There was a remarkable oversight in the otherwise wonderful piece by Eugene Girin (“Elena Chudinova: Telling the Truth,” Vital Signs, June) on the work of the Russian novelist, when the author states that Madam Chudinova wrote her royalist novel to counteract the “pro-Jacobin novels of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.” Balzac never wrote any pro-Jacobin novels. In the repertoire of the 2,472 characters that populate his Comédie humaine (which purports to be nothing less than a scientific depiction of the whole of French society) there are plenty of characters who were on the Jacobin side at some point in their lives, as most of the work is set within the five decades subsequent to the Revolution. But Balzac’s own political beliefs were notoriously reactionary, following the inspiration of his oft-admitted heroes, De Bonald and De Maistre (as well expressed in the author’s own preface to his Comédie). Indeed, the very first novel published under his own name, Les Chouans, featured a sympathetic view of the Vendée counterrevolution. And his royalist sympathies are elsewhere evident in many characters and storylines throughout his massive work (particularly Le Cabinet des antiquités, Un Épisode sous la Terreur, Une Ténébreuse Affaire, Le Réquisitionnaire, Béatrix, and l’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine). The poet Heinrich Heine reported Balzac’s ominous warning to the pro-Republican Eugene Sue in a conversation among the three authors in 1847:
I would quite gladly accept a republic. What I refuse to accept are its social consequences, which are inevitable by its very nature. It is my turn to point out that socialism, which believes itself new, is an old matricide. It has always killed its mother, the republic, as well as its sister, liberty. It will always be that way . . .
Undoubtedly in tribute to the master of French novelists, Barbey d’Aurevilly used the surname of one of Balzac’s more colorful characters, Félicité des Touches (aka Camille Maupin) for the title character of his own fine pro-royalist novel about the Vendée counterrevolution, Le Chevalier Des Thouches.
New Orleans, LA
Mr. Girin Replies:
Mr. Desmond’s letter, which I much appreciate, is further proof of my longtime assertion that reading an issue of Chronicles is like completing a semester of university, and Chronicles readers are what the Russians call intelligentniye—intellectual and noetic in not only the cerebral but the wider, social sense. Clearly, Mr. Desmond knows much more about Balzac’s work than I do. I did read Hugo’s Ninety-Three, but to my great shame and surprise (since I long adored French literature), I have not read any of Balzac’s works, including Les Chouans, which is on my forever-expanding reading list.
My impression of the pro-Jacobin (a better term would be pro-Republican) nature of Les Chouans was based on Elena Chudinova’s characterization of the novel, both in published interviews and private exchanges. Chudinova not only speaks French fluently and visits the country every year, but has excellent knowledge of the French counterrevolution. Therefore, I had every reason to trust her opinion on Balzac’s work.