Friday, May 13, 2016

So great had been his pleasure – or, perhaps, so terrible his torment - Balzac goes big

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.

14 comments:

  1. I suddenly think of the movie version of Meredith Wilson's _The Music Man_ when the mayor's wife announces with complete disdain what young people are reading that so poisons their minds: "Balzac!!!" Now that, Tom, is a weird non sequitur recollection from someone who has never read a single syllable of "Balzac!!!" The major's wife frightened me!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yep, Balzac, writer of dirty books. I just looked up the lyrics - I had forgotten that the other "dirty book" authors are Rabelais and Chaucer. Pretty funny.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The NYRB edition is a very useful book. I am doing a read through, in English, of The Human Comedy. The only feasible for me way to do this is in the Delphi E Book Edition of the complete Human Comedy. It is a far from perfect vehicle and the translations are all old. I am up to work 79 of 91, I am finding some of the lesser known novels slow going but I hope to finish this year.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Numbering is irresistible, isn't it? I have followed your Balzac reading with great interest. I doubt I will ever get anywhere near 79, much less read them all, but the idea that this is an impossible feat is an error.

    The old translations, that complete set, have always seemed pretty good whenever I have looked at them.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Balzac's reputation as a smut peddler probably comes from the "Droll Stories," written in imitation of Chaucer and Rabelais (and in fake old French, at that). A whole other part of Balzac's disturbingly huge output...

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have a collection of his from Dover Pub. called "Droll Stories" that I am slowly making my way through. They are very funny indeed. I will have to also explore this NYRB release.

    ReplyDelete
  7. '– there is always a frame story – ': I liked that. Yes, there always is a bloody frame story; it started to irritate me a bit, though sometimes it worked.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh, of course, Droll Stories. I forget about that book because it is not part of The Human Comedy and thus does not provide the neurotic completist satisfaction of numbering the works read.

    The idea of storytelling is somehow fundamental to Balzac, thus those frames. His novels don't use them, but in the shorter pieces they are common.

    ReplyDelete
  9. re-creates the river crossing in France, using sets, costumes, a thousand peasants and a canal dug to simulate the Russian river

    I wonder if Balzac was thinking of Uncle Toby and his Hobby-Horse? Sterne was popular in early-19th-century Europe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also immediately thought of Toby and Trim, building those battlefields in the garden. And the Widow Waldman.

      Delete
  10. Right, it's plausible. I can imagine Balzac thinking, what if someone took Uncle Toby's hobby-horse to the next level?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. An epitome of the difference between Sterne and Balzac, perhaps: Sterne's characters build a scale-model of their military adventures in the garden; Balzac's do a large-scale re-enactment!

      Delete
    2. Yes, it's almost an epitome of the move from the Enlightenment to Romanticism.

      Delete
  11. "What if these characters were not slightly cracked but raving lunatics?"

    ReplyDelete