Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1017
Honoré de Balzac’s immense production and his celebrated writing schedule of some two thousand pages per year suggest an artist who gave no thought to theory or form, and a glance at some of his journalistic endeavors will readily confirm these clichés. Quite early in his career, however, examples of Balzac’s genius were expressed in his short fiction.
“The Unknown Masterpiece”
“Le Chef-d’uvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece”) was first published in newspaper form in 1831, and was later included in The Human Comedy under the classification of Études philosophiques (1831-1835; Philosophical Studies). The story deals with the lifelong obsession of master-painter Frenhofer to discover ideal beauty and its representation. Two admiring disciples, Franz Purbus and Nicolas Poussin, real-life artists used by Balzac to add verisimilitude to his story, come to seek advice; in exchange, they propose that the mistress of Poussin be the model for the work that Frenhofer has been trying to complete after all these years. No sooner does the master see the young woman than his inspiration permits him to complete without further delay the elusive painting. When he unveils the work for his friends, however, they are dumbfounded to see on the canvas a mass of colors and lines, but no figure. Embarrassed and wondering if Frenhofer may not be playing a joke on them, they hem and haw, examine the painting with great attention, and finally discern a foot, a beautiful, living foot, lost in the haze of colors and details. When the master, lost in ecstasy, understands the reality of his disciples’ incomprehension and realizes that even his fellow artists are unable to grasp the significance of his creation, he sends them away, burns his paintings, and dies.
Balzac’s story fits into the tradition of the ars poetica, works about the act of artistic creation. It reveals to what extent the young and busy author himself meditated on this critical topic, on the distinction between artistic theory and artistic practice, and, in this case at least, anticipated the aesthetic revolution to be launched by the Impressionists.
Completely different in tone, Droll Stories recalls the gross farce of François Rabelais and the bawdy dimensions of the esprit gaulois. Like the fabliaux of the late Middle Ages, the stories poke good-humored fun at indecency. Like Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) there is a semblance of morality, but it is spread so thin that the reader has to laugh, along with the author, at the adulterous couples, lascivious men of the Church, deceived husbands, and others who constitute the universal menagerie of the farce. Whereas the form is inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer and Boccaccio, the style Balzac adopts is very similar to that of Rabelais, and it shows tendencies that later become Balzac’s trademark: long lists of synonyms and abundant technical details that in fact have little to do with the story line but which permit the author to indulge his passion for words and his delight at demonstrating his verbal dexterity. The collection is signed by the author as “de Balzac,” the first use of the snobbish particule that Balzac used consistently thereafter, along with a family coat of arms that he either “discovered” or invented himself. The vivid and racy spirit of Rabelais, which is so close to that of Balzac himself, permeates his other works, as does the Renaissance spirit of enthusiasm and lust for life. His sheer exuberance sustained him throughout his complex career.
“The Grande Bretèche”
A typical story is “La Grande Bretèche” (“The Grande Bretèche”), which continues the tradition of a story within a story. In this case, Dr. Bianchon, a character who recurs throughout The Human Comedy and for whom Balzac called as he lay dying, tells of a strange property he visited in the Vendôme and of the provocative tale that lay behind it. A suspicious husband returns home earlier than expected and confronts his wife, asking her to open her closet door so that he can see her lover. On her affirmation that there is no one there, and that, further, if her husband should doubt her word and actually open the door to verify it, their relationship will be forever dissolved, the husband agrees; he then promptly has a worker build up a wall over the doorway, smiling with assurance at his distressed wife. Balzac here presents a fascinating study of conjugal jealousy with medieval overtones, and he anticipates scenes later exploited by Alexandre Dumas, père, père, and Edgar Allan Poe.
These same melodramatic touches distinguish “Facino Cane,” a story evoking the sensuality and political corruption of eighteenth century Venice (another idea borrowed by Dumas for The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1844), which gives Balzac full rein for his use of local color, obsessive emotions, and money as a prime motivating force in modern society. It is difficult for the modern reader to realize to what extent Balzac’s treatment of money in literature was truly new. While greed has always been represented in literature, Balzac was among the first to dwell on what he termed “la necessité de calculer.”
It is important to note that Balzac made no clear distinctions between the novel and the short story, and that many of his best early works are in fact works of short fiction now scattered throughout the framework of The Human Comedy. The magnum opus, including its recurring characters, was first conceived of in 1834, and carried a preface by Felix Davin, a friend of Balzac. Three years later, however, Balzac had written so much more than anticipated that the project was expanded, and by 1840, the unifying title, recalling Dante’s work, was established. The finishing touches were applied in 1842, when Balzac replaced Davin’s earlier preface with his own preface—a critical document and the cornerstone of his aesthetics. His extraordinary range of knowledge and precise powers of observation, combined with a vigorous personality which could not resist sharing its personal views with others, make Balzac one of the great chroniclers of nineteenth century life.
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