Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours, France in 1799, just after the end of the French Revolution. The family moved to Paris
in 1814 where Honoré worked as a law clerk. The family moved again, but he remained, and instead of law began his pursuit of a literary career. Though he
was a modestly successful writer at first, he overspent and was always in debt. In addition, he also was a publisher, printer, businessman, and several other
endeavors which failed. His extravagant lifestyle and pursuit of women caused him financial pains, even when he became a known and respected writer.
In 1932, having already published several novels, he became struck with an inspiration to create a body of works called La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). The entire cycle contains about 92 works, divided into three parts: Studies of Manners; Analytic Studies; and Philosophic Studies. Studies of Manners is divided into six sets of Scenes: Private Life, Political Life, Parisian Life, Military Life, Provincial Life, and Country Life.
De Balzac certainly led a colorful life himself, and must have spent a great deal of time simply observing people. These five intriguing stories are intimate mini portraits of their characters during a certain period of their lives. While Dostoyevsky delved into the psychological dissection of his characters, de Balzac simply tells a story, yet we come to know the people well by their actions and choices. Each tale is unique and original, and each have a rather jolting ending. They could be tragedies, and there's also a little humor, but they're mostly just about life, told with great depth of insight. De Balzac is known as a founder of literary realism.
The Unknown Masterpiece takes place in 1612, Paris, where a young artist debates about visiting the great painter Master François Pourbus. As he awaits outside the door, an elderly man arrives, and knocking, enters the apartment. The young artist follows. The elderly man looks at a work by Pourbus, and begins a critique about light, surrounding people with air, making them three-dimensional. We soon learn that this master is possessed with the search for perfection in art, though he has not found it yet. After a lively discussion of the painting by Pourbus, he adds a few strokes of paint to illustrate his points, and it is then that they finally notice the young man in the room. His name is Nicolas Poussin, and he humbly introduces himself as a nobody who wishes to be an artist. They hand him a red crayon and paper, and are impressed with the result. They all leave to go to the master's house for dinner. But soon Poussin realizes what Pourbus already knows—that there is a fine line between genius and insanity, and the elderly man is on the edge.
An Episode During the Terror is a story from the French Revolution about two nuns who escaped the Carmelite Massacres, and are hiding and protecting not only themselves but a nonjuring priest, all subject to the guillotine during this particular era in French history. One nun risks her life to obtain the Holy Wafers for mass, but knows she is being followed. But the man following her does not wish the Catholics harm—instead he begs a favor: to have a mass performed for Louis XVI, who has just been executed.
Facino Cane is one of my favorites. It is about a man who attends a wedding. The people are very poor, but joyous. Here he meets three blind musicians. One he decides is Italian, and though blind, he knows the man is observing him. They talk a little, and it turns out that the man is indeed Italian—Venetian, in fact. The man telling the story speaks of a desire to see Venice, and the blind musician asks him to leave with him where they may talk. Now in his eighties, he relates a colorful story of his noble life in Venice; a woman, a murder, and his flight to safety. But when he is in prison attempting to dig his way out, he discovers an amazing cache of gold and jewels worth millions. He bribes the guard, and they break into the room holding the treasure and are soon out to sea. But misfortune strikes.
A Passion in the Desert is my absolute favorite of the five. It is about a man who is captured by the Maghribis in the Egyptian desert during Napoleon's invasions. He escapes, but to where? In despair, he find himself stuck in the desert with some palm trees bearing dates, a little spring, and a nice cool cave. He intends to sleep in the cave, but soon finds he is not alone—he has bedded beside a beautiful female leopard! What is so enticing about this story is the man's description of the leopard—she becomes a voluptuous woman to him and they become friends:
. . . he let her approach him; then with a motion just as gentle and loving as if he were about to caress the loveliest woman, he passed his hand along her whole body, from head to tail, scratching with his nails the flexible vertebrae that formed a ridge down the leopard's yellow back. The animal lifted her tail voluptuously, her eyes suddenly became soft, and when, for the third time, the Frenchman bestowed those self-seeking caresses, she emitted one of those purrs with which our cats express their pleasure, but that murmur arose from a gullet so powerful and deep that it resounded in the cave like the last boomings of an organ in a church.
The Revolutionary Conscript is a tragic story taking place during the French
Revolution about a widow who has escaped the city and retired to her country estate at Carentan. Her only son, the love of her life, had been in the service
of the king which of course has put him in mortal danger. But she is certain he has escaped, and awaits his return.
These five short stories are lively and captivating—well worth reading. I plan to pursue more of de Balzac's works.
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