Thursday, May 27, 2010

Balzac, “Le Grand d’Espagne”

This story, Balzac’s second contribution to the collection Contes bruns, is a pretty typical tale of jealousy and revenge, Spanish style. In atmosphere it reminds me of Hernani, staged a few years before, in the way it turns on the inexorable search for revenge by a Spanish grandee.

But Balzac already in this slight work has a mastery of story telling and perception of detail that are striking.

The story takes place at a soirée attended by a group of French officers, many of them heading for Spain some time around 1823’s, shortly after the French invasion prop up the Spanish Bourbon monarchy (the despicable Ferdinand the VII).

The narrator, who is headed to Spain, notes an odd member of the party, a man he takes for a some minor bureaucrat, dressed in green (the narrator detests green, and black, he thinks, is called for), a man who has little steel buckles on his shoes, in pkace of the fashionable knotted ribbon, worn-out pants, a cravate poorly tied.

He turns out to be a military surgeon, who had served in Spain with Napoleon’s troops some year earlier, who tells his tale. The narrator shows his editorial hand in the recounting.
Pour vous sauver l'ennui des digressions, je me permets de traduire son histoire en style de conteur, et d'y donner cette façon didactique nécessaire aux récits qui, de la causerie familière, passent à l'état typographique.

To spare you the boredom of digressions, I am allowing myself to translate his story in the style of a raconteur, and to lend it that didactic manner necessary for tales that pass from familiar chats to the typographic state.)
In other words, Balzac is keenly aware of the levels of narration he is playing eiyj, an wants us to be aware of them, too, like the magician who can give awayteh trick and still fool us.

The surgeon’s tale involves a kidnapping and blindfolding, a delivery of a child in secret and under duress, a cloaked mysterious figure, guards drugged, a severed arm, and a near deadly stabbing.

One of his auditors derides the story as a “conte brun", a dark atle, a tale of horror. But just a tale, Then, at the party arrive the grandee and his (one-armed) wife, recent refugees from the Spanish troubles.

And it is so typical of Balzac that in painting the scene is refers to a painter:

C'était un vrai tableau de Murillo! Le mari avait, sous des orbites creusés et noircis, des yeux de feu. Sa face était desséchée, son crâne sans cheveux, et son corps d'une maigreur effroyable.

(It was truly a painting by Murillo! The husband had, beneath the hollowed and blackened orbit, eyes of fire. His dried-out face, his hairless skill, and his body, terrifyingly thin. )
Even the auditors in the story pooh-pooh its melodramatic conventionality. But Balzac is Balzac, even in a trifle.

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