A start in Life

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac Fourth volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1877)

Scenes from private life
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A cuckoo’s journey


Analysis of the work Un début dans la vie (A Beginning in Life ) was published in 1842, initially as a serial as Modeste Mignon, but was not published in bookshops until 1844. Although it’s a fairly short novel, Balzac managed, with the help of his publisher and by generously multiplying the blanks, to print two in-8° volumes. The following year, it was included in the forthcoming edition of La Comédie humaine, where Balzac placed it among the Scènes de la vie privée. As with Modeste Mignon, Un début dans la vie is a subject that was supplied to Balzac. His sister, Laure Surville, wrote stories for children and young people; she had the idea for a short story entitled A cuckoo’s journey in which she showed the disadvantages of the careless chatter that young people sometimes make in public cars to make themselves look important. The idea appealed to Balzac, who seized on it. The subject was really thin. But it didn’t matter, because this story, originally very short, was to appear in a periodical, Le Musée des familles, which was a sort of thatched cottage vigil, edited by a friend of his. In reality, Balzac was interested in the atmosphere, in the little comedy played out by travelers gathered by chance in a stagecoach, trying to dazzle each other. In any case, there was nothing original about the subject. Meetings on the stagecoach or at the hotel had provided plenty of copy for the authors of these humorous novels known as “gay” novels. There was even a well-known pantomime on this theme by Henri Monnier, Le Voyage en diligence. Balzac must have really needed the money to undertake this little tale, which apparently took him only two days to write. Shortly afterwards, however, Balzac was asked to write a feuilleton for Le Législateur, a Legitimist daily which, despite its serious nature, resorted to feuilletons like its colleagues, to keep its subscribers’ zeal alive. It paid a lot better than a short story at the Museum of Families. But it was also more difficult. The short story presented at the Musée des Familles comprised only the first part ofUn début dans la vie, and ended with young Oscar Husson’s return to his mother’s home, where he learned the extent of the damage he had done. Balzac realized that he needed more material and other subjects to think about. He then added what is now the second part of the story, the life of Oscar Husson, now without support and without fortune, his years of apprenticeship with the solicitor Derville, then his relapse by another unfortunate chance, finally the end of this life of an unfortunate young man more or less reclassified after so many tribulations and a morality, not edifying, but on the contrary rather bitter by the comparison of his fate with that of his companions on the disastrous journey. Balzac had a lot of fun reproducing the scene of maternal recommendations before the dreaded journey to Isle-Adam, and imagining the dialogue between the young elegants on the stagecoach. The easiest and most fertile material for his short story was drawn from his memories. Pierrotin’s old diligence was a guimbarde banlieusarde that he had often taken himself to go from Paris to l’Isle-Adam to see M. de Villers-La-Faye, an old friend who liked him and whom he saw with pleasure. In the second part, Oscar Husson’s life as a solicitor – his tough apprenticeship, his timetable, his law courses, his impecuniosity, even his temptations – is Balzac’s life between 1818 and 1820, when he too was a solicitor in the same neighborhood: he doesn’t have to invent anything, these are his memories. And the stay in the African army, by which the unfortunate boy will have to redeem himself so dearly, is also linked to Balzac’s youth: this ordeal had been inflicted on a cousin of Surville, Laure Balzac’s husband, following a slightly more serious misadventure. These memories had made the novelist’s task easier. All he had to do was let his pen run. But his story, as usual, has a double background, fed by other sectors of his memory. Oscar Husson’s mother, who lives so meagerly in her sad entresol, comes up with anecdotes about the Duchesse d’Abrantès or the Countess Merlin, the former “belle” to whom she introduced Balzac, or memories of the Countess Regnault de Saint-Jean-d’Angély, whose husband had known all the secrets of the Empire. Like those inexhaustible storytellers, she was admired during the Directoire period. She was coquettish, she lived in style: and her melancholy story is probably, among many others, one of the downfalls Balzac was told about. She is not the only character provided by history. As in Modeste Mignon, in Un début dans la vie we catch glimpses of destinies tossed about by the events of the Revolution and the Empire, which, in this little moral lesson for young people, give the reader a glimpse of unexpected horizons. The powerful châtelain de Presles was once a noble outlaw: he was saved by Moreau, now his steward. But Moreau had conspired, he was hunted down, saved in turn by the man he had rescued. We glimpse these private lives for a moment, and they emerge, still surrounded by shreds of history: and it’s this past that explains the present situations and roots this tale for schoolchildren in history. This is a typical Balzac characteristic: the smallest stories are transformed in his work, because they always become, through some connection, through a piece of scenery that suddenly appears, if not a fragment of history, at least a piece of private life linked to the past, and which always has something dramatic or touching about it because of the past that fuels it. But in the end, it was also something else that gave Balzac this ease and speed of writing. Un début dans la vie was written in 1842: by then, eight years later, Balzac had become accustomed to having his characters reappear, moving from one novel to the next. In the same year, he signed the treaty with Furne and his associates, which was the birth certificate of The Human Comedy This consecration imposes on him, more than ever, the idea that each of his novels is but a moment, a view, at a certain date, of the entire society he carries in his head. So, for each of his novels, for each of his short stories, he now has a mass of characters from which he need only draw: each of them is already characterized, strongly individualized in his mind, and, in general, already familiar to readers of his previous works. This provides him with characters who are sometimes mere extras, but who are often also actors, who intervene in the action and whose intervention is all the more significant because their character and position are known. Many of Balzac’s short stories are like crossroads where the characters of La Comédie humaine meet. This is the reward for readers of Balzac. This abundance makes them more likely to enjoy reading short stories where the plot and even the main character are sometimes a little sketchy. That’s the criticism that can be levelled at Un début dans la vie. Balzac’s accumulation of misfortunes is a little too easy. Oscar Husson is a character in whom contradictory traits come together, arousing both esteem and pity. His vanity, his desire to appear, make him make crude mistakes that are overly punished: and, at the same time, his admirable courage, obstinacy and diligence, when he makes up for the perfidy of fate by a life of hard work and energy, are qualities that do not go well with this lightness. Didn’t Balzac indulge in the delights of memory when he lent this weakling something of the Roman vigor with which his twenties endured the same misery? The morality of this tale, as the conclusion imposes, is quite different from the innocuous advice not to talk too much on stagecoaches or railroads that the original title, The Danger of Mystifications, announced. In the end, as Balzac often does, all the passengers from the first trip meet up again twenty years later in Pierrotin’s car. Comparing their fates is instructive. A reasoning old uncle had said to Oscar Husson: “Young man, discretion, probity, hard work and you’ll get there.” The result does not confirm this maxim. Pierrotin has bought himself some fine new stagecoaches thanks to the lavish tips he received from a clever indiscretion. The painter and his rapin Mistigris achieved success through talent, which hard work and discretion don’t always bring. Steward Moreau lost his sinecure, but he speculated in land and real estate, and helped wealthy father Léger grow the proceeds of his usurious loans. This energetic financier went on to become a major figure, while Oscar Husson’s tough apprenticeship in Marshal Bugeaud’s battalions cost him an arm and earned him only a red ribbon and the reserved position of tax collector in Beaumont-sur-Oise. He’s an average Frenchman who hasn’t been able to take his place among the profiteers. Did Oscar Husson’s mediocrity give Balzac the idea for this secret satire? The last word in the story might make you think so. Alain, in his study of Balzac, sees in this ending an accountant’s Balzac, who simply records a balance sheet of history. It paints, he says, “a social numbness that extinguishes all faults, perhaps out of concern for tomorrow”. Balzac is cynical: he records.

The story Certain inconsistent behaviors determine the happy or unhappy destinies of others. It also describes the danger of mystifications. Oscar, a young student, jeopardizes his future, his family and his protector (M. Moreau, M. de Sérisy’s steward) with confessions that mock the Count de Sérisy (benefactor of M. Moreau and Oscar’s family) to travelers. The Comte de Sérisy, who took part in the trip anonymously, is deeply hurt by young Oscar’s statements, and also discovers from the chatter of his fellow travelers that his steward is stealing from him. The Count dismisses Mr. Moreau, which has the effect of suspending the prodigalities provided to Oscar’s family. Oscar, deprived of Monsieur Moreau’s support and benevolence, got off to a rocky start (in poverty, austerity and discipline) by apprenticing as a clerk to a solicitor. Hardened by his misadventures and hard work, as well as by the hardships of a military career in which he lost an arm but received the rank of colonel, Oscar learned discretion, probity, discipline and respect for the social hierarchy. Now wise and capable, he ended his life happily by marrying the daughter of Pierrotin, who had become owner of Messageries de la vallée de l’Oise.

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Genealogy of characters Husson : (Oscar) Young student under the protection of Monsieur Moreau, stage manager. Pierrotin: Valet. Has a daughter Georgette who marries Oscar Husson. Moreau de l’Oise: Moreau is also Oscar Husson’s natural father. He was the steward of the Comte de Sérizy, then a member of parliament. Sérisy: Born in 1765, senator, made count under the Empire. Minister of State under the Restoration. Married Clara-Léontine de Ronquerolles, born around 1785, widow of General Gaubert, from whom a son Jules, a soldier who died in 1835. Mistigri: Léon de Lora, born 1806, painter.  

1) Source analysis: Preface and story compiled from the complete works of the Comédie Humaine (tome II) published by France Loisirs 1985 under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac.

2) Source: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde” Gallimard.

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