Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Passion in the Desert - At last he grew passionately fond of the panther

"A Passion in the Desert" (1832) is the story, over the course of ten pages or so, of a love affair between a soldier and a panther. The soldier accompanies Napoleon to Egypt, and is captured by nomads. We join him just as he escapes to a Saharan oasis, where he wakes up next to the second important character:

"It was a female. The fur on the belly and flanks were glistening white; many small marks like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her feet; her sinuous tail was also white, ending with black rings; the overpart of her dress, yellow like burnished gold, very lissome and soft, had the characteristic blotches in the form of rosettes, which distinguish the panther from every other feline species."

Yes, bracelets, rings, "her dress" - the story is a fable about the relationship between men and women. What I really like, though, is that the panther never turns into an abstracted woman. She's always a panther. The pretense of realism is never dropped. We learn all there is to know about life at the oasis, for the soldier and the cat, and it's almost credible. How does it end? Well, we're hearing the story, not from the soldier, actually, but from someone who heard it from him so the soldier must get out of the desert.

"A Passion in the Desert" is the first thing I ever read by Balzac, twenty years ago. I developed certain prejudices against Balzac based on this and that scrap of information - he was a sloppy writer, a first-drafter, not concerned with aesthetics, all basically wrong, or wrong enough. But I actually always knew this had to be wrong, because, if nothing else, he had written the amazing story of the soldier and the panther.

There's a 1997 film of "A Passion in the Desert" about which I am very curious. I can see how it would work.


  1. At first I thought you had a typos and meant painter not panther! What a curious story.

  2. It's a great work of the imagination, to my knowledge without real precedent, genuinely original.