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at the sign of the cat and racket

21 january 2020

I recently received a gift of a complete set of Balzac's works, published in English in 1900. This runs, of course, to over a score of volumes and many thousands of pages, and it's quixotic even to start reading the thing, but what the heck.

The 1900 Peter Fenelon Collier edition of Balzac is not a masterpiece of analytical bibliography. No translator is even credited, and the introductions are whimsically (and uselessly) erudite, taking for granted that the reader already knows the entire publication history of Balzac in French. The grouping of the texts may be pretty arbitrary. In any case, the first volume is called At the Sign of the Cat and Racket and contains several fictions, ranging from long stories to short novels. Here I will discuss the shorter works in the volume, leaving a couple of longer ones for separate treatment if and when I get to them.

The title story, "At the Sign of the Cat and Racket," tells the story of several marriages. The Guillaumes run a draper's shop in the building distinguished by the quaint title object. They think of nothing but enterprise and sharp business practice, and expect their two daughters to form similar marriages. The eldest does; she marries the chief apprentice Lebas, who takes over the business. But Lebas had been in love with her younger, prettier, and more romantically-inclined sister Augustine. In turn, Augustine falls in love with the painter Sommervieux, who had made the romantic – indeed, Romantic – gesture of painting pictures of her and of her family, back when he knew them as nothing more than figures glimpsed through a window. It is a perfect match of passion, but of course the Sommervieuxs are the only unhappy couple of the three, because after their ardor cools, they find themselves on completely different intellectual and aesthetic planes.

"The Sceaux Ball" is an interesting country institution, as Balzac describes it, a sort of oasis where class identity is suspended and people can form social and romantic connections that would be impossible in more formal settings. The Ball comprises only a couple of pages in the middle of its own story, but it is there that Emilie de Fontaine, spoiled and exacting daughter of an old monarchist, meets Maximilien Longueville, who is … well, what is he, exactly, is the problem. He is beautiful and gentlemanly, but is he of any ancestry that would count in Emilie's eyes? You know the story will take any number of ironic turns before it closes; the question is how comfortably, or uneasily, it will close.

In "The Purse," we meet another young male artist, and another woman that he falls in love with before knowing very much about. Adelaide and her mother are neighbors in the building where Hippolyte has his studio, and they seem too good to be true: poor, virtuous, noble – well, they have to be too good to be true, right? And the mother has this unsettling habit of always winning at cards …

"The Vendetta" is a rather lengthy can-of-corn of a story about an inadvertent Romeo and Juliet. Luigi and Ginevra come from warring Corsican clans, and meet and fall in love before their know each other's identities. With the passion and the obduracy that Balzac ascribes to their ethnicity, the pair insist on marrying despite her parents' objection. (His parents can't object; Ginevra's father had slaughtered Luigi's entire family.) It's a fairly early story (1830; Balzac turned 31 that year, though he was already a prolific writer), and of interest to completists, I guess, for its picture of Paris at the cusp between Napoleon and the Bourbon restoration.

"Madame Firmiani" is an elegant Parisian hostess, and Octave, her devoted protegé, has "ruined" himself in the process of becoming her lover. Time for Octave's rich uncle to come up from the provinces and see what's what. The answer surprises him. Fortunately the story is the shortest of the five, and doesn't have time to outstay its own clichés.

So maybe the order isn't arbitrary: the five works appear in descending order of quality. I wouldn't rush right out and clamor for new editions of any of them, but "At the Sign of the Cat and Racket" and "The Sceaux Ball" are nuanced, complex stories that work on both psychological and sociological levels. On to the next couple of dozen volumes!

Balzac, Honoré de. At the Sign of the Cat and Racket. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier & Son, 1900.