Tuesday, September 14, 2010

#33 and #34 - Le Message et La Grenadière - trivial Balzac

To my knowledge, the only English translation of Gobseck is in an antique complete set, edited by George Saintsbury, published in 1897 or so.  Gutenberg translations all come from this set.  So that’s what I have been reading, Volume 22 of The Novels of Balzac, number 481 of a limited edition of 1,200, a 113 year old book.  I had to cut some of the pages - no one has ever read the stories I'm writing about today, not in this copy of  the book.

I tried a couple of other stories in the collection. Mediocre.  Not bad, but thin.  Typical magazine fiction from 180 years ago.  The Message (1832) was especially trivial, an indulgence in the Balzacian fantasy world where every young man is having an affair with a married countess.  It has a cute ironic punchline.

La Grenadière (1833) was better, if only because of the object in the title, which is “a little house on the right bank of the Loire.”  Balzac begins the story with a long (five page) description of the house.  It’s up on a cliff, above a wide part of the Loire which is “covered with scattered green islands.”  A little town is over that way, and a vineyard over there.  The stone wall is covered with “moss and ivy, wallflowers and pellitory,” the little summer-house with “jessamine and honeysuckle, vines and clematis.”

Pomegranate trees (ah, those are the grenadiers), yellow paint, green shutters, a modern kitchen, trees with limes, figs, peaches, and pears.  The house could “be the home of a poet’s desire, and the sweetest of retreats for two young lovers.”

This has all of the artistry of a real estate advertisement, but it worked on me.  I want, quite badly, now, to rent a little house on a cliff above the Loire.  Hmm, “a thousand francs for six months, the produce of the vineyard not included.”  That might be a bit steep, but I won’t need it for six months.

A story follows, about a woman’s successful attempt to protect her children from a sexual indiscretion.  The story is sentimental twaddle.  The house is all that's interesting, especially because for the first time I realized that Balzac uses the same device in many of his best books.  Père Goriot begins with a lengthy description of a boarding house; Colonel Chabert wanders around a law office for several pages before the Colonel finally appears and starts the story; and the stroll through town and around the Grandet house in Eugénie Grandet is a standalone masterpiece. So’s the beginning of Goriot, come to think of it.  Rather dim of me, but I never noticed, until reading La Grenadière, how often Balzac uses this trick, and I now wonder how many more there are.

In the titles of my posts, I have been numbering the Balzac stories.  #31 is back here.  So I am now up to 34 of Balzac’s 91 nouvelles.  Reading these subpar stories, neither of them really worth the trouble, has allowed me to neurotically mark them off of my Balzac checklist.  I have no interest, none at all, in reading all of Balzac.  I’m sure that most of the remaining 57 stories are more like The Message than Eugénie Grandet.  But who knows, right?  Sometimes we have to see for ourselves.

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