The Unknown Masterpiece - Balzac mixes fact with fiction in this tale of a mythical artistic genius named Frenhofer. It is a tale that plays on artistic conventions and the changes of style from past and present...what’s deemed acceptable or objectionable in art. What I found interesting is Balzac’s use of role reversal. Youth and old age are paired, and where one would think that the younger generation would be more accepting of a modern vision; it is the older generation that actually appears the more daring. Balzac juxtaposes the two ideas well.
In regards to Frenhofer’s masterpiece, the reader could interpret it in two ways—either as a failure or a success. Could Frenhofer be a mad genius, an artist whose vision has escaped him...does he see only what he wants to see? Or, could he be viewed as an artist ahead of his times? Both seem to be equally valid arguments and I find either interpretation equally intriguing. As a side note, I wonder if Zola ever read this story, since it shares some of the same themes he incorporated into his later novel, The Masterpiece.
In Gambara, Balzac takes on the theme of the mad genius in this tale of a composer named Gambara, who is unable to be accepted by society. Gambara’s genius is overwhelming. His grand oeuvre, an operatic composition on the life of Mohammad, is so technically detailed that even if the reader has some musical background, as I have, it is easy to become swept up and drowned by the descriptions. This story is not for casual reading; it requires careful attention to be fully understood and enjoyed. Yet the composition of this tale is remarkably balanced. Balzac complements the technical aspects of the tale with a bawdy romance, complete with lustful eyes and salacious yearnings that will surely come to a bad end. All in all, it is a rather good tragicomedy.
The two stories, The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara, are seemingly well paired, illustrating the frustrations of a mad genius in the expression of his art. That said, the pairing does pull the reader more towards the interpretation of the artist as a failure in the two stories.
Of the two, Gambara is the more dense due to the technical detail of Gambara’s operatic composition, and thus requires more patience to read. However, while Gambara balances comedy and romance with tragedy, The Unknown Masterpiece is purely tragical in tone. Though both are excellent stories on their own, of the two, The Unknown Masterpiece is the more intriguing and offers more possibilities in regards to interpretation.