Balzac is a writer of superlatives. His characters are the richest financier, the most beautiful young man, the most sexually exciting courtesan, the greatest criminal mind. His lovers love with the most powerful intensity; his cynics are the most cynical. His Romanticism can be exhausting. His so-called “realism” is overrated. Yet both Madame Bovary and The Three Musketeers launch off of Balzac.
The sculptor Sarrasine is at the theater. He sees, for the first time, the famous soprano, La Zampinella:
Sarrasine cried out in pleasure. There before his marveling eyes stood that ideal beauty whose perfections he had thus far sought out only in bits and pieces… In La Zampinella he found – united, delicate, and perfectly alive – all the exquisite proportions for which he so yearned, all the perfections of a femininity of which a sculptor is at once the sternest and most passionate critic… So great had been his pleasure – or, perhaps, so terrible his torment – that his life had poured out of hum like water from an overturned vase… Passion had left him utterly undone (“Sarrasine,” 126-8)
This is all from a single paragraph, over two pages long, of the same rhetorical character. I had trouble pulling quotations in that almost every line was useful for my point – “ideal,” “utterly,” “perfections.” Some ironic use is later made of that perfect femininity, more or less the point of “Sarrasine.”
You can also see, with that vase, an example of Balzac’s frequent resort to cliché. He can be so original, but he wrote so fast.
In “Adieu,” his energy is almost visible. French soldiers are retreating across Russia. A major discovers that his lover, a general’s wife, is part of the retreat. He will save her – he will sacrifice himself and save them both! If only they, and the French army, can cross the river. A bridge gives way under the crush:
No shriek could be heard, only a dull sound like a stone falling into water, and a moment later, the river was clotted with corpses… After trampling and breaking so many dying bodies, the horses were soon crushed to death in their turn, overrun by the human cyclone sweeping over the bank. The major and the grenadier survived purely by main force. They killed so as not to be killed. The hurricane of human faces, this surge of bodies, animated by one single movement left the bank of the Berezina deserted for a few moments. The herd had poured back onto the plain. (“Adieu,” 181-2)
On and on, wilder and wilder. An avalanche, a wave, a brush fire, every comparison Balzac has at hand, none original, but what a page-turner, and that is without the tension of whether the major or his mistress will survive, since I know from the frame story – there is always a frame story – that both characters live, although the poor countess has lost her mind.
The truly crazy part of the story, an extraordinary invention, is when the major, in an attempt to restore the countess’s sanity, re-creates the river crossing in France, using sets, costumes, a thousand peasants and a canal dug to simulate the Russian river – using specially made wartime ruins (“He erected huts, campsites, batteries, then incinerated them,” 194). That, in Balzac, is what dedication and true love looks like.
Big and bigger. The NYRB Selected Stories really gets this aspect of Balzac across, maybe more than any other.