In addition to reading my way through Russian literature, I’m also sampling European authors who had an influence on Russian writers, which gives me a chance to acquaint myself with some important authors who had been only names to me. One such is Balzac, who was omnipresent in the 1830s and 1840s but who I’d never read. I decided to try La Peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin, 1831), which is one of his more famous and had an intriguing premise (the titular piece of skin grants wishes but shrinks with each one, and when it’s gone, so is the possessor). Alas, I found it quite silly and badly written; I realize Balzac was constantly in debt and scribbling away to sell as much and as fast as he could, but still, I wasn’t impressed. (I’ve since gone on to George Sand, whose Spiridion  I’m greatly enjoying.) However, I was amused and intrigued by one feature of the book: the beautiful but cold-hearted woman who lures and finally rejects our protagonist (who loves her and would do anything for her! how could she!) rejoices in the name of Fœdora. Here is how she is introduced:
Demain soir tu verras la belle comtesse Fœdora, la femme à la mode. — Je n’en ai jamais entendu parler. — Tu es un Cafre, dit Rastignac en riant. Ne pas connaître Fœdora ! Une femme à marier qui possède près de quatre-vingt mille livres de rentes, qui ne veut de personne ou dont personne ne veut ! Espèce de problème féminin, une Parisienne à moitié Russe, une Russe à moitié Parisienne !
Which is rendered in this online translation thus:
To-morrow evening you shall go to see that queen of the moment – the beautiful Countess Foedora…
” ‘I have never heard of her…
” ‘You Hottentot!’ laughed Rastignac; ‘you do not know Foedora? A great match with an income of nearly eighty thousand livres, who has taken a fancy to nobody, or else no one has taken a fancy to her. A sort of feminine enigma, a half Russian Parisienne, or a half Parisian Russian.
Now, where on earth did Balzac get this name, with its bizarre spelling? I’m guessing it’s based on Feodora, thought to be a feminine version of Fedor/Fyodor, which used to be written Feodor in Latin transcription, but the transposed and conjoined vowels make it an enigma indeed. The correct feminine form is Fedora, about which I wrote last year; Sashura has a nice post on “the real Fedora” (in reference to a Kornei Chukovsky poem).