Like David Gregory I only speak four words of French. Unlike David Gregory I don't speak them well. But then, I never studied in Paris.
Be that as it may.
La Peau de Chagrin, (The Magic Skin or The Wild Ass's Skin) is an 1831 novel by French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). Set in early 19th-century Paris, it tells the story of a young man who finds a magic piece of shagreen that fulfills his every desire. For each wish granted, however, the skin shrinks and consumes a portion of his physical energy.
Before the book was completed, Balzac created excitement about it by publishing a series of articles and story fragments in several Parisian journals. Balzac hungered for fame. Although he was five months late in delivering the manuscript, he succeeded in generating sufficient interest that the novel sold out instantly upon its publication. A second edition, which included a series of twelve other "philosophical tales," was released one month later.
Although the novel uses fantastic elements, its main focus is a realistic portrayal of the excesses of bourgeois materialism. Balzac's renowned attention to detail is used to describe a gambling house, an antique shop, a royal banquet, and other locales. He also includes details from his own life as a struggling writer, placing the main character in a home similar to the one he occupied at the start of his literary career. The central theme of La Peau de Chagrin is the conflict between desire and longevity. The magic skin represents the owner's life-force, which is depleted through every expression of will, especially when it is employed for the acquisition of power. Ignoring a caution from the shopkeeper who offers him the skin, the protagonist greedily surrounds himself with wealth, only to find himself miserable and decrepit at the story's end.
La Peau de Chagrin firmly established Balzac as a writer of significance in France. His social circle widened significantly, and he was sought eagerly by publishers for future projects. The book served as the catalyst for a series of letters he exchanged with a Polish baroness named Ewelina Hańska, who later became his wife.
The last book Freud read was La Peau de Chagrin. When he had finished the book he told his doctor, casually, that this had been the right book for him to read, dealing as it did with shrinking and starvation. It was the shrinking, Anna Freud thought, that seemed to speak particularly to his condition: his time was running out. He spent the last days in his study downstairs, looking out at the garden. Within a week he was dead.
I am reminded of a saying that is current in legal circles, "The facts can only get smaller, not bigger."