Monday, June 20, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

SELECTED SHORT STORIES by Honore de Balzac (all published originally between 1830 and 1840). (edited by A.W.Raitt, Clarendon Press, 1964)

Twice on this blog I have pointed out that we are misjudging Guy de Maupassant if we see him only as a writer of short stories, great as he was in that genre (look up the postings on Pierre et Jean and Fort Comme La Mort). Guy de Maupassant was also a novelist. Four times on this blog, I have dealt with some of the best novels of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), viz. Le Pere Goriot, LaRabouilleuse, La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons. But here I must perform the manoeuvre in reverse. Great as Balzac was as a novelist, he was also an accomplished writer of short stories. So as with Guy de Maupassant, we can appreciate him in both genres.
As a signed-up Balzacian, I must, however, issue a warning. Not all of Balzac’s shorter fiction is of a piece or is of equal merit. Once he had conceived of his interlocking series of novels La Comedie Humaine, he often wrote short pieces simply to connect characters in one novel with characters in another. Indeed he often worked-over short stories he had already written, adding incidental details and names to fit them into this grand scheme. It is hard even for me to read these as stand-alone pieces. They are best read as adjuncts to specific Comedie Humaine novels. There is also the fact that his concept of the short story was a very loose one. Some of his shorter fictions are of the length of novellas, like his story of the money-lender Gobseck (1830) or his sad tale, one of his best, of the returned Napoleonic soldier Le Colonel Chabert (1832).
To find my way through Balzac’s real short fiction (that is, stories all of which are no longer than 40 pages) I turned to a very good selection, published by Clarendon Press back in 1964 and edited by A.W.Raitt, who also supplied (in English, of course) detailed and helpful notes to the French texts of the ten stories he had chosen. It does not bother me in the least that this publication was obviously prepared for students. All of the stories were written between 1830 and 1840, and most have a simple anecdote wrapped inside them. Balzac is able to observe character well, though the plots are often melodramatic.
What I found is as follows:
Un Episode sous la Terreur. During the most violent and anti-clerical phase of the French Revolution, a small group of Catholic worshippers in Paris meet to celebrate mass in secret. They are joined by a man whom they do not know and whose motives seem suspect. Is he a police spy? The denouement is that he was the executioner of the king, who is somehow now doing penance for his crime. While the structure smells of sensation, the story is still excellently evocative in its sense of terror, oppression and fear.
Le Requisitionnaire (=”conscript”) is more of an ingenious anecdote, even if it too has a specific historical setting. It has to do with a woman having an ESP experience about the death of her son who is fighting for the Chouans (the Catholic peasantry in rebellion against the new secular republic) at the time of the revolution.
Far and away the greatest story in this selection, and one of Balzac’s real masterpieces, is Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece). It is set in the seventeenth century, and has as one of its subordinate characters the historical painter Nicolas Poussin. A brilliant art critic is able to explain cogently and in detail why an artist’s painting is mediocre. He himself has been working for years on a great work of art. Finally the time comes when others are able to look at his great work of art. It turns out to be an incoherent daub, which obviously began as something interesting, but which he has worked and re-worked over so often that he has killed whatever inspiration it originally had. This is a story about the difference between criticism and art; and between inspiration and rationality. It is also about the truth that a certain point comes when the artist must abandon his work of art for fear of killing it. In his own commentary, and through his characters, Balzac gets to express some other important ideas about the arts, such as   “Il ne suffit pas pour etre un grand poete de savoir a fond la syntaxe et de ne pas faire de fautes de langue.” (“To be a great poet, there’s more to it than knowing grammar well and not slipping up in your language”). There is his famous aphorism “La mission de l’art n’est pas de copier la nature, mais de l’exprimer.” (“The mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it.”) And there is his analysis of the despairing artist: “Il a profondement medite sur les couleurs, sur la verite absolue de la ligne; mais, a force de recherches, il est arrive a douter de l’objet meme de ses recherches. Dans ses moments de desespoir, il pretend que le dessin n’existe et qu’on ne peut rendre avec des traits que des figures geometriques.” (“He had thought deeply about the colours and the absolute truth of the line; but because of all his research, he ended up doubting the very purpose of his research. In his moments of despair, he claimed that no general design existed and that all an artist could create by sketching was geometric shapes.”)
Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu is generally regarded as one of the great short stories in the French language. At a film festival in the early 1990s, I recall seeing Jacques Rivette’s modernised version of some elements from the story, La Belle Noiseuse (1991 – the title is the name, in the original Balzac story, of the painting the artist is trying to create). For what it’s worth, Wikipedia tells me that Picasso was a great admirer of Balzac’s tale
Le Message. After a fellow passenger dies in a coaching accident, a man has to carry a message of love to the dead man’s married mistress. The focus of the story is the way in which the married woman receives the news. Though clearly choking with emotion, she retains her dignity by not showing this in front of her husband.
Something of the same womanly stoicism is found in the story that follows.
La Grande Breteche (the title refers to a place) is basically a brilliant melodrama, which begins by setting up the mystery of why a certain noble provincial house is in such a dilapidated state. It turns out that the wife of a nobleman was having an affair with a Spanish prisoner of war who was out on parole. Then the prisoner escaped. But hearing noises in the closet, the husband suspected that the Spaniard had not really escaped but was being hidden by his wife. Husband got wife to swear a solemn oath that there was nobody in the closet. She swore the oath. Then he had the closet bricked up. And after the husband died, years later, the wife insisted that the property be left exactly as it was. Hence its dilapidation. The story is told by three successive narrators, and manages to come to a brilliant punchline ending with husband and wife both hearing a noise from the bricked-up closet and the husband blandly saying “But you swore on the cross that there was nobody there.” This is one that could have been written by E.T.A.Hoffmann if he had had Balzac’s psychological insight. Or Edgar Allan Poe if he had been able to restrain his pompous polysyllabic prolixity.
Un Drame au bord de la mer. For me, as a native English-speaker, this was the most difficult story to read because of all its description of the maritime country and its provincial words. Basically it is about a peasant father who does penance as a hermit in a grotto in recompense for killing his good-for-nothing son in a rage when the two of them were arguing.
La Messe de l’athee is, I judge, the most disappointing story in the book and the least persuasive as character study. A convinced atheist and rationalist, who scorns religion, is seen regularly attending mass and lighting candles at a shrine. Why? Because, it turns out, he is honouring the memory of the impoverished and devoutly Catholic water-carrier who encouraged him and materially helped him when he himself was an impoverished medical student. While I do not think this story adds up to much, it does make one pungent comment on transience: “La Gloire des chirurgiens ressemble a celle des acteurs, qui n’existent que de leur vivant et dont le talent n’est plus appreciable des qu’ils ont disparu.” (“The Glory of surgeons is like that of actors – it exists only when they are alive and nobody can appreciate their talents once they are dead.”) Obviously Balzac was writing long before cinema was invented!
Facino Cane. The first-person narrator sees a clearly intelligent, and blind, Italian musician playing in a group of three blind musicians at a wedding in a really poor quarter of Paris. Asking him about his life, he discovers he was formerly a wealthy nobleman who was ruined in youth by an inopportune love affair and then became obsessed with gold and still has mad plan to recover a hidden cache of gold in his native Venice. In other words, he is Balzac’s monomaniacal obsessives, like Goriot and Gobseck. The set-up is more interesting than this pay-off.
Finally, Pierre Grassou, which is one of the best in the volume because of its light touch. It is the funny and touching portrait of an absolutely mediocre painter who is able to parlay his lack-of-talent into a lucrative career as a portrait painter among the bourgeoisie, who have as little artistic taste as he does. In his portraits “tout denotait la vie meticuleuse des petits esprits” (“everything suggested the meticulous lives of small minds”). Like Le Chef-d-oeuvre inconnu, this allows Balzac to give a lot of his ideas on art, especially on the way real artists do not prosper materially. The story partly has Pierre Grassou slavishly copying old masters, for which copies he receives only modest payment from the art dealer Elias Magus – and he later discovers that Elias Magus has on-sold his mediocre copies for exorbitant sums as if they were the genuine article.
From this volume you can get a taste of the range of Balzac’s style. Certainly there is melodrama here and sensationalism – the type of things that lead fastidious critics to damn Balzac. But there is also real wit, real human insight, a tour de force of studied nastiness in La Grande Breteche; a palpable sense of menace in Un Episode sous la Terreur ; and in both Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu and Pierre Grassou, some of the best ideas that a prose writer ever put on paper about the arts. Balzac deserves to be seen as a master of the short-story form.

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