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Vautrin’s Cigar

In response to:

A Late Victorian Love Affair from the August 4, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

As one of the countless readers of Balzac brought to tears by the suicides of Esther Gobseck and Lucien de Rubempré, I should like to comment on an early passage in Richard Ellmann’s essay, “A Late Victorian Love Affair” (NYR, August 4).

In espousing art’s freedom to deal with any subject, writes Mr. Ellmann, “Wilde had in mind not only Gautier and Swinburne, but also Balzac, who took up homosexuality in La Fille aux yeux d’or, and in Illusions perdues, without bothering to give it a name.” But it is not that Balzac didn’t bother to give his subject the modern name by which we know it; it would have been extremely surprising for an early nineteenth-century writer to have done so. Further, Mr. Ellmann does not mention the Balzac novel which centers on a male homosexual couple. Vautrin and Lucien meet only in the very last pages of Illusions perdues, and it is not as clear to me as it is to Mr. Ellmann that Lucien is seduced in the carriage; perhaps the cigar which Vautrin offers and Lucien accepts is a cigar. But there can be no doubt about the character of their relationship in the sequel to Illusions perdues: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, known in English as A Harlot High and Low.

Mr. Ellmann writes: “So a character in Wilde’s The Decay of Lying declares, ‘The greatest tragedy of my life was the death of Lucien de Rubempré.’ ” “One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré” is what Wilde actually wrote (The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, edited by Richard Ellmann, New York: Random House, 1969, p. 299).

Mr. Ellmann continues: “This sentence in turn aroused the indignation of Proust, for whom it was bookridden aestheticism, duly punished in Wilde’s case outside the covers of a book. But it was really part of Wilde’s subtle effort to bring to light and so gain countenance for sexual feelings like his own….”

What is the evidence which impels Mr. Ellmann to defend “Wilde’s subtle effort” against Proust? As far as I know, what Wilde’s bon mot aroused was not Proust’s indignation but his compassion. “Oscar Wilde, whom life, alas, would teach that there are sorrows more piercing than those we get from books, said in his first period (the period of his remark: ‘Before the Lake poets there were no fogs on the Thames’), ‘The greatest grief of my life? The death of Lucien de Rubempré in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.’ ” So Proust wrote in his essay “Sainte-Beuve et Balzac“—taking liberties similar to Mr. Ellmann’s with the quotation. Proust continued: “There is besides something particularly dramatic about Oscar Wilde in his most brilliant days having been drawn to Lucien de Rubempré, and moved by his death…. But one can’t help thinking how a few years later he was himself to be Lucien de Rubempré….” And Proust did use the sentence in A la recherche du temps perdu, when Charlus is praising Balzac (Pléiade edition, Vol. II, p. 1050), still misquoting it but this time not even giving Wilde credit for the sentence.

That Proust may have been as much given to mourning for Lucien de Rubempré as was Wilde is suggested by a note to Proust from his mother written in late September 1896 (Correspondance de Marcel Proust, 1896-1901, Vol. II, edited by Philip Kolb, Paris: Plon, 1976, p. 133). Apparently getting in the last word in a conversation that mother and son have just had about Splendeurs et misères, Madame Proust writes: “La mort de Rubempré m’a touchée moins que celle d’Esther.”

Susan Sontag

New York, New York

Richard Ellmann replies:

I entirely agree with Miss Sontag that the twice refused and finally accepted cigar in Illusions perdues is a cigar. A public coach was hardly the place for a seduction in terms of more than civilities. But that Balzac intended it to be emblematic is confirmed by Lucien’s suicide note in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, in which he writes to Vautrin, “You had given me the right, if it should be in any way to my advantage, to destroy you by throwing you to the ground like a used-up cigar.” The affair begins and ends in nicotine.

My mention of two of Balzac’s books where homosexuality played a part was not intended to be exhaustive. There are others as well. Balzac was wonderfully skillful in presenting the subject without naming it. My remark about his not bothering was meant to be admiring rather than reproachful: he broke through conventional limits of fictional interest without any fuss.

As to Proust’s criticism of Wilde’s remark about Lucien de Rubempré, I had in mind his letter to Robert Dreyfus of May 16, 1908, to be found in Correspondance Générale (1933, IV: pp. 234-235), in Philip Kolb’s Choix de letters (1965, p. 156), in Mina Curtiss’s translation of the Letters (New York, 1949, p. 185), and in George Painter’s Proust (Boston, 1965, II: pp. 107-108). Proust had remarked the parallel between Wilde and Prince Eulenberg, who in 1907 was provoked into a libel suit and thereby disgraced. His letter states that he had first meditated writing an article about the Eulenberg case, and then decided to make it into a story. But he would not keep to the actual material, for that would seem, he wrote, “if not false, at least banal enough to deserve some stinging slap in the face from a resentful existence (like Oscar Wilde’s saying that the death of Lucien de Rubempré in Balzac was the greatest sorrow he had had, and discovering a little later, through his trial, that there are more real sorrows). But you know that this banal aestheticism could not be my aesthetic philosophy” (Mina Curtiss’s translation). Proust was well aware that Wilde’s remark was amusing, but in having it quoted or misquoted by Charlus he is of course suggesting the limits of Charlus’s, as well as of Wilde’s, “banal aestheticism.” My defense of Wilde’s epigram was based upon the argument that he did not intend it merely to register an exaggerated deference to art, but to fit in with his general effort to gain acceptance for homosexual feelings.

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