I always finish the year complaining on how few classics I read… and yet, when I try to be intentional and read one, it’s not that easy!
Although it’s a short novel, This Murky Business (there are many different translations of the title) is so rich that it’s difficult to summarize. It starts awkwardly but then after 50 pages the action and the twists of events made me turn the pages until the end. It’s gripping and surprising and well worth the effort, but…
The BIG warning to potential readers (French and foreigners alike), is that a preface AND a postface would certainly be necessary to understand the context and make sense of it all. I just read the Wikipedia page and it wasn’t nearly enough. To Balzac in 1841 the revolution and the reign of Emperor Napoleon were still fresh in everybody’s mind, but to me, I struggle to remember what I learnt in freshman college history. And I can’t imagine what it means for English readers…
Let me try, even if I might make a mess of it.
The beginning of the novel is especially… murky (you can’t say that Balzac didn’t warn us in the title, right?). It’s set in 1803 in rural France, and the power of Napoleon isn’t set yet. People still remember who was responsible for the local guillotine killings. Aristocrats who want to get the king’s family back on the throne are in exile and it’s forbidden to help them. Still, a daring, beautiful young heroine, Laurence de Cinq Cygnes, an heiress whose parents were killed during the Terror, rides her horse across the countryside, seemingly because she’s wild and lonely, but really to help her two cousins, two twin young men who are desperately in love with her and illegally back from exile. The police suspects her and shows up at her castle, but she’s warned by a faithful servant and the cousins escape. The policemen know that they have been fooled and develop a strong grudge against both families.
The second part is set a few years later when the trio are quietly living in their domain under the reign of Emperor Napoleon. They dislike the Emperor and more or less put up with the situation, until they try to retrieve the family money that has been hidden during the Revolution. A complicated conspiracy get them arrested (along with the faithful servant of the first part) and tried for the abduction of a senator. They will barely escape with their lives.
The third part is set many years later when in a Parisian high society gathering, we recognize an old lady as Laurence de Cinq Cygnes and we get to understand the deeper meaning of the conspiracy.
The book offers a fascinating portrait of France at a very complex time. We often learn history by the large political, international events and our teachers lead us from one period to the next as we turn the page of a textbook. But true life events are not so clean-cut, and people don’t know that they are living through the end of the Revolution, or the beginning of the Empire. In the countryside, they might not even know who is in power in Paris. Sometimes even, they are pawns on a larger scale, just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they have irked the wrong guys.
Laurence de Cinq Cygnes is a tragic heroine. She’s idealistic and still wants the king’s family to return to power instead of compromising with Emperor Napoleon. She will undergo a full 360 but at a very high personal cost. I liked her a lot, and looking things through her eyes made up for the intricate shenanigans I couldn’t fully understand. People who were of her generation lived under kings, emperors, tyrants, revolutions and wars and it must have been so tough.