.