THE CENTENARIAN (1822) – Written by THE Honore de Balzac. Thirty-one days of Halloween continue here at Balladeer’s Blog! The Centenarian or The Two Beringhelds was one of the “quickie” novels that Balzac wrote in his early career, this one under the pseudonym Horace de Saint-Aubin.
Balzac himself looked down on The Centenarian and other early works that he churned out for quick money like the Pulp writers of a century later. Still, this work has value, just like the early Pulp stories from writers like Tennessee Williams, Dashiell Hammett and others. Plus I’m a Napoleon geek so I love immersing myself in the time period in which the novel is set.
The title character is really Count Maxime Beringheld Sculdans. The Centenarian was born in 1470 and led an adventurous life, supposedly even serving as a ship’s doctor when Columbus visited the New World. During his wanderings across the globe Count Maxime studied all the medicine and related sciences that he could.
Under the Rosicrucians the Centenarian learned various secrets of alchemy, including universal healing powers and immortality. Those last two secrets often worked hand in hand: Maxime would use his powers to mystically withdraw the illness or injury out of a sufferer but his “fee” was the draining of the life essence of another person in return.
The Centenarian leeches out the vitality of his victims but NOT by sucking out blood like a vampire. He drains their life force via alchemical means with his “medical” equipment. By the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Count Maxime has grown a bit weary of his eternal life in typical Gothic style.
In recent centuries our title character has devoted himself to secretly watching over his family line, mysteriously saving their lives or killing off their enemies at crucial periods. The Centenarian has most recently intervened in Spain during the Wars of the French Revolution, saving the life of his descendant General Tullius Beringheld.
Intrigued, Tullius seeks out information on his enigmatic savior and eventually learns the Centenarian’s true identity and about his supernatural nature. By this point (the 1790s) Maxime’s body is misshapen. His arms are emaciated but his torso and legs are thick and muscular.
He is unusually tall but the skin on his head is so thin that his scalp and facial features resemble a living skull. He smells of the grave but his powers of healing make others treat him with fear and respect despite the awful fee he demands.
The Centenarian’s additional powers include immunity to hanging and other forms of mortal injury. He has superhuman strength and his fiery eyes can induce fear, paralysis or death. He can read minds and teleport as well.
Immediately after feeding on another’s life essence Maxime is swift and energetic but grows more listless and shambling the longer he goes between victims. Our hero Tullius grows more fearful of his ancestor the more he learns about the man’s activities over the centuries.
The Centenarian next intervenes on Tullius’ behalf during Napoleon’s Campaign in Egypt. He heals Tullius and all EIGHT HUNDRED of his men so they can defeat the Mamelukes. Since his descendant has hitched his wagon to Napoleon’s rising star Maxime facilitates Bonaparte’s rise to power in subtle ways.
By the time the novel draws to a close (1810 or 1811), General Beringheld has seen the Centenarian ply his horrific medical trade in exchange for sacrificial lives enough times to despise him. If the loved ones of a patient of Maxime’s fearfully try to back out of offering their life up to the Centenarian he coldly steals the life-force of the person he just cured instead.
In the thrilling conclusion a series of complications mean Tullio’s true love Marianine is the only available victim handy at the moment for the famished Centenarian to feed upon. He steals her away to his alchemical laboratory hidden far beneath the Louvre but accessible through the Catacombs of Paris.
Tullio must race against time to save Marianine and betray his ancestor Maxime despite all the worldly accoutrements the Centenarian has provided for him. Without Marianine none of them will mean anything to him.
Overall The Centenarian is readable but not spectacular. A large part of the fun is knowing the greatness that lay ahead in Balzac’s career.
Count Maxime is a ghoulish enough presence for the Halloween season and his obsession with trying to reconcile alchemy and mysticism with rational science and medicine nicely foreshadows some of the themes of Balzac’s mature writings. +++
FOR ISABELLA OF EGYPT, FEATURING A GOLEM, A MANDRAGORE, A LIVING DEAD MAN, A GYPSY WITCH AND A JEWISH SORCEROR CLICK HERE
FOR MORE HALLOWEEN ITEMS CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/category/halloween-season/
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