Thoughts: The Girl with the Golden Eyes

“They talk about the immorality of the Liaisons Dangereuses, and any other book you like with a vulgar reputation; but there exists a book, horrible, filthy, fearful, corrupting, which is always open and will never be shut, the great book of the world – not to mention another book, a thousand times more dangerous, which is composed of all that men whisper into each other’s ears, or women murmur behind their fans, of an evening in society.”

I’m a very visually-oriented person, which is why I suppose I also love words. Language, for me, is so powerfully evocative and expressive. In hindsight, that’s the only thing I liked about Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes: the language.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes is chock full of motifs and decadent language and imagery. It’s concise, it’s fast-paced, it’s got so much condensed into it that it’s impossible to take everything in. I was so mesmerized by the visuals Balzac was offering me, that I hardly glanced at the deeper meaning behind the racy storytelling. If you’ve read this (or anything else by Balzac, probably – I wouldn’t know, this was my first time reading him) you’ll realize that it’s quite hard to miss the point, because Balzac likes to ‘insert slabs of philosophy, religious discourse and politics’ wherever he sees fit. Sorry, just quoted myself there. There’s a lot of social criticism, and it’s very blatant too. It takes Balzac quite a while to reach the actual characters, because he’s so wrapped up in describing the immorality of Parisians, and everything else that was ever wrong with France up until the July Monarchy. I rather liked that part of the novella more than the ‘romance’ between Henri de Marsay and Paquita Valdes, though. Call me prudish, but there was something nasty about the experience of reading it; like swallowing bitter medicine, only to find afterwards that it’s petrol, not medicine.

If I were to compare The Girl with the Golden Eyes to what I’ve read in the past, I’d say it reminds me most of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Les Miserables. For different reasons, of course. Les Miserables probably more contextually, because you know, French writers, 19th century, heavy focus on society. Dorian Gray, because of language and themes. Wilde has a more flamboyant way of storytelling; he really cakes on words, and seems to like drowning his readers in the opulence and sheer magnificence of his language. Though Balzac is less wordy, and actually quite minimalist in his writing, The Girl with the Golden Eyes had the same quality of richness that I found in Dorian Gray. What I liked best was the gold motif. Gold is linked to immorality,

Every passion in Paris resolves into two terms: gold and pleasure.

to Paquita:

And in chief, what struck me the most, what I am still taken with, are her two yellow eyes, like a tiger’s, a golden yellow that gleams, living gold, gold which thinks, gold which loves, and is determined to take refuge in your pocket

to Parisians in general:

One of those sights in which most horror is to be encountered is, surely, the general aspect of the Parisian populace–a people fearful to behold, gaunt, yellow, tawny.

It’s the thread of continuity that links Balzac’s more general observations of society with the story of Henri and Paquita. Lust, homosexuality, incest, murder – there are hints of it; though you’d miss it if you weren’t paying close attention. Can’t say much more than that; I think I need to read more Balzac before I can say anything meaningful.

» B for Balzac: this book was read as a part of the A to Z challenge

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts: The Girl with the Golden Eyes

  1. I haven’t read any Balzac either, but we have a copy of Lost Illusions, so I know I will eventually read him!

    I don’t know if it’s simply the books I’ve been picking of late, but I’ve recently been dipping my toe back into the Classics pool, and I’ve certainly been finding that “Classic” authors all seem to spend a good deal of time contemplating the society they were in, in some shape or form. I’ve been finding it much more pronounced than the way in which contemporary authors write. or the issues they focus on (of course not every author can be painted with this brush).

    I tend to prefer character driven novels, I think, compared to those that muse philosophical, but it does sound this has a combination of both. The language you quote is certainly very evocative, and that is always key for me as well – if a book is not well written, well, then there’s no hope for it!

    1. I think I prefer character driven novels, too, but sometimes the two seem inseparable. Like, as in Tolstoy wouldn’t be Tolstoy without his ruminations on religion and society, just as Hugo wouldn’t be Hugo without extensive descriptions of the Parisian sewer system and the nature of love. I suppose Balzac wouldn’t be Balzac either, without his strong criticism/observations(?) of society.

    1. Yeah, the protagonists are both quite kooky and morally perverse; although Henri de Marsay in Golden Eyes reminded me a lot more of Henry Wotton (similar names, even!) than Dorian Gray himself.

  2. I’m reading a Balzac novel for my IRL bookclub next year. I’m glad you like the language — I like books with good language.

    I understand what you mean by “I need to read more to say anything meaningful.” I feel like that with lots of first time reads.

    1. Yeah, it’s like a never ending cycle for me!

      First time read –> need further readings to gain better understanding –> new books –> no time to re-read ones I’ve already read –> :)

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