August 10, 2006


The Centenarian; or, The Two Beringhelds. By Honoré de Balzac. Translated and annotated by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser. Wesleyan University Press. $29.95.

     Written a mere four years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and a mere two after Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Honoré de Balzac’s The Centenarian has fascinating resemblances to both books – and an entirely different perspective.  This is one of the very earliest works of French science fiction, long predating anything by Jules Verne.  It is also very early Balzac: he was only 22 when the work was published under the pseudonym Horace de Saint-Aubin.

     In later years, Balzac disavowed everything he wrote under names other than his own, including this novel.  Certainly the book is a piece of juvenilia, and certainly it does not have the merits of his later work – but it is a fascinating novel nevertheless.  It is also a remarkably fast-paced one in this first-ever English translation, without the paragraph-long sentences that characterize much later Victorian writing.  The language is plain enough and flows well enough so that the book reads quite well, despite some stilted phrasing (presumably original to Balzac): “In an instant, the General had guessed the young girl’s character: her large eyes, round and shining, indicated by their mobility, a soul easily enraptured; her broad forehead, her somewhat thick lips seemed to speak of a heart that was big, generous, and proud with that pride that excludes neither confidence nor affability.”

     The General in that sentence, also called Tullius, is one of the two Beringhelds of the novel’s subtitle.  The other Beringheld is the character that turns this into science fiction: he is a 400-year-old scientist who lives on by extracting a certain vital fluid from living victims.  This elder Beringheld is also the General’s father – not great-great-many-times-removed grandfather, but his actual father – through some additional scientific intervention.

     The crux of the book is the inevitable conflict between the Centenarian and the General, a man of Balzac’s own time who has risen to prominence in Napoleon’s army through demonstrated ability rather than through innate intelligence and aristocratic mien.  Balzac does not explicitly identify the elder Beringheld with the discredited ancien régime, but the parallel is certainly there.  Standing between the society-oriented General and his self-oriented elder is a young woman named Marianine, the pure object of the General’s affections but also a potential source of vital fluids for the Centenarian.  Modern readers will immediately see a parallel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula – but that book dates to 1897, a full 75 years after The Centenarian.  And although Dracula also explores elder darkness in the modern world, Stoker never creates a female character who develops the pluck and steadfastness of Marianine, for it is she who is finally responsible for the Centenarian’s destruction.

     The Centenarian is remarkable in its exploration of then-new scientific concepts and then-current themes (including those common to Gothic novels), and for its anticipation of elements of future SF as well.  The novel sprawls a bit – indeed, more than a bit – and its structure will not please all readers: much of it is a long flashback.  It is repetitious and formulaic in places, and the translators make no attempt to disguise this.  Still, if it is a potboiler, it is a surprisingly effective one, and from a most unexpected source.  Fans of unusual SF will certainly enjoy it.

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