Madame Firmiani Page 01
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To my dear Alexandre de Berny.
His old friend,
Many tales, either rich in situations or made dramatic by some of the innumerable tricks of chance, carry with them their own particular setting, which can be rendered artistically or simply by those who narrate them, without their subjects losing any, even the least of their charms. But there are some incidents in human experience to which the heart alone is able to give life; there are certain details --shall we call them anatomical?--the delicate touches of which cannot be made to reappear unless by an equally delicate rendering of thought; there are portraits which require the infusion of a soul, and mean nothing unless the subtlest expression of the speaking countenance is given; furthermore, there are things which we know not how to say or do without the aid of secret harmonies which a day, an hour, a fortunate conjunction of celestial signs, or an inward moral tendency may produce.
Such mysterious revelations are imperatively needed in order to tell this simple history, in which we seek to interest those souls that are naturally grave and reflective and find their sustenance in tender emotions. If the writer, like the surgeon beside his dying friend, is filled with a species of reverence for the subject he is handling, should not the reader share in that inexplicable feeling? Is it so difficult to put ourselves in unison with the vague and nervous sadness which casts its gray tints all about us, and is, in fact, a semi-illness, the gentle sufferings of which are often pleasing? If the reader is of those who sometimes think upon the dear ones they have lost, if he is alone, if the day is waning or the night has come, let him read on; otherwise, he should lay aside this book at once. If he has never buried a good old relative, infirm and poor, he will not understand these pages, which to some will seem redolent of musk, to others as colorless and virtuous as those of Florian. In short, the reader must have known the luxury of tears, must have felt the silent pangs of a passing memory, the vision of a dear yet far-off Shade,-- memories which bring regret for all that earth has swallowed up, with smiles for vanished joys.
And now, believe that the writer would not, for the wealth of England, steal from poesy a single lie with which to embellish this narrative. The following is a true history, on which you may safely spend the treasures of your sensibility--if you have any.
In these days the French language has as many idioms and represents as many idiosyncracies as there are varieties of men in the great family of France. It is extremely curious and amusing to listen to the different interpretations or versions of the same thing or the same event by the various species which compose the genus Parisian,-- "Parisian" is here used merely to generalize our remark.
Therefore, if you should say to an individual of the species Practical, "Do you know Madame Firmiani?" he would present that lady to your mind by the following inventory: "Fine house in the rue du Bac, salons handsomely furnished, good pictures, one hundred thousand francs a year, husband formerly receiver-general of the department of Montenotte." So saying, the Practical man, rotund and fat and usually dressed in black, will project his lower lip and wrap it over the upper, nodding his head as if to add: "Solid people, those; nothing to be said against them." Ask no further; Practical men settle everybody's status by figures, incomes, or solid acres,--a phrase of their lexicon.
Turn to the right, and put the same question to that other man, who belongs to the species Lounger. "Madame Firmiani?" he says; "yes, yes, I know her well; I go to her parties; receives Wednesdays; highly creditable house."--Madame Firmiani is metamorphosed into a house! but the house is not a pile of stones architecturally superposed, of course not, the word presents in Lounger's language an indescribable idiom.--Here the Lounger, a spare man with an agreeable smile, a sayer of pretty nothings with more acquired cleverness than native wit, stoops to your ear and adds, with a shrewd glance: "I have never seen Monsieur Firmiani. His social position is that of looking after property in Italy. Madame Firmiani is a Frenchwoman, and spends her money like a Parisian. She has excellent tea. It is one of the few houses where you can amuse yourself; the refreshments are exquisite. It is very difficult to get admitted; therefore, of course, one meets only the best society in her salons." Here the Lounger takes a pinch of snuff; he inhales it slowly and seems to say: "I go there, but don't expect me to present YOU."
Evidently the Lounger considers that Madame Firmiani keeps a sort of inn, without a sign.
"Why do you want to know Madame Firmiani? Her parties are as dull as the Court itself. What is the good of possessing a mind unless to avoid such salons, where stupid talk and foolish little ballads are the order of the day." You have questioned a being classed Egotist, a species who would like to keep the universe under lock and key, and let nothing be done without their permission.