The Girl with the Golden Eyes...such an unassuming title. If one considers Balzac to be one of the classical writers, than one would reach for this book thinking it would go along the lines of other classic novellas. Hmmm...the title sounds almost romantic.
The Girl with the Golden Eyes is an interesting piece of literature. Despite its short length, it could be divided into three separate books: First, the reader is introduced to the scene - Parisian life - in no flattering terms.
"In Paris, there are only two ages, youth and decay: a bloodless, pallid youth and a decay painted to seem youthful." or "Everything is tolerated: the government and the guillotine, religion and cholera. You are always welcome in this world, and you are never missed." Here Balzac splits the Parisians into three main classes. "The class that has nothing: The worker, the proletarian, the man who lives by his feet, his hands, his tongue, his back, his good arm, his five fingers."
Balzac blatantly exposes this class with severe judgement, observing the never-ending labor whose fruits are blown away at the end of the week: "Then they take their pleasure and relaxation in an exhausting debauch, which leaves their skin brown with filth, black and blue with violence, blotched with drunkenness, or yellow with indigestion. This lasts only two days but steals tomorrow's bread, the weekly soup, the wife's new dress, and swaddling for the ragged child."
Then there are the workers who see future, save money, and start a small shop - the "...king of Parisian scene who has submitted to time and space. Yes, hats off to this creature made of saltpeter and gas, who gives children to France during his industrious nights and during the day runs here and there in the service, glory, and pleasure of his fellow citizens. This man resolves the problem of satisfying simultaneously an agreeable wife, his household, the Constitutionel, his office, the National Guard, the Opera, and God, all for the purpose of transforming the Constitutionel, the office, the Opera, the National Guard, the wife, and God into gold."
The second Parisian scene, "...the world of those who possess something." ... "Wholesalers and their boys, civil servants, small bankers of great honesty, rogues and rascals, head clerks and errand boys, the bailiff's bookkeeper, the lawyer, the notary, indeed the seething, scheming, speculating members of that lower middle class that caters to the demands of Paris and stays on alert, hoarding provisions, handling products manufactured by the proletariat, dealing in fruit from the Midi, fish from the sea, wines from every sun-kissed slope. This class reaches out its hands to the Orient, takes shawls the Turks and Russians discard, casts its net as far as the Indies, waits for sales and looks for bargains, discounts bills of exchange and rolls along, gathering everything of value. It wraps up Paris bit by bit and carts it off, on the alert for the fantasies of childhood, spying out the whims and vices of maturity, and extorting advantage from its disease."
The third class, "...a kind of Parisian belly in which the interests of the city are digested and condensed into forms known as affairs, the crowd of layers, doctors, notaries, barristers, business men, and magistrates are stirred and shaken by and acidic and bitter intestinal movement." ... "In the end, of necessity they become cynical about all feeling, forced as they are by laws, men, and institutions to hover like vultures over still-warm corpses."
Above this third class lies the realm of the artist. "An artist's face is always extraordinary; it is always above or below the conventional lines of what fools call ideal beauty. What force destroys them? Passion. In Paris every passion is resolved into two terms: gold or pleasure."
And lastly, above the artist is the realm of the aristocrat, where this story takes place. "Don't look for affections here, any more than for ideas. Embraces conceal a profound indifference, and politeness an unrelieved contempt. No one here is capable of loving his fellow man." ... "This empty life, this constant anticipation of unfulfilled pleasure, this permanent boredom, this frivolity of mind, heart, and brain, this weariness with the great Parisian reception is mirrored in their features and produces those cardboard faces, those premature wrinkles, that physiognomy of the rich in which impotence grins, gold is reflected, and intelligence has fled."
Thus, after reading twenty-six pages of politically charged social commentary on Balzac's day Paris, the story finally begins. It begins here, switching gears and style from the preceding pages into the realm of romance (and satire). The prose shifts towards poetic (and over the top), and we are introduced to Henri de Marsay, "...the handsomest young man in Paris. From his father, Lord Dudley, he had inherited the most amorously enchanting blue eyes; from his mother, thick curly black hair; from both parents pure blood, a girlish complexion, a gentle and modest manner, a slim and aristocratic figure, and beautiful hands." However, his "... fine qualities and charming defects were tarnished by one dreadful vice: He believed in neither mean nor women, God nor the Devil. Capricious nature had given him gifts; a priest had finished the task." There is also a seemingly out-of place mention that Lord Dudley had several children, one of who is Euphemie, the daughter to a Spanish lady. She was raised in Havana, then taken to Madrid with a Creole man. She was married to an old and immensely rich Spanish Lord, Don Hijos, Marguis de San-Real who has come to live in Paris.
Henri de Marsay is a playboy who likes to play. He has the looks and the means to enjoy life to its fullest. But, strolling on a promenade one fine afternoon, Henri meets the "girl with the golden eyes", a mysterious, protected creature who is the talk of all the young Parisian men. This girl turns out to be Paquita Valdez.
De Marsay uses his advantages and influence to find out where Paquita lives, bribes a postman, and has a letter delivered to her. Once Paquita accepts his advances, she drugs her female guardian, and de Marsay sneaks into the house. Eventually they end up in a love nest built specifically for pleasure. The decor is rich and lavish, the walls are soundproof. Here, in a moment of passion, we learn that Paquita is a virgin yet very well versed in the ways of love. Henri begins to suspect something. Unfortunately, throughout this part of the novel, the language turns more towards the romantic, even cheesy at times with overly flowery descriptions and unrealistic comparisons. Still, I kept reading on.
Once Henri 'conquers' Paquita, he is torn between the pleasures she offers, and a new potential 'target' a woman hundred times more beautiful that all the young men talk about. This woman turns out to be the Marquise, the wife of Don Hijos. One night, when Henri fornicates with Paquita in the love nest, Paquita keeps begging him to kill her because she could never escape her prison. It turns out Paquita is the daughter of a Georgian slave to Don Hijos, and that her mother also sold her. Paquita, while making love to Henri (whom she made dress up in woman's clothing), cries out a woman's name. Henri gets upset and ready to strangle her, but a huge Creole man, Christemio who guards Paquita stops him. De Marsay shoots Paquita a look that says, "You will die" before departing from the house.
And here the novel yet again changes style and language, shifting towards the unexpected.A few days later, Henri and his friends set out to kill Paquita. This is not stated, but rather implied. When they arrive at the house, they realize that someone else is already there, since cries of pain are escaping the soundproof love nest through the chimney. He climbs up into the room only to find Paguita lying in a pool of blood. Her Georgian mother is there, Christemio is dead, and the beautiful Marquise is standing there with a dagger in her hands. She had killed Paquita, her lover, out of passion. When she realizes Henri is in the room, she swings around and they look each other in the eyes, immediately realizing that they are related, both the children of Lord Dudley. The Marquise and Henri seems unconcerned with the crime as much as devastated by the loss of a lover. The Marquise pays off Paquita's mother, who happily accepts gold and does not complain, Then the Marquise informs Henri that she will return to Spain and enter a convent. They part with the words: "Nothing can console us for losing our idea of the infinite."
Eight days later, when his friends question de Marsay about the girl with the golden eyes, he simply answers that:
"A chest complaint."
I generally don't disclose endings, but this novella was rather unexpected, so I make an exception. If I were to pick up this book in the middle and start reading, I would have stopped assuming it is all but romantic mumbo-jumbo. However, this could not be farther from the truth. It's a very short read that is worth the time, especially if you enjoy the unforeseen. Balzac is great at crimes of passion, at forbidden fruit and consequences, and this one is no exception.