Monday, January 30, 2017

The Vicar of Tours by Honoré de Balzac

Have you heard the one about the priest and the landlady?
The Vicar of Tours, or Le Curé de Tours, a short novel by Honoré de Balzac, was published in 1832. It was originally titled Les Célibataires, but the title was changed in a later edition. Les Célibataires is also the name of a subtrilogy within Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, this being the second volume, preceded by Pierrette and followed by La Rabouillieuse (translated into English as The Black Sheep or Two Brothers/A Bachelor’s Establishment). Don’t worry too much about that, however. The many works in the Comédie Humaine are only loosely related to one another, so even if you’ve never read any Balzac you can still enjoy this book on its own.

The Vicar of Tours stars the Abbé François Birotteau (brother of César Birotteau, who has his own eponymous Balzac novel), a mild-mannered, provincially naive clergyman. Though content with his life overall, Birotteau has two nagging desires: a comfortable home and promotion to the clerical rank of canon. For years he has envied the pleasant furnishings and well-stocked library in his good friend the Abbé Chapeloud’s apartment. When Chapeloud passes away, he generously bequeaths the room and its contents to Birotteau. Part of the attraction of the domicile is the landlady, Mademoiselle Sophie Gamard, an aging spinster who diligently caters to her tenants’ needs and sets one of the best tables in town. After a brief period of domestic bliss, Birotteau begins to suspect that Mlle Gamard is angry with him and purposefully slighting his needs. Unbeknownst to the abbé, she has become irate that he prefers to spend his evenings out with rich parishioners instead of inviting people of quality into her drawing room. While Birotteau strives to keep a low profile and avoid conflict, Mlle Gamard’s disgruntlement only escalates, soon drawing others into her web of vindictiveness.

The Victor of Tours is expertly written, with vividly drawn characters and an engaging story that immediately draws the reader into this provincial microcosm of French society. Nevertheless, the subject matter can’t help but feel a bit inconsequential. The merits of the story are not sufficient to make you forget that you’re reading a book about the petty squabbles of a bumbling priest and a shrewish old maid. For Balzac, that might be the whole point. The reason the book was called Les Célibataires (those who are celibate) is because Balzac is trying to make a point about celibacy, namely that those who do not occupy themselves with sexual relationships or romantic love must find some other outlet for their energies. The result is they often take molehills and blow them up into mountains, as exhibited here by Birotteau, Gamard, and a third character, Abbé Troubert, Birotteau’s fellow tenant and rival clergyman.

Of course, any indictment of celibacy is also a criticism of the Catholic Church and its celibate priests. In fact, much of the story’s delightful humor comes at the expense of organized religion. Here the Church is depicted as a competitive bureaucracy populated by self-interested egotists. Birotteau is often painted as a buffoon, though a likeable one.

Balzac is a great storyteller, so not surprisingly, The Vicar of Tours is a well-told story, but it’s nowhere near as profound in its psychological insights as more substantial works like Lost Illusions, Eugénie Grandet, or Cousin Bette. However, if you don’t take it too seriously (as I suspect Balzac didn’t), it’s a light, fun, and entertaining read.
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