Balzac didn’t really write a Christmas story when he wrote his ‘Jesus Christ in Flanders’… but it stood in for one, once, most of a hundred years ago, when the tale itself was almost a hundred years old, for a couple hundred people on the Christmas card list of Bessie and Allen Lewis, Mary and George Grady, and Lydia and Warren Chappell.
In 1928, Allen Lewis—an interesting artist associated with Stieglitz—made a woodcut of Balzac’s ship of storm-tossed sinners, and the three couples had the book privately printed. This wasn’t unheard of—if you watch for them, small private commemorative editions turn up. My wife has a copy of a Thomas Mann essay, ‘Sleep, Sweet Sleep’ printed for the friends of George Fleetwood Bromley in Christmas 1934. That isn’t a Christmas story, either.
Balzac’s story is simple: a group of pre-modern folks are taking the ferry back from the island of Cadzant to Ostend late in the day. The skies and sea are not propitious. They are a classic cross-section: a bishop, a soldier, a fine lady and her mother, a merchant, an old woman, a young mother, a feckless gallant, a sharp-eyed ship’s pilot who’s almost just a match for the storm that will engulf them all…as well as a stranger who boards at the last minute and disguised, but is, of course, Christ himself. The hijinks of sinners at judgment ensue…and are curiously moving, as such stories often are, whether or not we hold with the terms or cosmology of the judgments.
It’s curious to realize that the story reads more like a Christmas tale today and in 1928 than it could’ve in 1831, as Dickens hadn’t yet rewired the Christmas tale to be a tale of worth and judgment. But that must’ve been in the minds of some or all of the members of the three couples who chose this story.
Moreover, although Balzac is temperamentally unsuited to writing about humility, he tries hard. He’s tripped up by the fact that he’s claiming for his tale a notable distinction: this is the story of the last manifestation of Christ on earth down to the present day. Why here? Why then? Why not there? Why not then? The answer is the same in any case: because Balzac.
This is not the Balzac you hear about via discussions of Benjamin and modernity, not the Balzac who is the jewel-in-the-crown of our idea of 19th century Paris, but instead the Balzac who was once as popular (in many editions) for his faux 16th century confections, his Droll Stories. We seem to have very little taste for them now. But to put them on like period clothes is to be shaped a little by them: I think of Maggie Cheung speaking about the cheongsams she wore in her incredible turn in In the Mood for Love, the way the dresses held her as part of the performance. That’s a bit of what I mean.
But wait…now my story of a story has a twist I didn’t foresee: I’ve trusted those three couples: the Lewises, the Gradys, and the Chappells to present the tale in full. They did not. Balzac wrote a tale that breaks neatly in half and they privately printed the first half, the last appearance of Christ on Earth, walking on water, rescuing the worthy and leaving footprints on a beach (footprints that were relics until, as Balzac has it, the French Revolution spilled across the border to Ostend and effaced them as just another piece of popery.)
I’ve just this minute discovered that in the full text, Balzac went on. He went into a second half of the story to have a narrator awaken in the in the light of the July Revolution of 1830. I have to stop typing this to read how the story I thought I knew… actually ends.
[Time passes. The snow outside the window remains blinding white, even in the absence of a visible sun. Our Christmas tree stands at attention. My coffee grows cold and then runs out entirely whilst I read, read a Balzac story on the screen of my phone in the strange December of 2020.]
In the second, broken-off half, the depressed narrator—depressed in the wake of the belated final fall of the Bourbon monarchy in the July Revolution of 1830—arrives at the church near Ostend, goes inside, treats us to an ekphrastic riff on church architecture and falls asleep. He dreams of an old woman who becomes a young woman: she leads him to a room in the church and delivers a stern message about the church. He responds strangely, and in kind. Then he’s back in the church, an old docent is locking up and kicks him out into the new world. He vows to defend the church in the world the Revolution, his revolution—whether he realizes it or not—has wrought.
In some ways, we have drifted into even greater shades of A Christmas Carol. Although I see no real threat from this bit of Balzac to that perpetual franchise.
Just the same: Merry Christmas!
First published – as ‘Jésus-Christ en Flandre’ – 1831
Chosen by Drew Johnson. Drew’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Cupboard, Gulf Coast, New England Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.