Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Balzac’s Egyptian tale

An Egyptian tale by classic French author Honoré de Balzac was the focus of a recent exhibition at the Maison de Balzac in Paris, writes David Tresilian 

#Balzac’s Egyptian tale # Balzac’s Egyptian tale
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“According to a superstition current in the Middle East in the late 19th century,” writes British orientalist Robert Irwin in his study of the Thousand and One Nights, “no one can read the whole of the Arabian Nights without dying.”

Something similar might be said of the work of the 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac. His vast panorama of French life, entitled the Comédie humaine (human comedy), was left unfinished when he himself died at the comparatively early age of 51 in 1850. Running to several dozen volumes of novels and short stories in the standard editions, it was probably unfinishable. 

Balzac set himself the task of describing the society of his day from multiple angles, his intention being to produce a kind of encyclopaedia that could be mined for information by contemporary and later readers. However, this was too much for one man to produce alone, even one working the 16-hour days and nights fuelled by endless cups of coffee for which Balzac became famous. Like the Thousand and One Nights, it may also be too much to get through for any but the most stalwart readers.  

But dipping into the Comédie humaine can yield unexpected treasures, including an early short story, entitled Une Passion dans le désert, that provided the focus of a recent exhibition at the Maison de Balzac, Balzac’s house, in Paris. This has now been turned into a small museum, and it is possibly the sole surviving example of Balzac’s many dwelling places. 

The short story, set in Egypt during the 1798 Egyptian Expedition led by the young French general, later emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, is one of the only works by Balzac set outside France, and it recounts the experiences of a French soldier, part of Napoleon’s original fighting force, who becomes separated from his fellows while fighting the Mameluke commander Murad Bey under the French general Louis Desaix in Upper Egypt.

What happens next is unexpected, since after escaping from a group of Bedouin who take him captive he finds himself alone and apparently quite lost in the desert. “He cast a glance around him and felt the most terrifying despair sink into his soul. He saw a limitless ocean. The blackened sand of the desert extended unbroken in every direction, and it glittered like a steel blade struck by a harsh light.” Things look bleak for the young soldier.

Completely alone and reliant, like some latter-day Robinson Crusoe, entirely on his own efforts in order to survive, the young soldier, homesick for his native Provence, cuts down a palm tree to create a barrier for a makeshift shelter, using its leaves to make a mat to sleep on. But also like Robinson Crusoe, it turns out that he is not quite alone. Waking in the middle of the night, he finds he has been joined by a “royal Egyptian beast”, “a spotted panther”, who accompanies him in his cell.

Friend or enemy? Gaoler or captive? The young soldier cannot be sure. But in the morning as he moves across while the panther is still sleeping, intending to stab the animal where it lies, “the panther turned her head towards the Frenchman and stared at him without moving… then, with a movement as gentle and as amorous as if he wanted to caress the prettiest woman, he passed his hand over her entire body from head to tail, using his nails to scratch the flexible vertebrae that ran the length of the panther’s back.”

According to the Maison de Balzac exhibition, the story is important because it signals how the Napoleonic legend and particularly the aftermath of the general-emperor’s Middle Eastern campaigns were being viewed in Paris a dozen or so years after Napoleon’s final defeat. The French capital would have been full of former soldiers, veterans in some cases still struggling with injuries sustained in the Napoleonic wars, in the late 1820s when the story was written, and even if these former soldiers did not bear the physical scars of the wars they would presumably have suffered from the mental ones, along with various unhappy or even happy memories.  

On the other hand, this is a story about a peculiar love affair, one between a young soldier separated from his fellows in an alien environment and a glamorous and voluptuous beast. “The story has been the subject of different interpretations,” the exhibition says. “For some, it is a story that is very much of secondary importance in Balzac’s oeuvre. But for others, it is a fable crammed with meaning, one in which the Egyptian desert, far from civilisation, almost outside time, symbolises the kind of isolation from the world that such a love affair can bring.”

The relationship between a man and a panther, this line of thinking suggests, thus issues in a love of something of the same intensity as that between Tristan and Isolde, leading to a kind of intoxication or overcoming of the world. 

Yet, it still seems to be a story about the love between a French man and an Egyptian panther, at least on the surface, and one wonders why Balzac, even if he had wanted to write a “fable crammed with meaning” about Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, should have figured the erotic interest in animal terms. Clearly, there are familiar elements in Balzac’s tale, with the alien environment constituting a kind of moral test, and the meeting of the soldier with the native panther having something of the same ambiguity as Crusoe’s meeting with the indigenous Man Friday in Defoe’s famous novel of solitude and shipwreck on a desert island.

Like for Crusoe, so for the nameless soldier in Balzac’s fable, the question, at least in part, is who is to be the master and who is to be the servant in this encounter between the European and the extra-European worlds. Who has captured whom? But even so this line of thinking, reducing the story to a kind of test of character, the familiar “European man alone in Africa” story so familiar from later European imperialism, alternatively “European man civilises /saves the natives,” misses the animal and erotic element in Balzac’s story.

Even during his own lifetime, Balzac was both a kind of cautionary tale and an inspiration for other writers. “What a marvelous writer he would have been had he only known how to write,” said his near contemporary Gustave Flaubert, an altogether more parsimonious French writer. Balzac “invented the 19th century,” says one of the characters in Irish wit Oscar Wilde’s dialogue The Decay of Lying, written at the end of the century, of the Comédie humaine. 

Balzac was a model for the British 19th-century writer Charles Dickens, in some ways a kind of English Balzac, and an example for his later French compatriot Emile Zola, whose own cycle of novels on the French Second Empire, the Rougon-Macquart, had similar encyclopaedic ambitions to the Comédie humaine.

According to Friedrich Engels, Balzac had more to say about the workings of 19th-century capitalism than any comparable writer. Karl Marx uses examples from Balzac’s novels in Das Kapital to explain the workings of the economy. The 20th-century Hungarian critic Gyorgy Lukacs, firmly ensconced in the Marxist firmament, erected his theory of the historical novel on a reading of Balzac, giving rise to the ironic consequence that a self-confessed reactionary writer who argued for the restoration of the ancien régime and railed against the French Revolution became a prize exhibit in the development of Marxist criticism.

There are many sides to Balzac. According to his most recent biographer, the Englishman Graham Robb, the late 1820s, an apprenticeship period for Balzac, was also a time of fevered experiment, with the future novelist trying out a range of possible directions. Together with Une Passion dans le désert, a tale of French man and Egyptian beast confronting each other in the Egyptian desert, in 1830 Balzac also published his strange short story Sarrasine about a young man who falls in love with a female singer who turns out to be a castrated man. This story, too, was not much regarded in Balzac’s oeuvre until comparatively recent years when it was given book-length treatment by the French critic Roland Barthes in possibly his single most important book S/Z in 1974.

Probably the Maison de Balzac exhibition, contenting itself with illustrations and other materials inspired by the story, will not bestow the same celebrity on Une Passion dans le désert as Barthes’s famous interrogation bestowed on Sarrasine. On the other hand, as Robb comments in his biography of the writer, the story, a sensation when it first appeared in 1829 in the magazine Revue de Paris, suggests unexplored avenues and an Egyptian dimension to the author of the Comédie humaine.


Une Passion dans le désert, an exhibition from 27 January to 21 May 2017 at the Maison de Balzac, Paris.

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