Monday, February 3, 2014

The Elixir of Life by Honoré de Balzac

Cheating the Grim Reaper
The Elixir of Life is an early short story by Honoré de Balzac, originally published in 1830. It’s only about 30 pages long, but, like all the component pieces of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, it is considered a stand-alone piece of literature and is available as an individual e-book file. The story takes place in the 16th century, so it bears no interconnectivity with the other works in the Comédie Humaine, which mostly take place in the 19th century.

The story is introduced by a mini-essay in which Balzac asserts that at some time or another we all hope to profit from someone’s death, whether it’s in anticipation of acquiring inherited wealth or in longing for the cessation of a financial burden. In the story that follows, the main character exemplifies this shameful truth. Don Juan Belvidero is the son of a Spanish nobleman. Though he is spoiled to the fullest extent by his indulgent father, he can’t wait for the elder’s demise so he can claim the family wealth and title for himself. When the longed-for moment arrives, and he is called to his father’s death bed, he dutifully professes his filial love. His father then unexpectedly informs him that he is in possession of a vial of a magic, death-defying potion. If the son will only rub the liquid on his dead body, the father will come back to life. Don Juan assures his father that he will resurrect him, but will he keep his promise or leave his old man in the lurch?

This story was very audacious for its time, and quite innovative in its use of fantasy and horror plot elements. Of course, in Balzac’s hands the macabre tale serves as the backdrop to a larger statement about morality and ethics. It’s a highly entertaining story, but the momentum is periodically stalled by Balzac’s propensity for philosophical asides in which he makes observations about human nature and offers literary allusions that will probably be lost on most of today’s readers.

In Balzac’s day he was often chastised by critics for writing about the darker, uglier, more evil aspects of life. This story is a perfect example of what they were complaining about. The ending of The Elixir of Life is the most outrageous that I’ve ever read from Balzac. Even by today’s standards, it is so delightfully over-the-top you’ll never forget it. Overall this is a strong story, but the ending alone makes it a must-read for any Balzac fan.

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