Saturday, August 6, 2011

Balzac, La Fille aux yeux d’or 1835

When I was a graduate student hanging around the library writing my dissertation, I met a fellow grad student working on a dissertation about one relatively minor Balzac novella. In contrast to my effort, which involved the whole history of Western comedy, his as based on one quasi-ogscure book. How could one fill a whole thesis on such a small topic? An imitation of Bathes’ S/Z? Now I understand why this novella could support a lengthy real analysis..

In its structure, La FIlle aux yeux d’or starts from the tradition of European “captive woman” comedies, a genre that includes Plautus farces, Spanish commedias, Mozart operas, Restoration comedies, and even a few Bob Hope/Bing Crosby film comedies. The basic plot includes a girl locked away and a young man who has fallen in love with her. Between them stands a keeper, whether a father, a husband, a guardian who plans to marry the girl, the master of a harem, amd/or their deputies (including duennas, eunuchs, and jailers. The props includes barred windows, fortress-like houses, armed guards, even snapping dogs. The two young lovers have communicated only in passing, thanks to the precautions of the keeper, but nevertheless are deeply in love. The hero finds way to surmount the barriers and gets access and/or runs off with the girl, by disguise, bribery, ur other stratagems, often involving a tricky servant.

This is the plot of over 50 plays, librettoa, and stories that I have read, and I suspect it is the plot of hundreds and hundreds more. These rescue narratives are often set in the world of Orientalist fantasy (take Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail). Most often they are set in the Muslim world or in a Spain that still has Moorish overtones (Barber of Seville) , but also in Italy, France, and/or England.

La FIlle aux yeux d’or embraces, then subverts all these conventions. The girl is surrounded with high walls, a duenna, Blackamoor servants, and snarling dogs, and seems to be under the protection of a Spanish noblemen residing in Paris == so much the tricky servant of the hero finds out. The girl falls head over heels with him ar once when she sees him in her rare accompanied walks in the park. They arrange to meet elsewhere in an orientalized bedchamber, where they make passionate love. He later, in an attempt to carry her off, breaks into the house

But the basic story end there. The bored young man (the dandy de Marsay) has no interest in marrying the girl; she’s just a greater challenge than the usual Parisian seductions. The girl’s attraction to him, it turns out, is the striking similarity between him and her keeper. And that keeper, it turns out, is not only a lesbian, but also de Marsay’s unknown half sister. Furthermore, de Marsay arrives just in time to see his half-sister murdering the unfaithful slave, stabbing through the chest.

Instead of the rescue narrative with traditional marriage, this is simply a cynical seduction that ends in death, Even the death won’t be avenged – it has gone an erotic dream world to a nightmare world, but De Marsay has no wish to get involved. When a friend asks what became of the girl with golden eyes, he ansers laconically

elle est morte … de la poitrine.

she is dead ,,, [Problem with] her chest


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Balzac, “Le Réquisitionnaire” (1831)

“Le Réquisitionnaire” (The Draftee) is a slight short story has some typically Balzacian elements: the provincial society west of Paris (here in Carentan, Normandy), the all-too-recent Reign of Terror, and its effect on the aristocracy.

The heroine, the widow Madame de Dey, has retreated to this quiet town, hoping that its innate conservatism will resist the worst of the Terror and allow her to preserve her estate for her son, who has emigrated to serve the exiled Bourbon monarchy. She receives a letter from the son informing her that he is in prison in Paris, caught in some secret mission, though he has made plans to escape and will arrive in Carentan in disguise as a draftee in three days.

The tale has strong elements of suspense, growing suspicion, and sudden reversal, In Balzac’s provincial society everything gets noticed, and the unusual purchase of a hare in the market almost gives the game away. All the town’s society, including the agent of the Terror (a young man interested in marrying the widow), conspire to keep the secret. In the end, after a skillful narrative twist, both mother and son are dead,