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The Last Fay by Honore Balzac

The Last Fay

by Honore Balzac

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Originally published under a pseudonym in 1823 when the great French author was but age twenty-four, The Last Fay (La Dernière Fée) is a unique blend of fantasy and folklore, a tale of enchantment and breathtaking beauty along with a few highly unexpected turns. In this new Black Coat Press edition, scholar and translator Brian Stableford provides historical and cultural context to more fully appreciate Honoré de Balzac’s bold literary experimentation.

With this early novel Blazac experimented primarily in two respects. First, he wanted to flex his authorial muscles to see how far he could play off his readers' expectations. On this point to say anything more would be to say too much so as to spoil. You will simply have to read The Last Fay for yourself to fathom how far Balzac was willing to extend his literary freedom right up to the last page. What I will say is that anyone familiar with his later novel of fantasy and wish-granting, The Magic Skin (La Peau de Chagrin), will be surprised at the different ways magic and wish-granting weave and eventually knot various narrative strands in The Last Fay. I myself was thrown for a loop a few times.

Balzac’s second experimentation relates to the novel’s main character, Abel, a twenty-year old raised by his mother and father out in nature, far removed from anything approaching the corrupting influence of society or civilization. In this respect Abel is very much a “Child of Nature” in the sense envisioned by Francophone Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And ever since the time of Rousseau, many the novels written either supporting or slamming the influential thinker's philosophic vision of how humans by nature are good and how civilization corrupts, the most famous example the early twentieth century character of Tarzan created by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In The Last Fay Balzac takes this “Child of Nature” theme and adds a critical twist: From an early age Abel is also exposed to Cabinet des fées, an illustrated book of folklore, fantasy tales of kings and queens, princes and princesses, goblins and sprites, fairies and jinn, and most especially of fays, those beautiful young enchantresses from an otherworldly realm of magic. Indeed, Abel’s mother and father read the book to him again and again until after years of repetition, Abel not only gazes at the illustrations but can read the words himself. And, perhaps not surprisingly for such an innocent, Abel comes to believe wholeheartedly in the reality of the creatures described therein, particularly the fays.

In Abel's book of folklore, a fay is a beautiful young enchantress from an otherworldly realm of magic.

Out in the forest, the first people Abel comes in contact with are, of course, his parents. His father is a gifted, ingenious chemist and his mother a loving supporter of her husband. Also, there is Caliban, their faithful servant who also adores the son from the day of the beautiful boy’s birth. Here is how Blazac describes Abel: “His fiery eyes radiated candor and innocence, his brow, as pure as Diana’s and as pale as ivory, brought out the jet-black of his hair, which fell in waves over his snow-white shoulders. His face had the flower of youth, the vivacity of color and elasticity of the features, the virginal appearance and gracious pride, which realize in our eyes the idea we have of young Greeks or angels.”

Alas, the day comes when Abel, now a young man, is alone with Caliban. His wise, loving father fell asleep and was exposed to deadly fumes in his laboratory and his mother died of heartache shortly thereafter. I’m not giving anything away since these events occur in the first couple of chapters and Balzac himself speaks directly to the reader, noting how at this point in the drama the real story he is telling takes place. Actually, I found the author addressing readers in this way rather charming. Anyway, some days pass when an attractive young peasant girl by the name of Catherine makes her way through the forest to the rock where Abel is sitting. I trust nobody will be surprised to learn – fanfare with panpipes – Catherine immediately falls in love with the handsome lad of nature.

The tale moves apace with Abel and Catherine and then it happens one moonlit evening when Abel is alone outside his cottage – a fay appears! Oh, my goodness, does the plot begin to thicken. To further whet your appetite and share the sumptuousness of the novel's language, here are Honoré de Balzac's words: “She had jet-black hair, dotted with pearls whose charming whiteness, softer than that of diamond, made her head resemble a tuft of verdure charged with a thousand dewdrops. A girdle of pearls circled a slender, light and voluptuous waist; a pearl necklace with fifteen rows was only distinguished with difficulty by Abel, because it seemed to be confused with the fay’s skin, so white was she; on her polished arms, delicate and satined, pearl bracelets gleamed; and her dress was embroidered with pearls. She was holding a wand of mother-of-pearl, and from the summit of her head a veil hung down at the back, so light that it seemed to be woven from the wind by the zephyrs themselves. That veil, milk-white, formed in its play a kind of cloud, in the bosom of which she was seated.”

Again, I wouldn’t want to say anything so as to spoil but I will add how, as Brian Stableford remarks, Balzac took this story of the fay and moved in the direction of a “happy ever after” fairy tale ending, however he wanted to accomplish something more daring, more complex, a unique combination of a traditional Beauty and the Beast type story conjoined with narrative themes foreshadowing the realism and tragic dimensions of life he made so much a part of his La Comédie humaine. How exactly? I highly recommend you read The Last Fay to find out.

Catherine - A peasant girl from the nearby village falls in love with Abel. She's a beauty, for sure, but how does her beauty compare with the beauty of a fay?

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  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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