Honoré de Balzac first practiced his craft by imitating, often slavishly, the sensational romances of Ann Radcliffe, Charles Robert Maturin, and Matthew Gregory Lewis, with their fantasies of the grotesque and the horrible. Balzac also learned that fiendish wickedness and sadistic sensuality can heighten the pleasure of a thrill-seeking public. Although he never officially acknowledged his early efforts, he incorporated many of their lessons in his later works, especially in the tales of the supernatural and criminal.
The Human Comedy
Balzac’s magnum opus, The Human Comedy, is a vast and detailed panorama of French society of the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact, Oscar Wilde has remarked, “The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.” In nearly one hundred novels and stories evolve some two thousand fictional characters, who appear in various milieus, types, and professions, from Paris to the provinces, from old maids to poor relations, from lawyers to police officers and gangsters.
Corentin is rightly the most famous of Balzac’s police officers. He enters the scene in The Chouans, the first book to which Balzac signed his name, adding the self-ennobling particle de. Set in Brittany in 1799, the novel is a mixture of sentimental love story and political police intrigue. The obvious villain of the piece is Corentin, the spiritual, if not natural, son of Joseph Fouché, Napoleon Bonaparte’s minister of police. In spite of his youth (he was born around 1777), Corentin already possesses all the qualities required of a great secret agent, because he has learned from his mentor and chief how to tack and bend with the wind. Everything about him is wily, feline, mysterious: His green eyes announce “malice and deceit,” he has an “insinuating dexterity of address,” he seeks to obtain respect, and he seems to say, “Let us divide the spoil!”
Always willing to suspect evil motives in human behavior and too clever to hold to only one position, Corentin already embodies Balzac’s concept of the superior being, although in elementary form. To succeed, Corentin rejects no methods; he knows well how to use circumstances to his own ends. Furthermore, morality always changes and may not even exist, according to this modern Machiavellian, who is unconcerned with praise or blame: “As to betraying France, we who are superior to any scruples on that score can leave them to fools. . . . My patron Fouché is deep . . . enough, [and] he has always played a double game.” To this conception of life can be added a natural bent for everything that touches police work. The idea, so dear to Balzac, that “there are vocations one must obey” is a kind of professional determinism that forces one to turn to what is already possible within him and to act and think accordingly.
Although not a series character in the accepted sense, Corentin does reappear in several other novels, particularly in Une Ténébreuse Affaire (1841; The Gondreville Mystery, 1891), in which he again acts in several covert operations, this time to protect various cabinet members unwisely involved in an attempted coup against Napoleon Bonaparte, and in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847, 1869; The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, 1895). In The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, he plays the role of a private detective and works more to keep in practice than out of financial need.
The Gondreville Mystery
The Gondreville Mystery offers an excellent example of a ruthless police force, temporarily foiled perhaps but mercilessly victorious in the end. The novel also reveals that the political police are so unprincipled that they doctor the evidence and manipulate the facts to frame the innocent and thereby hide their own crimes. If, in the process, their victims are executed or imprisoned, it only serves to reinforce the notion of a powerful police, made all the more so when self-interest or wounded pride is at stake:In this horrible affair passion, too, was involved, the passion of the principal agent [Corentin], a man still living, one of those first-rate underlings who can never be replaced, and [who] has made a certain reputation for himself by his remarkable exploits.
History of the Thirteen
Balzac’s own worldview is made evident in the laying out of the ministerial plot and its subsequent cover-up. Indeed, the author of Histoire des treize (1834-1835; History of the Thirteen, 1885-1886) loves to invent secret societies, either benevolent or nefarious, as a means of increasing the individual’s power or, more...
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