I sometimes hope that Balzac and I could have been friends. This is based on a superficial knowledge of his love of coffee, his sleepless writing style and his international fame as a lion of French literary realism. Suffice to say that I like coffee and I like the Girl with the Golden Eyes because they are both bitter, stimulating and enervating: “aren’t these humans always reborn just as tense as before, their faces contorted and twisted, divulging from every pore the thoughts, desires and poisons their brains are obsessed with?”
In The Girl with the Golden Eyes Balzac picks up the themes of his age, which are the themes of our age, with a daunting lightness of expression: “the Parisian […] he complains about everything, consoles himself for everything, makes fun of everything, forgets everything, wants everything, samples everything, takes everything with passion, abandons everything without concern […] in just the same way that he abandons his stockings, his hats, and his fortune.”
Balzac takes up the cause of the oppressed, the slight of the oppressors, with indignity at ignorance and its ubiquity. He peals back our urbanised sense of humanity – the same humanity that accommodates poverty with riches, fortune with misfortune, that beds down death and disease with health and beauty so they jostle one with the other and we call them homogenous or acceptable, or inevitable. He routes his narrative through the lowest common denominators: lust, slavery, sexual perversion, murder: and in doing so reveals the softness of the social underbelly in which he writes, its rawness: in essence our vulnerability.
Balzac’s surprising, salacious, seductive novella is not a fable, nor a morality tale. It is not simply a story about a beautiful girl who is the sex slave of a duchess, a woman of status who can say: “she comes from a country where women aren’t human beings, but things with which you do what you want, things that are bought and sold.” Balzac does not moralise openly but reveals. The Girl with the Golden Eyes is not a sexual book because it contains sex or because it examines the sexes. It is not violent because it contains violence. Those things you may read in it but it is only made truly shocking by its affront to our comfortable existence which is this: it predicates its view of the world on a simple and taunting request: “Look. First of all examine the people who have nothing.”