Balzac is a master of the real, an acute observer of details that, taken together, reveal more than the sum total of their parts. Take the description of the Maison Vauquer that opens Père Goriot, which through the amassing of the miniscule creates a picture of the whole that locates the residents, from Rastignac to Vautrin, in that place of no belonging that is their experience of Paris.
But there’s another side to Balzac, which I did not really appreciate until I read recently his later novel Ursule Mirouët. This book too has a telescopic attention to detail, this time applied to provincial life but in the service of the same point that underlies the whole of the Comédie Humaine: ‘Money was the fulcrum, the be all and end all and sole driving force of a society which Louis XVIII and wish to organise on the model of England.’ The novel opens with a family at war over inheritance and the threat of a new heir. Ursule is illegitimate but good, worthy by virtue of her uncle’s money, while the legitimate heirs have blood but no decency to commend them.
And all proceeds in the familiar, enticing way of a Balzac novel until the uncle (Minoret) goes to Paris. We would expect him to encounter hard reality here. This is the commonplace of Balzac’s heroes from Rastingnac to Lucien. This is the city of Vautrin, after all. Except that in Paris, Minoret goes to meet a Swedenborgian, whose effect on Minoret is as if ‘a great wall crumbled’ in the old uncle’s life.
What does Minoret experience? The power of a visionary. The Swedenborgian is able to perceive that which is far away, and takes Minoret on a meticulous exploration of Ursule’s bedroom in the distant provinces. Every detail is included, many of which Minoret does not know himself and has to check on his return. Minoret’s life, we are told, has ‘until then had been based on two principles: his religious indifference that his rejection of magnetism.’ Now he is confronted with a power that he cannot comprehend within his intellectual system.
This is what the Swedenborgian says:
‘We have denied the existence of intangible thing rather than condemn the imperfection of our scientific instruments.’
It is an extraordinary moment. The encounter with the visionary converts Minoret to faith in the supernatural by way of mesmerism. It is ‘the favourite science of Jesus,’ Minoret claims later in the novel, something with which the nineteenth century Popes (if not de Lammenais) would rather have disagreed. It changes the shape of the novel altogether.
The role of mesmerism, merged by the 1830s with Swendenborgian angels, reflects Balzac’s own enthusiasm for the eighteenth century cult of magnetism. I’ve written about Mesmer, mesmerism and the French Revolution before. Balzac learnt the ‘art’ of mesmerism for himself by 1820, and it features elsewhere in the Comédie. He wasn’t the last French author to employ it, either – there’s a mesmerist scene in Flaubert’s last novel too - whereas in England Dickens not only used mesmerist ideas but was a practitioner, not always with great results.
So is this just a blip, Balzac the acute observer sliding into Balzac the odd enthusiast for a vanished and bonkers cult? Should the admirers of realist novels cough politely and move on?
No. What actually converts Minoret is detail. The same tiny points with which Balzac the realist author enthrals the reader in so many of his novels become the point of transformation for Minoret the Enlightened sceptic. The regard magnétique is the author’s skill and here it is transported onto a character. It is precisely this detailed observation that Balzac the realist brings to the domestic interiors of houses and minds, no privacy escaping him. It is more than forensic vision alone – what Balzac sees matter, for the details carry meaning. Objects enlighten those who own or use them.
Which is, I would content, at root a magical understanding of the real. A magic, perhaps, upon which realism in writing depends, that the specifics matter because they communicate something unseen.
This is nowhere more true that in descriptions of faces. Here is Balzac on the dodgy lawyer Goupil after a long account of his appearance:
‘At the sight of Goupil, one immediately realised that he had been in a hurry to enjoy life; to obtain satisfactions, he had to pay dearly for them.’
It is what any writer seeks in a face, and why stock characters work. It’s why, in another context, the claim to be able to ‘tell’ that someone is a criminal still exercises its power. We are all of us Lombrosians.
Realist magic is the spell that good writers weave. It is what we want from a novel, that the randomness of people and events become a sort of sense.