Friday, September 27, 2013

The Magic Skin (La Peau de Chagrin) by Honoré de Balzac

Be careful what you wish for
La Peau de Chagrin, also known as The Magic Skin or The Wild Ass’s Skin, is a novel by Honoré de Balzac. The story opens on a young man entering a gambling hall. His face is an advertisement for despair; he has clearly come here as a last resort. After gambling his last coin on the roulette table, and losing, he determines there’s nothing left for him to do but throw himself into the Seine. Procrastinating his inevitable suicide, he wanders into the shop of an antiquities dealer. The dealer, smelling his desperation, offers him a unique item from his collection. It is a piece of leather, of unknown but ancient origin. The bearer of this unusual talisman has the power to see all his wishes granted, but each time a desire is gratified the skin shrinks a little, and along with it the life expectancy of its user. When the skin shrinks into nonexistence, the bearer will die. Partly out of disbelief and partly out of despondency, the young man, Raphaël de Valentin, accepts the responsibility and inextricably bonds his fate to the magic skin.

Throughout the novel Balzac displays a remarkably encyclopedic knowledge by venturing off into discussions of philosophy, politics, art, history, medicine, engineering, and physics. Unfortunately, these extraneous asides also distract from the main thrust of the story, leaving the reader disappointed at the squandering of its novel and ingenious premise. The book is bogged down by too many lengthy descriptive passages and topical tangents. When Valentin enters the antiquities shop, for example, Balzac lovingly describes each and every object in the room. Each sentence is a work of art, but after a half hour of reading such set decoration, the overall effect is exhausting. Next, a decadent banquet is rendered boring by the meticulous transcription of tedious and pointless conversations. Eventually Valentin decides to explain the circumstances that drove him to contemplate suicide. The result is a far too lengthy flashback consisting mostly of a man groveling at the feet of a woman who treats him like garbage. All the while the reader is wondering when the plot will return to the fascinating magic skin.

Thankfully the final third of the book is an improvement over the rest, as it finally concentrates on how Valentin will cope with the regrettable pact he has made with his talisman. Here the story takes some unexpected turns and creatively dabbles in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Valentin need not express his wishes out loud like he’s talking to a genie; even his subconscious desires take their toll on the shrinking patch of hide. He reacts by attempting to eliminate all hope and desire in an effort to prolong his existence. The Magic Skin is ultimately the story of one man’s quest for happiness in life. He seeks satisfaction in love, riches, vice, intellect, idleness, isolation, and even drugs, all to no avail. Meanwhile his life fritters away inescapably. The magic scrap of leather embodies the conflict between the quality and the quantity of a human life, and the ravenous insatiability of man’s materialistic and romantic desires.

At the time of its publication in 1831, The Magic Skin was a sensation, quickly selling out and bringing fame and fortune to its author. Today’s readers, however, likely won’t be as enthusiastic as their 19th-century counterparts, and will find this novel less accessible and appealing than many of Balzac’s other writings. Although it contains some memorable scenes and has some powerful points to make, ultimately it wastes too much time on description and digression. Diehard Balzac fans may like this book, but it won’t be their favorite. Casual readers who enjoyed Père Goriot or Lost Illusions will unfortunately find this novel more in keeping with esoteric works like Louis Lambert.

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