The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Centenarian, or the Two Beringhelds (1822)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Centenarian, or the Two Beringhelds (original: Le Centenaire, ou les Deux Beringheld) was written by Honoré de Balzac. Balzac (1799-1850) was the creator of the Comédie Humaine cycle of novels, a massive, interconnected series of novels which embodies Balzac’s desire to “reproduce the spirit of an age.” Although Balzac’s work lacks the refinement and skill of some of his contemporaries, his prodigious output and the manner in which he faithfully reproduced the reality of France and ordinary Frenchmen and women were enormously influential. Balzac essentially created the realist movement in France and had a huge influence on the modern novel.
The Centenarian is set in the Napoleonic era ("181...") and is about General Tullius Beringheld, a French general of an ancient and noble family. Tullius, serving in Napoleon's Army, encounters a strange old man whose knowledge of healing is unmatched but who also kills a young girl. Tullius investigates further and hears stories about the old man, all of which involve him healing the sick but killing others. Tullius eventually discovers that the old man, the Centenarian, is a relative (the two resemble each other), a four hundred year old Count of the Beringheld Sculdans branch of the family who learned from the Rosicrucians the secret of eternal life. The key, unfortunately, is to drain the life essence from another. While Tullius is discovering this the Centenarian is befriending Marianne, Tullius' lady love. The Centenarian is about to drain her life in his headquarters beneath the Louvre when she is rescued by Tullius and his men, who then attack the Centenarian. But later, when the Centenarian's body is sought after, it is not found.
The Centenarian is one of Balzac's apprentice works and has none of his commitment to be the "secretary of the age," to show society as a whole. This is one of his melodramatic, plot-driven novels, with all the over-writing that entails. Too, it is a late Gothic, and has all the trademarks/clichés of the late Gothics: moonlit wanderings, a story told by a witch, catacombs, ruins, degenerate aristocracy, a scheming priest, family secrets returning to haunt the present, a portrait with moving eyes, and a Wandering Jew figure in the Centenarian. The roman à tiroirs structure (linked stories within the story) used in such Gothics as Melmoth the Wanderer (an obvious influence on The Centenarian) and The Necromancer tells the stories Balzac wants to tell, but at the cost of interrupting the narrative momentum. Nor is Balzac’s use of the frénétique elements (see: “Smarra”) effective; Balzac had not yet achieved a level of skill which would allow him to frighten his readers. The Centenarian is moderately enjoyable but is of more of historical than literary value.
The Centenarian is far more interesting when put into the context of French literature of the restoration of the monarchy in France (1814-1830).
During that period we witness the beginnings of the concept of a “genre” novel, as distinct types of narrative sprang up in imitation of successful and widely read works. Maurice Bardèche (in his Balzac [Paris: Julliard, 1990], 52-68) describes the several types of novel then popular: the sentimental novel, the historical novel in the manner of Walter Scott, the novel of adventure, and finally the “roman noir” or gothic novel...Le Centenaire appears at first to be more of the same: an unoriginal imitation of another English-language success, Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer...The Centenarian offers a creative fusion of genres in vogue: the gothic novel, the bildungsroman, the sentimental novel–even, in Napoleonic episodes, the historical novel.1
Of special note is the “magic” and alchemy in the novel:
...as in gothic novels (we think of Frankenstein), “magical” and alchemical occurrences are set against facts and phenomena drawn from contemporary science. In Balzac’s work, however, immediately we see that the science is at once more detailed, more seriously up-to-date, and at times even visionary; for instance, he describes a cesarean birth carried out under hypnosis, using surgical techniques that leave little or no trace, like today’s lasers. Equally striking is his description of the Centenarian’s laboratory in the catacombs beneath Paris. In contrast to Frankenstein’s bare space, Balzac details an array of retorts and beakers and infernal machines, the likes of which would not be seen again in fiction until the end of century with Wells. Visually, Balzac anticipates even further, this time to Rotwang’s laboratory in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. With Balzac’s Centenarian, the gothic has already mutated into science fiction.2
The Centenarian, then, is science fiction–and the equal or more in that regard to Frankenstein, whose scientific details are scanty and few.
This novel offers, every bit as much as its English counterpart, a model or prototype for SF. Balzac’s work is SF not just in its scientific trappings but in the deeper sense that life extension and the questions it raises concerning the scientist’s responsibility to community and nature have been a central problematic for SF throughout the twentieth century...yet it is also a novel operating in a particular French context–that of the Cartesian duality of mind and matter–perhaps the first uniquely French work of SF.3
However, The Centenarian was not translated into English until 2005 and The Centenarian is overlooked or ignored by critics and readers in France. The Centenarian was not influential on the history of science fiction. What it was, then, was a work avant la lettre, a work representative rather than influential, “the first significant realization of the fictional potential of a cultural dynamic that emerged over 150 years earlier.”4
It is this aspect of The Centenarian that is likely to be of most interest to modern readers–the science fictional and Gothic elements of the novel, and how it is influenced by and differs from Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer.
Print: Honoré de Balzac, Daniele Chatelain and George Slusser, The Centenarian, or, The Two Beringhelds. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.
Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/012240666 (in French. There is no English-language version of The Centenarian available online).
1 George Slusser, “Introduction,” in Honore de Balzac, Daniele Chatelain and George Slusser, The Centenarian, or, The Two Beringhelds (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), ix-x.
2 Slusser, “Introduction,” x.
3 Slusser, “Introduction,” xiv.
4 George Slusser and Daniele Chatelain, “Balzac’s Centenarian and French Science Fiction,” in Honore de Balzac, Daniele Chatelain and George Slusser, The Centenarian, or, The Two Beringhelds (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), xxi.