Sunday, November 15, 2009

La Maison du chat-qui-pelote

This early Balzac novella (1829) is already unmistakeably Balzac. The meticulous, depiction of Parisian life is there, from the industrious drapery shop to the cruelties of the decadent nobility. The painterly eye for detail, more than ever appropriate in this work where the hero is a painter whose sensational new artwork puts on canvas the same humble middle-class scene and characters that Balzac puts on paper.

Underneath all this realistic detail is a typical New Comedy plot – the beautiful daughter is watched, explicitly Argus-like by father, mother, elder sister, and amatory rival (apprentice). The young hero, Théodore de Sommervieux (a painter, but an aristocrat of sorts), falls in love from a distance, passing outside the home/shop she rarely leaves. In fact, the term cloister is used for the girl's situation and the mother is compared to a "tourière", the nun in a convent who is the other nuns' only link to the outside world. The girls unaffected, pious beauty attracts both the painter and the man.

In the course of the novella, he managed to evade the guardians, declares his love, overcomes the parents' fears objections, and marries the girl. But that is bit half the story.

But in spite of the realist texture, this is a Cinderella story (In fact, the family early in the novella celebrate a financially successful year bu the rare treat of a play, which turns out to be a performance of Cendrillion.) But most Cinderella stories end with the wedding. Here, we see the aftermath.

After a year or two of infatuation, the young heroine finds that her pious and naive upbringing make it impossible for her to mix with either the artistic or the high-society circles that her husband is a part of. Her innocence, so charming at first, makes her the laughingstock of his bohemian colleagues, eventually making her appear the more insipid in her husband's eye.
"Madame de Sommervieux tenta de changer son caractère, ses mœurs et ses habitudes," (Madame de Sommervieux tried to change her character, her manners, and her habits.) But all in vain.

When she seeks consolation from her now-retired parents and her sister; they can't conceive of her life and offer her little sympathy. She is half- transformed, belonging to no class, at home nowhere. "Elle pleura des larmes de sang, et reconnut trop tard qu’il est des mésalliances d’esprits aussi bien que des mésalliances de mœurs et de rang." (She wept tears of blood, and realized too late that there are misalliances of minds/spirits as well as misalliances of manners and rank.) Isolated and unloved, she slips into death a few years later.

The leading theme of nineteenth century literature is anxiety about class. In a century where revolution –poltical, social. and financial– is constant, the issue of where any person stands is a matter.of consent obsession.
La Maison du chat-qui-pelote is a Cinderella story based in realistic deal and a keen view of class differences.

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