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2.10.14

À mon chevet: 'Modeste Mignon'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
'For the time being we are, and we can only be, two friends. Why seek an unseen friend? you ask. Your person may be unknown to me, but your mind, your heart I know; they please me, and I feel an infinitude of thoughts within my soul which need a man of genius for their confidant. I do not wish the poem of my heart to be wasted; i would have it known to you as it is to God. What a precious thing is a true comrade, one to whom we can tell all! You will surely not reject the unpublished leaflets of a young girl's thoughts when they fly to you like the pretty insects fluttering to the sun? I am sure you have never before met with this good fortune of the soul -- the honest confidences of an honest girl. Listen to her prattle; accept the music that she sings to you in her own heart. Later, if our souls are sisters, if our characters warrant the attempt, a white-haired old serving-man shall await you by the wayside and lead you to the cottage, the villa, the castle, the palace -- I don't know yet what sort of bower it will be, nor what its color, nor whether this conclusion will ever be possible; but you will admit, will you not? that it is poetic, and that Mademoiselle d'Este has a complying disposition. Has she not left you free? Has she gone with jealous feet to watch you in the salons of Paris? Has she imposed upon you the labors of some high emprise, such as paladins sought voluntarily in the olden time? No, she asks a perfectly spiritual and mystic alliance. Come to me when you are unhappy, wounded, weary. Tell me all, hide nothing; I have balms for all your ills. I am twenty years of age, dear friend, but I have the sense of fifty, and unfortunately I have known through the experience of another all the horrors and delights of love. I know what baseness the human heart can contain, what infamy; yet I myself am an honest girl. No, I have no illusions; but I have something better, something real -- I have beliefs and a religion. See! I open the ball of our confidences.'

-- Honoré de Balzac, Modeste Mignon (translation by Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
I am still wading through the sea of words in Balzac's La Comédie humaine. It is a long haul, but I am nearing the end of the Scènes de la vie privée section with this short novel. Balzac turns here to a quasi-epistolary structure, since a good part of the story consists of an intense and poetic correspondence between a young girl in Le Havre named Modeste Mignon, who writes under a pseudonym to keep her identity hidden, and someone she thinks is her favorite author, a poet who lives in Paris, but who is actually the poet's young secretary. The girl's mother, who is blind, is convinced that her daughter is carrying on a love affair, which the other members of the family and close friends try unsuccessfully to discover. They have no idea that the treasured lovers' meetings are entirely literary, but no less romantic.

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