"A Passion in the Desert"- When I began this project, rather than starting with something new, I decided to turn to an old favorite. This was the first story of Balzac’s that I ever read; and it perfectly demonstrates the versatility of this writer. It is a story told in retrospect—an old soldier recounting his experiences as a prisoner of war during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. Balzac has the gift of transforming the most mundane description into something that stirs the senses of the reader. His writing is completely sensual. As a reader, you feel everything that this soldier experiences—the heat, the desolation of being alone in the desert, the joy of finding the oasis, and his sudden fear at discovering that he’s trespassing on claimed territory. What next ensues is a pas de deux between man and beast. The imagery Balzac provides is intriguing. There is certain danger at every move, yet underneath the surface, there’s soul as well. For those who’ve never before read Balzac, it is a good introduction.
At the Sign of the Cat and Racket - This story deals more explicitly with a theme that is suggested in A Second Home. It is a cautionary tale regarding societal class structures, and how, despite the best intentions, difficulties can, and probably will ensue when social boundaries are crossed. As in many of Balzac’s tales, innocence becomes corrupted—in this case, the relationship between a cultured artist and his muse, daughter of a draper and financier. Initially, it is a love match. However, when notoriety and fame for artistic achievement is realized, one cannot live the life of a hermit. To receive patronage, an artist must mingle with society. But for a young girl who has little experience with the social mores of the high life, such an existence can be difficult. Change is expected, but will this change be accepted? Balzac plays with this concept, and illustrates how this can help and/or hurt a marriage. It’s an interesting study.
The Sceaux Ball - Balzac has a wicked sense of humor. His use of irony in this cautionary tale is absolutely wonderful. He masterfully contrasts images to enhance the dialogue of his characters, which helps him slowly build up to his final moral for his readers. The final image of Émilie regarding those contrasting figures of the Vice-Admiral and Maximilien—figures that have become a fixed part of her existence is one of the best I have ever read.
The Vendetta - Balzac tries his hand at writing tragedy and masterfully succeeds! His story is beautifully executed. The images and emotions Balzac creates throughout are so vivid that they continue to linger well after the story concludes. As I close my eyes now, I can still picture in clear detail everything described. At its heart, this story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet—children becoming victims of their parents’ strife. Yet Balzac makes the story entirely his own, by creating a strong and innocent female protagonist in the form of Ginevra, who is willing to sacrifice all for truth and love. In this story, Balzac actually gives his characters heart, which is a nice reprieve from all of his other merciless tales. With this story, Balzac can be placed along side of Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola as being among the best writers of tragedy.
A Second Home - The first few pages of this story are riveting. The reader is immediately drawn into this world Balzac creates, watching and feeling everything taking place—the young seamstress and her mother working themselves to the bone; the miserable young man walking past them every night; shared glances between the man and girl that speak volumes; little acts of kindness that show a blossoming romance. Everything is so acutely detailed; it’s like watching a film. But of course trouble looms, and its revelation forces a complete change in the storytelling. The reader is shockingly thrown into a new scene with minimalistic detail. The characters that do appear are mere shadowy silhouettes compared to how they were initially described in those first pages. Balzac forces the reader to put together the various pieces he provides. At first, I found the change strange and surprising, almost wondering if Balzac really finished this story. Yet, this change perfectly complements the shocking revelation that happens at the story’s climax. Balzac’s perfectly designed mise-en-scène fractures like glass, with Bianchon, Balzac’s ever present ministering angel, left to pick up the pieces. This story is truly well done.
The Imaginary Mistress - This tale appeals to the child within all of us. Here, Balzac shows nostalgia for the past. This is a modern Romantic tale...a tale of courtly love with a knight figure vowing eternal fidelity towards his beloved. It’s a bittersweet story, though it does leave the reader with a good feeling at the end, which is rather rare for Balzac. It also serves as a good introduction to many of Balzac’s Parisian figures of society, namely, Madame de Sérisy, Maxime de Trailles, Diane de Maufrigneuse, and the Marquis de Ronquerolles.
Honorine - This is a very strange and twisted tale. I fail to see any loving or redeeming qualities in Honorine; and for the life of me, I can’t understand why these men loved her. Their attraction must be purely pheromonal, since she is totally lacking in personality. Her reasoning and sense of right is extremely flawed. But what really killed this story for me was her ultimate “sacrifice.” Her giving in to duty evokes no sympathy from the reader; in effect, it makes her all the more disagreeable. Yet, I suppose one could say that something good does result from it. Yet, this element of “good” is at the moment intangible, i.e. its basis is a future hope—not something that can heal the wounds of the present and past.
Gobseck - This tale is essentially a sequel to Balzac’s novel, Père Goriot, focusing on the married life of Goriot’s daughter, Anastasie de Restaud. It is a painfully uncomfortable story to read, leaving the reader feeling emotionally bitter from the savageness depicted. Here, Balzac demonstrates the extreme lengths that a narcissistic Parisian woman of society will go to in order to save herself and have it all, at the expense of her husband, lover, and children. Actually, the various games and deceptions played in this tale are rather fascinating to witness. It’s truly amazing no one really recognizes the obvious truth of their situations. All in all, though it makes for a good study, it left me feeling cold.
Colonel Chabert - This story forces the reader to recognize the clash between the old societal values with the new modern post-Napoleonic France. Poor Colonel Chabert is figuratively reborn and thrown mercilessly into the center of this new and now unfamiliar world. Honor and valor no longer matter in a world steeped in the mire of want and greed, a world where even good deeds are accepted with suspicion. However, mourning and remembrance of things past are not the themes of this tale. Over time, strategies of war do change, and the good soldier must learn how to adapt in order to fight the ruthlessness of, in this case, the modern age.
A Commission in Lunacy - Again Balzac takes the narcissistic Parisian woman and provides another study of how they attempt to destroy the man or men with whom they are involved. However here, the Marquise d’Espard meets a formidable adversary in the guise of M. Popinot. There are some good interactions amongst the characters in this story. As well, unlike the story Gobseck, there is some recognition of the truth here that is not masked by sensationalistic portrayals. Yet though the outlook might seem to be leading towards a favorable conclusion, it is highly unlikely for all of the principal characters in Balzac’s stories to be left fully unscathed.
A Forsaken Lady - This is one of those “sensational” tales of love, sacrifice and heartache. The proverb, “You can’t have your cake and eat it” aptly describes the premise of this tale. The main characters—Madame de Beauséant and Gaston de Nueil must realize that pleasure comes with a price, especially for the man of society who must meet the expectations of his family and the world. Unfortunately, circumstances force the main character, Gaston, to choose his fate. However, his choice has far greater emotional ramifications than he would’ve expected. When paired with the pure innocence described in The Vendetta, the lovers of this story represent a more stark and materialistic, albeit realistic, view of love. That said, it is not one of Balzac’s best in my opinion.
The Firm of Nucingen - Balzac is clinically precise in his depictions of the various elements working in society. Here, he depicts how marriage is a business for profit, though not necessarily for the immediate parties involved. Rastignac and Nucingen are profiteers, tricking various society “innocents” through false investments, whose only return leads to a profit for the firm. In some respects, this story’s character of Baron de Nuncingen prefigures Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte in The Way We Live Now.
A Princess’s Secrets - Life is “so” difficult for a 19th century Parisian lady of society who has been unfortunate enough to reach her mid-thirties, and who also happens to have a fairly grown up child. Such a woman, like Diane de Maufrigneuse, would look foolish trying to continue passing for a married twenty year old “virginal” coquette. Actually this story serves as a good introduction to illustrate the narcissistic strength of Balzac’s Parisian woman and the ultimate powerlessness of the man or men within her grasp. There’s a sneaking cruelty to every move such a woman makes. And it is quite shocking the lengths a woman like this will resort to, to satisfy her whims.
The Unconscious Mummers - This is a tale that illustrates the conflict between rural innocence vs. urban corruption and manipulation. It is a fairly disturbing tale, since the reader in a way can foreshadow the outcome. Balzac describes the perfect situation...everyone so friendly and nice; everything so perfect and pristine.... It stands to reason that there must be something ugly festering underneath this lush façade. Through his conclusion, Balzac succeeds at instilling in his reader, the same emotional impact that is felt by his main character, Gazonal.
The Girl with Golden Eyes - Whoever arranged the nouvelles in my collection, certainly didn’t want to have the reader start on a whimper. Apart from Zola’s Pot-Bouille, this story, dedicated to Delacroix, is one of the bawdiest I have ever read. It is definitely a story written for a man. Essentially, it’s about a woman in love with a particular face—in all of its various forms. Love is transformed into an art form, down to the minutest detail. But what I particularly liked was that like a painting, not everything that is depicted is readily spelled out. There is some symbolism embedded as well. Overall, though finding Balzac’s story interesting, I do think it was a bit too salacious.
Melmoth Reconciled - Like his novel, Le Peau de Chagrin, Balzac delves into the mystical and supernatural with this tale. It takes on the Faustian theme: the devil making bids for the souls of various men because of their past crimes, their intent to commit crimes, or for a simple desire to buy a gift—the common thread being man’s want of money. In each case, the devil spirit corrupts its host, body and soul, leaving behind an unrecognizable shell. The story shares themes with Oscar Wilde’s later novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. One would think the tone of this tale would be morose, full of doom and gloom, but it isn’t. The power of this story’s corrupt supernatural spirit is seemingly finite. Even though there is a tragic end, there is a glimmering sense of hope in this battle of good and evil.
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.
Massamilla Doni - Balzac here tries his hand at writing a story with a happy ending, though I don’t think it is as strong and successful as some of his other tales. It seems to satirize the idea of platonic love between a man and a woman. Friendship leads to idealization, which in turn causes only suffering for both parties; since desire takes on the form of something corrupt and sordid, and thus becomes unattainable. Some really silly hijinks ensue, leading towards a ridiculous conclusion. The only enjoyable character was Vendramin, who has some of the same intense, fatalistic, self-pitying characteristics of Dickens’ Sydney Carton.
Farewell - This nouvelle describes forbidden love during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Through terrible hardships and loss, love is unexpectedly found again. But is it possible to overcome the past to secure reconciliation and happiness in the future? The title itself might seem to immediately answer this question, but Balzac answers it in a way the reader wouldn’t expect. This is a story that gets under your skin and stays with you; it is truly well done.
The Maranas - A girl with a secret, unknown past is paired with two soldiers, one beautifully handsome; the other, plain and ordinary. With such a pairing, the only likely conclusion is trouble. The green-eyed monster of jealousy runs rampant throughout, felt not just by one character, but by all. Here, jealousy leads to greed and covetousness. Montefiore desires the beautiful Juana as a greedy obsession...a man purely interested in the chase to add another notch in his belt. Diard loves purely, though circumstance drives him to blind jealousy and hate. This leads him to covet what he considers by rights should be his own. I liked how Balzac describes Diard with sympathy...a man who is handed a bad deal in life. The characterization of both men is simple; it’s the situation that becomes complex for them. However, Balzac’s characterization of Juana is completely different. Her character is complex and not entirely sympathetic. There’s an essence of the character Honorine in her...that same obstinate sense of duty. For Juana, her choices are complicated by her “nature,” i.e. the faults of her lineage—something which at the beginning of the tale, she knows nothing about. In a way, she is partly the cause of Diard’s fall. She knows that she’s wrong, but she can’t help the way she feels and acts. But when it comes to blame; she refuses to blame herself. Her final act, seemingly places the blame onto another...a final act of jealous retribution. All told, it is a strange tale.
Maître Cornélius - Balzac disperses with the setting of modern Paris to write an historical mystery set during the reign of Louis XI. It is certainly a change of pace from Balzac’s typical faire, but it is intriguing and best of all, fun. It’s one of the busiest stories of his that I’ve read. There’s a troubled marriage, forbidden love, crusty characters, characters incognito, stolen treasure, death and a King who plays detective. The ending is wonderfully ironical, though it plays with a metaphysical theme one does find in the literature of this period.
About Catherine de Medici - As in Maître Cornélius, Balzac sets his story in the past, this time chronicling the life and times of Catherine de Médici. It’s full of petty jealousies, love gone awry, political intrigue, as well as mysticism and soothsayers. And for added flare, one of Balzac’s ancestors makes a guest appearance. For an historical tale, it is well balanced. And on the whole, the historical elements work well with this story. The focus seems to be on Catherine’s strengths and/or weaknesses...that struggle for power and knowledge and the need to control...not only the lives of her children, but time itself. She is fixated upon this desire to know, but to be so dependent upon this need, seems almost detrimental to her struggle for control. Though she does manage to affect the lives of those around her, Balzac describes her with vulnerable attributes. With this in mind, it is apparent that Balzac underlies his historical tale with a philosophical moral.
The Napoleon of the People - The French title for this story is Le Médicin de Campagne...The Country Doctor, so the title of the edition I read, The Napoleon of the People, might seem somewhat misleading. The Napoleon connection here is meant figuratively, given the nature of our main character, the good Doctor. There are lots of stories within stories in this tale, all serving to represent the Doctor in some way, both literally and figuratively from youth to death. It is cleverly constructed, though it is another departure from his typical subject and style.
Gaudissart the Great - This tale reads as a satirical fable of sorts—a tale of rural swindling and trickery that is not left unpunished. Though here, the punishment is felt both ways, and a kind of camaraderie results based upon a draw in a battle of wits. On the whole, it is a fairly amusing tale.
The Vicar of Tours - Here, Balzac takes on corruption within the Catholic Church. Abbé Birotteau’s sin is materialistic in nature, i.e. his desire and love for the furniture and library he has inherited upon the death of his predecessor. But when compared to the double dealings and ambitious greed of Birotteau’s landlady, Mme. Gamard and his fellow lodger and rival, Abbe Troubert, it is difficult to begrudge him. After all, he is an ingenuous old man, who only wishes to seek the comforts and security of old age. His innocence resembles that of Colonel Chabert, and like Chabert, Birotteau finds himself beguiled by a corrupt, ambitious world. It is a rather sad tale, one that surprisingly doesn’t take up the religious beliefs of the rewards and punishments promised in the afterlife. Balzac maintains a cool, secular tone throughout.