(Tóibín’s article appeared in the London Review of Books,

Balzac’s Sarrasine tells the story of a young woman’s wonder at the strange appearance of an old man at a party in Paris. Balzac has tremendous fun describing the man. First his clothes: he is wearing ‘a white waistcoat embroidered with gold’ and ‘a shirt-frill of English lace, yellow with age, the magnificence of which a queen might have envied’. Then the face: ‘That dark face was full of angles and furrowed deep in every direction; the chin was furrowed; there were great hollows at the temples; the eyes were sunken in yellow orbits. The maxillary bones, which his indescribable gauntness caused to protrude, formed deep cavities in the centre of both cheeks.’ And it was not just his furrows and hollows, it was his make-up: ‘We often see more hideous old men; but what contributed more than aught else to give to the spectre that rose before us the aspect of an artificial creation was the red and white paint with which he glistened.’ The man also wore a light wig, ‘with innumerable curls which indicated extraordinary pretensions to elegance’. He wore gold earrings and ‘a fixed, unchanging smile, the shadow of an implacable and sneering laugh, like that of a death’s head’. The smell he exuded added to the sport; it was ‘a musk-like odour of the old dresses which a duchess’s heirs exhume from her wardrobe during the inventory’.

Who could the man be?


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