Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Magic Skin by Honore de Balzac (1831-A Novel- a Component of The Human Comedy)

The Magic Skin was the novel that cemented Balzac's place as one of the most important of Fench novelists.  The  major Paris journals carried reviews proclaiming The Magic Skin as a work of genius.  Several of them were actually written by Balzac under an alias. It sold out of print on publication day.  

I decided to make The Magic Skin my next Balzac novel (I am hoping to complete the full Human Comedy by the end of next year) when I read in Balzac's Omlette by Anka Muhlstein that sumptuous banquet in it was Balzac's food writing at the very best.  She also said it was one of the few works of Balzac that makes use of supernatural elements.  

I really liked parts of this book a lot.  There is a lot to learn about French society in the early 19th century in The Magic Skin.  Parts dragged for me and almost seemed like filling.  The story opens with our central character, Raphael, in an elegant gambling house.   Balzac does a brilliant job of making us feel we are there. He goes into enough details on how winners, losers, waiters and spectators act and look.  Raphael loses all but his last few Francs and determines to throw himself into the Seine.   

He begins to wander the streets of Paris after dark.  He enters a large antique, art, and curiosity shop run by a strange old man.  This section of the novel was wonderful, really brilliant.  The shopkeeper takes Raphael on a long tour of his shop, describing everything from incredibly expensive Venetian renaissance paintings to the weirdest of junk.  I was sorry when this section ended.  Raphael tells the shopkeeper  he is planning suicide.  The shopkeeper begins to tell him about a very old donkey skin that he claims makes its owner's wishes come true.  The man uses his last few Francs to buy it, thinking  this is probably just ridiculous but what does he have to lose?

In the next section we are in the very modest rooming house where Raphael lived when he was poor.  The land lady did  her best to take care of him.    As could be expected, his wishes begin to come true.  In a scene as good as Anka Mulstein said it was, Raphael stages a wonderful banquet which turns into an orgy with beautiful women.  Long story short, someone dies and leaves him incredibly rich.

We next meet him living in a mansion with servants to catering  to his every whim.  He tells his friend about the magic donkey skin, which shrinks every time it grants a wish.  Compressing a lot he ends up going back to his rooming house.  The land lady has since he left married a very wealthy man.  She confesses she has always been in love with Raphael.  He tells her he is madly in love with her.  This was the weakest section of the novel.  

In the next section Raphael gets sick and decides to move to the country.  Ok maybe this is the weakest section!  The descriptions of the countryside were very good, the treatment of the peasants w
  Was   a bit condescending,I guess not to many agricultural workers bought novels in France in 1831, and straight out formula about simple uncorrupted country folk versus the corrupt dwellers of Paris.

For me the best parts of the novel were first those in the antique shop, then the truly fit for royalty feast and orgy, followed by the gambling den.  I also enjoyed the opening sections of the descriptions of Raphael's life after becoming wealthy.  The weakest part was the romance between Raphsel and his old land lady, his illness and the close of The Magic Skin in which he moves to the country.

For sure this is worth pursing by those who have read five or six other Balzac novels first.   It contains all,the basic elements of Balzac, for better and worse.  The good sections are great.  The weaker sections will be over soon so just endure them.  Some of the things that may seem like cliches to us might not have been in 1831.

19 of 91

Breakdown of The Human Comedy

Novels. 40

Short Stories 31

Novellas 20

Mel u

1 comment:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I've come across a number of good readers who dislike this book. When I see that I always think, but the antique shop!

Also there is that duel - I don't remember where it is - which is a classic, like a parody of other 19th century dueling scenes that were not even written yet.