The Magic Skin by Honore de Balzac

The Magic Skin by Honore de BalzacI have not had good luck with French authors. Either their writing is not for me, the translations are terrible or the books that get translated are the terrible ones. I think it’s a pretty good chance that it could be any one of these.

I’ve tried Victor Hugo twice. Les Miserables is one of the most overwrought narratives on the planet — it has spawned an amazing movie (the one with Qui-Gonn) and a powerful musical — but it is so full of unrepentant political and social commentary and hundred-page navel gazing that it becomes almost indecipherable even in translation. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is marginally better in that regard but comes across as one of the most sexist and overly stupid novels I’ve ever read (again, spawning a great movie).

I have much the same reaction to Alexander Dumas. His Count of Monte Cristo is a powerful treatise on revenge — not on the evils thereof, but more on the virtues. Edmond Dantes sets his life on tearing down his enemies in the most ruthless way imaginable and does so in the wordiest manner possible. I have not yet finished The Three Musketeers but I find it to be little better than the sensational chronology of four amoral scallawags who don’t have three brain cells to rub together between them.

So, one might be forgiven for asking why I chose to read Balzac. That’s a good question. Some friends of mine have a reading group. They take turns picking books for everybody to read and then discuss them. I just happened to join the group when the French teacher had his turn.

In part I’m glad. I would never have read this book otherwise and I like being given more cultural perspective.

I found it to be leagues above the other French novels I had read due mostly to the fact that it was not the size of the Oxford English Dictionary. It did have a tendency to wax eloquent on nineteenth century politics and the evils of the bourgeois society of Napoleon era France until the words jumbled together and I found I had read fifteen pages at a time while doing math problems in my head in order to escape the monotony.

I think also, that this book is not for me. It may have been scathing satire in it’s day and is perhaps delightful to one who is familiar with that particular era of French history. There is a large section of the novel that is merely pages and pages of middle class socialites making jokes about the current politics and philosophies that went completely over my head. I had no idea who most of the people being referred to were.

That being said, the idea behind it was intriguing enough that by the end I wanted Raphael to find a way out form under his curse. The conceit is that a young man, meaning to commit suicide, is given a magical skin from an oriental ass that will grant any wish he asks for. Every wish makes the skin shrink. When it has shrunk to nothing he will die.

It felt very reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey in chronicling the downfall, socially and morally, of a perverse young man.

I found the scientific discussions to be fascinating in an archeological way. Mostly I was surprised to learn that the science in the book was known at the time of it’s writing. I am an engineer so it might be no surprise that description of the method for stretching the skin had me spell-bound.

I’m likely to never read another French novel. This one is leaps ahead of the others I have read but that still puts it firmly at the bottom of a very tall ladder of books I would rather be reading.

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