Wright on Balzac, trans. Constantine, ed. Coleman (2012)

Balzac, Honoré de. The Wild Ass's Skin. Translated by Helen Constantine; edited with Introduction and Notes by Patrick Coleman. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), 2012. Pp. xxx + 252.  ISBN: 0199579504.

This new translation of Balzac's La Peau de chagrin is a useful addition to the already considerable corpus of work on a text which has proved to be as protean in its transformations as its fictional counterpart, the skin that shrinks as each desire of its owner is fulfilled. It began life as a conte fantastique and was then embedded in a short novel, before taking its place, at the head of the Études philosophiques in the collectively reordered La Comédie humaine, published in 1845 (but distributed in 1846) by Furne. This latter text, known as the Furne corrigé, provides the basis for this translation. Helpfully, the notes highlight name changes (such as the substitution of Horace Bianchon for Prosper, in the 1838 edition), as well as some of the most significant variants in the earlier editions (such as the expanded description of the Lac du Bourget or the excision of the word "allegedly" preceding references to our "immaterial soul" [217] up to the 1838 edition). Indeed, this edition is the first in English to include, in the Appendix, Balzac's original Preface, dropped in all subsequent editions in the author's lifetime. The Introduction is, in essence, a distillation of Chapter 5 of Patrick Coleman's Reparative Realism: Mourning and Modernity in the French Novel (1998). As such, it is extremely valuable. Based on sound preliminary research, it comes up with all the explanatory notes that the general reader might need, without ever being heavy or pedantic.

Helen Constantine's translation is racy in tone and surmounts with grace the many challenges posed by Balzac's excursions into the world of natural science. She gets over the problematic rendering of "Vouloir," in the crucial "Vouloir/Pouvoir" dichotomy, by replacing versions in earlier translations, such as "will," or "to have your will," by "what a man wants and what he can do" (p. 28). Her rendering of "conséquentes" as "consequential" (p. 226), in the August 1831 Preface, might more effectively have read "consistent," but her translation, in general, is excellent. In keeping with the overall policy of making the text more accessible to the contemporary reader, the translator's paragraphing is her own.

The decision to include the August 1831 Preface--the shortest-lived Preface on record, as Gérard Genette has pointed out--was an inspired one. It provides Patrick Coleman with a valuable lever with which to bring out the historical significance of the text (with shades of Pierre Barbéris and the latter's exploration of the original edition), while, at the same time, stressing the aesthetic significance of presenting the protagonist both from within (in the first-person narrative flashback of his long confession) and from without (in sandwiching that confession between the more nuanced third-person accounts of how over-involvement can be detrimental to the fulfillment of artistic ambition). As Tim Farrant has pointed out, in Balzac's Shorter Fictions (2002), Diderot's Paradoxe sur le comédien had just been published posthumously in 1830, with its advocacy of detachment as a prerequisite for the successful art-work--a theme which Balzac deftly wove in to the argument, in the first part of the Preface, attempting to clarify what separates an author from the subject of his works. Indeed, the "second sight" of the artist, as highlighted in the later part of this Preface, illuminates the detachment implicit in the concept of "SAVOIR," as advocated by the centenarian antiquary, in preference to the forces of "Vouloir" and "Pouvoir." Patrick Coleman's Introduction provides an admirable survey of the many vantage-points from which La Peau de chagrin has been studied: as the anvil on which realism in literature was forged; the tale which, with others, caused the element of the fantastic to enter the French literary canon; a socio-critical analysis in the context of the July Monarchy; a study in Romantic irony; an exercise in pre-Freudian psychoanalysis; or a presentiment of some of the contemporary concerns of feminism. This multi-dimensional work of comic and compassionate fiction, with many deeply autobiographical undertones, has been the subject of such a wide spectrum of comment that it would be unreasonable to expect total coverage in an edition such as this, though it is regrettable that the bibliography makes no reference to the study by Jeri DeBois King (1992). This latter work, Paratextuality in Balzac's La Peau de chagrin, brings out the link with Sterne and the squiggle traced by Corporal Trim's stick, reproduced, with some modifications, from Tristram Shandy in the epigraph to Balzac's composition. Along with the typesetting, in the form of an inverted pyramid, of the inscription on the wild ass's skin and, in the first edition, the points of ellipsis (replacing the asterisks of Sterne) to denote a lacuna, after the protagonist bites Pauline, this marks a further link between Balzac and Charles Nodier (one of Balzac's illustrious predecessors in the realm of the fantastic tale as well as a major innovator of typographical devices, in Histoire du roi de Bohème et de ses sept châteaux, published in 1830). In addition to the many landmark elements contained in Balzac's text, its position in the history of the book is one that should not be overlooked.

Overall, then, this edition is a model of its kind and is to be welcomed in the distinguished series of Oxford World's Classics.

Barbara Wright
Trinity College
Volume 41.3-4