FÉDER or the Gilded Husband
an unfinished novella by Stendhal
translated from the French by Brian Evenson
At seventeen, Féder, one of the most well-to-do young men of Marseilles, was driven from his father’s home; he had just committed a grave error: he had married an actress of the Grand-Theatre. His father, a German who was highly moral and was, in addition, a rich wholesaler long established in Marseilles, cursed Voltaire and French irony twenty times a day. What perhaps enraged him the most about the strange marriage of his son were a few nimble comments à la française by which his son attempted to justify himself.
True to form, despite being born two-hundred leagues from Paris, Féder professed to despise commerce, seemingly because it was his father’s trade; in addition, since he had taken pleasure from seeing several fine old paintings in the Marseilles museum while finding certain contemporary daubings that the government dispatches to the Provence museums appalling, he ended up imagining himself an artist. Of the true artist, he had only his contempt for money, and even this contempt came above all from his horror for office work and his father’s concerns: he saw only the outward inconveniences of it. Michel Féder, endlessly declaiming against the vanity and fickleness of the French, was very careful not to admit to his son the divine pleasures of vanity, which his associates’ praise gave him, after they had just shared with him the profits of some good investment sprung from the old German’s head. What offended him was that despite his moral sermons, his associates promptly transformed their profits into trips to the country, hunting in the woods, and other good physical pleasures. For him, shut up in his business’s backroom, a volume by Steding and a big pipe constituted all his pleasures, and he amassed millions.
When Féder fell in love with Amélie, a young actress of seventeen just out of conservatory and highly lauded in the role of the Little Sailor, he knew only two things: how to ride a horse and how to paint miniatures. These portraits had a striking resemblance—one couldn’t deny them that—but this was the only thing that could justify the artist’s pretensions. They were always atrociously ugly, achieving their resemblance only by exaggerating the model’s defects.
Michel Féder, the rather well known director of Michel Féder and Co., harangued all day long in favor of natural equality but never could forgive his only son for having married a little actress. The attorney in charge of protesting the bad bills of exchange addressed to his firm pointed out in vain that the son’s marriage had been performed only by a Spanish capuchin (in the South, they haven’t yet bothered to make marriage a civil ceremony); Michel Féder, born at Nuremburg and an extravagant Catholic (as those in Bavaria are), saw all marriage in which the dignity of the sacrament had interceded as indissoluble. The extreme vanity of the German philosopher was above all shocked by a sort of Provincial saying which was soon popular in Marseilles:
“Rich Monsieur Féder, from Bavaria, is now the in-law of the little sailor.”
Outraged by this new attack of French irony, he declared that as long as he lived he would never again see his son, and sent him fifteen-hundred francs with the command to never appear before him.
Féder leaped with joy at the sight of fifteen-hundred francs. It had been with immense difficulties that he had been able to gather, on his part, a more or less equal sum, and the next day he left for Paris, the center of wit and civilization, with the little sailor, delighted to see the Capitol and his friends from the Conservatory again.
A few months later, Féder lost his wife, who died in giving him a little girl. He thought he should tell his father of these two serious events, but a few days later he found out that Michel Féder was ruined and on the run. His immense fortune had gone to his head, his vanity had aspired to gaining possession of all of a certain type of cloth made in France; he wanted to have embroidered on the hem of the pieces of cloth the words: Féder von Deutschland (Féder the German), and then double the current cost of this cloth which, naturally, would take the name of Féder cloth. This was supposed to immortalize him. This idea, not un-French, was followed by total bankruptcy, and our hero found himself with a thousand francs of debt and a little girl in the middle of a Paris he didn’t know at all and where, over the features of each reality, he applied a fantasy, the daughter of his imagination.
Until then, Féder had only been conceited, at heart excessively proud of his father’s fortune. But, fortunately, his pretension to one day become a famous artist had led him to read Malvasia, Condivi, and the other historians of the great Italian masters with passion. Nearly all had been poor men, not schemers, very poorly treated by fortune, and, without thinking about it, Féder had become accustomed to regard as rather happy a life filled with ardent passions and to worry little about limitations of money or dress.
Upon his wife’s death, Féder occupied a small, furnished apartment on the fourth floor of Monsieur Martineau’s, a cobbler of the rue Taitbout who enjoyed a good living and furthermore had the honor of being a corporal in the national guard. Cruel mother nature had given Monsieur Martineau the hardly military height of four feet ten inches, but the shoe artiste had found compensation for this cutting disadvantage: he made himself boots with two-inch high heels à la Louis XIV, and he usually wore a magnificent Busby that was two and a half feet tall. Thus rigged out, he had the pleasure of catching a bullet in the arm during one of the Paris riots. This bullet, the constant object of Martineau’s ruminations, changed his character and made him a man of noble thoughts.
When Féder lost his wife, he owed four months’ rent to Monsieur Martineau, which is to say three-hundred and twenty francs. The cobbler told him:
“You’re miserable, I don’t want to trouble you. Paint a portrait of me in uniform with my regulation hat and we’ll be even.”
This portrait, of a hideous likeness, was the admiration of all the surrounding shops. The corporal placed it close to the plate-glass that English fashion puts on shop fronts. The entire company to which Martineau belonged came to admire that painting, and several national guards had the brilliant idea of founding a museum in their district’s town hall. This museum would consist of the portraits of all the national guards to have the honor of being killed or wounded in combat. The regiment had two other wounded, Féder did their portraits, always with an abominable likeness, and when it was a matter of payment, he answered that he had been only too happy to reproduce the features of two great citizens. These words made his fortune.
Retaining the privilege of people of good breeding, Féder very gently mocked the decent citizens whom he addressed, but the gluttonous vanity of these heroes took all his compliments at face value. Several national guards of the company, and then of the battalion, made this argument: “I could be wounded, and even, since the noise of gunshots has a surprising influence on me and emboldens me to great actions, I could very well get myself killed one day. Thus it is necessary for my fame to have my portrait completed in advance, so that it can be placed in the museum of honor of the 2nd legion.”
Before his father’s ruin, Féder had never done portraits for money; now poor, he declared that his portraits would cost a hundred francs for the public and only fifty francs for the brave national guards. This announcement shows that Féder had acquired some know-how after his father’s ruin had led him to abandon the affectations of an artist’s self-conceit. Since he had such refined manners, it became fashionable in the legion to invite the young painter to dine on the day of the unveiling of the portrait through which the head of the family might hope for immortality.
Féder had one of those regular and fine faces often found in Marseilles amidst the coarseness of present-day Provence. Faces which, after so many centuries, recall the Greek features of the Phoenicians who founded the city. The ladies of the second legion soon learned that the young painter had dared to brave the wrath of a father, at the time immensely rich, to marry a young girl who had no fortune apart from her beauty. This touching story didn’t take long to dress itself in novelistic incident, up to and including madness; two or three brave men from Martineau’s company, who found themselves in Marseilles, had taken it upon themselves to describe the amazing extravagances into which our hero had been thrown by a love such as had never been seen before. He found himself obliged to be a favorite of the ladies of the company; afterwards, several ladies of the battalion, and even of the legion, found him kind. By then he was nineteen and had managed, by means of bad portraits, to pay Monsieur Martineau what he owed. One of the husbands at whose house he dined most often under the pretext of giving drawing lessons to two small girls was one of the richest suppliers for the Opéra and made introductions for him there.
Féder had stopped letting the follies of his imagination guide his conduct, and, through contact with all of these vulgar vanities, crude and terrible to comprehend, he had acquired a little intelligence! He thanked deeply the lady who had helped him attain this favor, but declared that, despite his mad passion for music, he couldn’t take advantage of it: since his misfortunes (often he opted for this word out of good taste), which is to say since the death of the wife whom he had married out of love, the tears he had never stopped shedding had weakened his eyesight, and it was impossible for him to see the performance from anywhere in the hall: it was too sparkling with light. This objection, so respectable because of its origin, earned Féder, just as he had expected, entry into the wings, and it secured the second advantage, furthermore and in addition to that, of persuading the brave men of the second legion that the intimate company of the young painter held no danger for their wives. Our young man from Marseilles by then had on hand, as they say in shops, several five-hundred franc notes, but he found himself quite bored with the success he was having with the shopkeeper’s ladies. His imagination, still wild, had persuaded him that happiness is found with well-bred women, which is to say those who have beautiful white hands, live in sumptuous first floor apartments, and have their own horses. Energized by this chimera that kept him dreaming day and night, he spent his evenings at the Bouffes or in Tortoni’s salons and took lodgings in the best part of the Saint-Honoré neighborhood.
Taught the history of manners under Louis XV, Féder believed there was a natural connection between the Opéra and the leading figures of the monarchy. He saw, on the other hand, a wall of bronze arisen between the shopkeepers and good society. Arriving at the Opéra, he searched among the two or three great talents of dance or song for a mind that could provide him the means of seeing good society and working his way into it. The name of Rosalinde, the famous dancer, was European: she had perhaps lived through thirty-two summers, but she was still quite attractive. Her figure, especially, was distinguished by a nobility and grace which become rarer each day, and three times a month in four or five of the biggest papers the good taste of her manners was highly praised. A feuilleton, which was quite well produced but which also cost five-hundred francs, decided Féder’s choice, just as the good taste of those newly rich from their shops had put him into despair.
He studied the lay of the land for a month, always, through the national guard, making known his misfortunes in the wings. Finally, he decided on a mode of attack.
One evening, as Rosalinde danced in the ballet currently in fashion, Féder, who had placed himself reasonably well behind a clump of trees sticking out onto the stage, fainted with admiration just as the curtain fell. When the beautiful Rosalinde, covered with applause, returned to the wings, she found everyone fussing over the young painter, who was already known through his misfortunes and whose state gave cause for concern. Rosalinde owed her talent, truly divine in pantomime, to one of the most impressionable souls in the theater. She owed her manners to the five or six great nobles who had been her first friends. She was touched by the fate of this young man who had already undergone such great misfortunes in life. His face seemed to her of singular nobility, and his story seized her imagination.
“Give him your hand to kiss,” an old female extra who was holding smelling salts near Féder’s face told her. “If he’s like this, it’s because of love for you. The poor young man is penniless and madly in love, that’s the bad luck of it.”
Rosalinde disappeared and soon returned with her hands and arms perfumed with the scent then most in vogue. Does it need to be said that the young man from Marseilles came out of his deep faint, offering up the most touching expressions? By this time, he was so bored from having stayed, eyes closed and unspeaking, in the middle of such chatter, that his glances, always quite lively, threw flames. Rosalinde was so profoundly touched by this accident that she wanted to take him away in her carriage.
Féder’s wits were quite the equal of the circumstances he had created and less than a month after this first and so well-handled encounter Rosalinde’s passion became so inflamed that the regional newspapers spoke of it. Though quite rich, since practicing the arts destroys prudence with money, Rosalinde wanted to marry Féder.
“You have thirty, forty, I don’t know how many thousands of francs in income,” said Féder to his friend. “My love for you is established for life, but it seems to me that I couldn’t marry you honorably until I had raised, on my own, at least half that amount.”
“You will have to submit to several small and rather tiresome tasks. No matter: follow my council, my dear angel, have patience, and two years from now I’ll make you fashionable. Then, you’ll raise the price of your portraits to fifty Louis, and, a few years later, I will make you a member of the Academy. Once you’ve reached that height of glory, you will permit me to throw your paintbrushes out the window: all the world will know that you have gained an income of six hundred Louis. Then a marriage for love becomes a sensible marriage, and naturally you will find yourself at the head of a fortune of more than twenty-thousand crowns a year, because I’ll save as well.
Féder swore he would submit to all her counsel.
“But I’ll become a tiresome pedant in your eyes, and you will begin to loathe me!”
Féder protested that his docility would match his love, in other words it would be infinite. He believed that the difficult path being marked out for him was the only one that could lead him to those women of high society whom his imagination painted as divinely beautiful and polite.
“Well, then,” said Rosalinde, sighing, “I’ll begin to play the role of the pedant, a role more dangerous for me than any other I’ve played in my life; but swear you’ll warn me when I bore you.”
Féder swore in such a way that he believed it himself.
“Very well! first,” continued Rosalinde, “you’re much too colorfully dressed; you follow cheerful fashions attentively; are you forgetting, then, your misfortunes? You must always be the inconsolable husband of the beautiful Amélie, your wife. If you still have the courage to endure life, it is so as to pay tribute to the image of her that remains with you. I will create excessively distinguished clothing for you that will be the despair of our jockeys¹ if one of them ever tries to imitate it. Each day before you go out I will do what a general does for his soldiers, I will pass your appearance in review. Secondly, I am going to subscribe you to the Quotidienne and to the collected works of the Holy Fathers. When your father left Nuremburg, he was noble: Monsieur von Féder. Consequently, you are noble; be therefore religious. Although living in disorder, you have all the sentiments of deep piety, and this is what will later lead to and sanctify our marriage. If you don’t mind charging fifty Louis for your portraits, and never under any pretext neglect your Christian duties, you will have a brilliant future. While awaiting the certain success of this slightly annoying behavior, which I take upon myself to make you follow, I want to arrange with my own hands the apartment where you will receive the young women who, soon, will compete for the pleasure of being painted by a young man as unusual and handsome as yourself. Wait, and you’ll see this apartment exhale the most austere gloom. You see, if you don’t care to appear sad in the street, you must absolutely renounce everything and sentence yourself to the misfortune of marrying me today. I will leave my country house, we’ll choose a place twenty-five leagues from Paris, in some forgotten spot. Those are the shipping fees that it will cost us, but your reputation will be saved. There, among the good provincial folk of the neighborhood, you can be as wild as your southern nature dictates, but in Paris and its suburbs, you must be, above all and always, the inconsolable husband, the well-born man, and the Christian devoted to his duties, even while living with a dancer. Although I’m quite unattractive and your Amélie was very pretty, you will make it understood that if I have found favor in your eyes it is because I look like her, and the day you fainted at the Opéra (Rosalinde threw herself into his arms), it was because in the ballet in which I was performing I had just made a gesture exactly like one that Amélie made playing the Little Sailor.
It was just to have this sort of conversation that Féder had spent such a tedious hour the day of his fainting fit in the wings of the Opéra. But he was far from expecting such a severe scheme. What! he, naturally so lively and cheerful, playing the role of a melancholic?
“Before answering you, o my adored one!” he said to Rosalinde, “permit me to think it over for a few days. Then, make me unhappy,” he said to her, “if you want to see me walk sadly down the Boulevard.”
“You will do as I did at the beginning of my career,” said Rosalinde. “Then, the public was stupid, and you had to have your toes turned out, and, with each step, I was obliged to pay attention to my feet. Ten minutes of walking absent-mindedly turned them in for a week. As for the rest, take it or leave it; if you don’t throw yourself headfirst into a melancholy style, if you don’t read the Quotidienne every day so as to repeat, as needed, all its arguments when you meddle in serious conversation, you’ll never have a fifteen-thousand franc income, and you will make me die of sorrow,” she added, laughing, “for you will never make me Madame Féder.”
What followed here were two or three very difficult months; our hero had great trouble adopting a melancholy style. What was worst for this lively and impressionable Southerner was that in pretending sadness he became sad, and nothing could then serve as an antidote.
Rosalinde adored him and she had the cunning of a devil: she found a remedy. She bought two pairs of pants and an outfit that was stylish but utterly worn; she had it all washed and re-dyed; she added to these trappings a pinchbeck watch, a parody of a hat, and a false diamond pin. When she had assembled this costume, one day when Féder had fallen into his gloomy moods from playing the melancholic on the boulevard for two full hours:
“Here’s what my wisdom has just decided on,” cried Rosalinde with a profound look. “We’re going to dine early; I’m going to dress you as a notary’s clerk, I’ll lead you to the Chaumière; there, I permit you to repeat all the follies that you committed in days of old in the village dances near Marseilles. You’re going to tell me that you’ll be bored at this Chaumière dance; I’ll answer that if you apply yourself to playing the role of a ridiculous Deschalumeaux, and to dancing while skipping as you do in the South, you won’t be bored. Moreover, after having left you at the Chaumière, I’ll run to Saint-Ange’s (he was an old and noble retired dancer), he will give me his arm, and I will return to enjoy your farces—but I won’t acknowledge you: it would be too dangerous. I won’t speak; otherwise you wouldn’t have any credit, and to amuse myself a little, I will persuade Saint-Ange that we have had a falling out, and I will see, monsieur, what pretty things he tells me about you.”
This game, thus arranged, was great fun; Rosalinde added some diverting episodes to it; she allowed herself to be courted by two or three young men of the Chaumière; they had recognized her, and she threw them glances charged with passion.
This idea was such a success that they repeated it several times. Rosalinde—who watched Féder act, counseled him, and by repeating to him that he would only truly amuse himself by putting on an act, just exactly as he would do in a theater—managed to make him into a ridiculous notary’s clerk, much more busy with his imitation of exquisite manners, but much more amusing than all the others.
“What is funny is this,” said Féder to Rosalinde. “Having surrendered myself for an entire evening to the burlesque execution of all the follies which, yesterday evening, seemed annoying to me, today I discovered much more ease in reproducing, on the boulevard, the lifeless gestures and the interest-deprived look of the man devastated by memories of the grave.”
“I’m delighted to see you’re doing it on your own; you have now achieved something I’ve tried to tell you twenty times: it’s the primary principle of my actress’s trade, but I much prefer that you have come to feel it. So, my little Féder, it isn’t just melancholy plays that you must act in: you folk of the South who aspire to live in Paris must always be acting—nothing less than that, my handsome friend. Your air of gaiety and spirit, the quickness with which you respond, shock the Parisian who is by nature a slow animal and whose soul is soaked in fog. Your joyfulness irritates him; it seems intended to make him seem old, which is the thing he hates most. So, out of revenge, he declares you coarse and incapable of appreciating the witticisms that are the nightmare of the Parisian’s happiness. Thus, my little Féder, if you want to succeed in Paris, adopt a touch of the unhappy and discouraged air of a man sensing the onset of stomach pains in those moments when you say nothing. Extinguish that lively and happy look which is so natural to you and which makes me happy. Permit yourself this look, so dangerous here, only when meeting privately with your mistress; everywhere else think of the onset of stomach pains. Look at Rembrandt, see how miserly he is with light; you other painters, you say that he owes his great effect to this. Well, not just to succeed in Paris, but simply to be put up with here and not end up seeing opinion throw you out the window, be miserly with this air of joy and rapidity of movement that you bring from the South; think of Rembrandt.”
“But, my angel, it seems I am honoring the mistress who makes me happy by teaching myself sadness. Do you know what’s happening to me? I’m succeeding too well. The unfortunate people I paint look even more bored than usual; my melancholy conversation knocks them senseless.”
“In fact,” exclaimed Rosalinde happily, “I’d forgotten to tell you, it has gotten back to me from various sources that you’re being criticized for being sad.”
“They’ll want nothing to do with me.”
“Paint all women who are under twenty-two as you see them; brazenly give the age of twenty-five to all women of thirty-five, and to worthy grandmothers maturing with white hair give boldly the eyes and mouth of a thirty-year-old. In this, I find you to be too awkwardly timid. Yet these are the ABCs of your profession. Flatter them terribly, as if you wanted to make fun of the good folk who come to be painted. Just a week ago, while you were painting the portrait of that old lady who had such charming greyhounds, you made her forty-five, and yet she was only sixty. Through my little peephole cut into the edge of your Rembrandt, I could see quite clearly that she was very dissatisfied, and it is because you made her forty-five that she made you start her hair over twice.”
One day, in front of Rosalinde, Féder said to one of his friends:
“Look at these twenty-nine cent gloves that the theater porter sold me and which truly are worth every bit as much as those you pay three francs for.”
The friend smiled and didn’t answer.
“Is it really possible you still say things like that?” cried Rosalinde once the friend had wandered away. “That will slow your admission into the Institute down by three years; you kill, as if for the fun of it, the reputation which is about to come into existence! You may be suspected of poverty; thus, never speak of anything that indicates a habit of economizing. Never speak about whatever at the moment has the slightest interest for you; this weakness can have the most deplorable consequences. Is it so difficult to always play a role? Play the part of the amiable man, and always ask yourself: “What might please this eccentric who is here before me?” The Prince of Mora-Florez, who left me a hundred-thousand francs in his will, often repeated this maxim to me. You were so well aware, when you lived with the brave national guards of your legion, how the Parisian returning from Siberia must say that it wasn’t all that cold there, just as he must exclaim when returning from Santa Domingo that really it wasn’t all that hot. In a word, you told me that to be amiable you must in this country say the opposite of what your interlocutor is expecting. And you’re the one who has just spoken of a wretched thing like the price of a pair of gloves! Your studio last year was worth the better part of ten-thousand francs; I persuaded your friend Valdor, the eighth stockbroker in charge of my business, that, with all your expenses deducted, you still had twelve one-thousand franc bills at the end of the year, which I invested with him in a private account. Mylord Kantstaptakken (Can’t-stop-talking, that’s Valdor’s nickname) spread it all through our circle that your studio was worth more than twenty-five-thousand francs. And you come along and speak with admiration of the twenty-nine cents that a pair of gloves cost!”
Féder threw himself into her arms; this was what he wanted in a friend.
Ever since having had such great success with a worn coat and pinchbeck jewelry, he continued to go to the Chaumière and other venues of that sort. Rosalinde knew it and was in despair over it. The number of people who knew Féder to be a melancholy character increased tenfold every year; some of these friends had seen him at the dances of the Chaumière; he had confessed to them that it was a frantic debauchery, that this sensation was the only thing that could distract him from his misfortunes. Debauchery doesn’t lower a man like gaiety does: people looked past it, and it was with admiration that they spoke of the folly that the solemn Féder knew how to find again on Sundays, to please the Amandas and the Athenians who, during the week, tended hats and dresses at Delille’s or Victorine’s.
One day, Rosalinde started a serious quarrel. Féder’s conduct was polite to her; she couldn’t complain, though she often cried. But Féder, upon paying her a sum of three-hundred-ten francs and seventy-five centimes, searched through his vest for the seventy-five centimes. You need to know that when Féder came to live with Rosalinde, who had a magnificent apartment on the boulevard, near the Opéra, it had been agreed that Féder wouldn’t pay half of the eight-thousand francs that this fine apartment cost, but instead the six-hundred and twenty-one francs and fifty centimes that he was paying for the student apartment on the fifth floor, which he was leaving to Rosalinde. It was while paying a half-year of this little apartment that he showed proof of an exactitude so distressing to Rosalinde.
“In truth,” she said with tears in her eyes, “you keep your little accounts with me up-to-date, as if you were on the verge of leaving me. I see how you want to be able to say to your friends: ‘I loved Rosalinde,’ perhaps even: ‘I lived with her for three years; I feel all possible obligation toward her; she made sure my cases of miniatures got the best spots in the exhibition. But in the end, in matters of money as such, we were always like brother and sister.’”
1 - Stendhal is referring here to members of the prestigious and exclusive Jockey-Club in Paris.
Check in every month for another installment of, Féder (or the Gilded Husband), this fantastic and unfinished novella that we will be serializing throughout the winter, spring, and summer of ‘11.
ContributorStendhall , translated from the French by Brian Evenson
MARIE-HENRI BEYLE (23 January 1783 - 23 March 1842), known by his nom de plume STENDHAL, was a master at acutely analyzing his characters' psychology. He is considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism. Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830) and La Chartreuse de Parme (The Chartreuse of Parma, 1839) are the two novels for which he is best known.
BRIAN EVENSON is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the limited edition novella Baby Leg. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Fremon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.