Monday, November 23, 2009

Balzac the master of detail

Balzac is a master observer of the externalities. Here are a few examples from Eugénie Grandet, though we could go on forever.
  • The opening words of the book paint a description in the bleakest shades. “Il se trouve dans certaines provinces des maisons dont la vue inspire une mélancolie égale à celle que provoquent les cloîtres les plus sombres, les landes les plus ternes ou les ruines les plus tristes. “ (There exist houses in certain provinces, the sight of which inspires a melancholy equal to those of the most somber cloisters, the most drab moors, the saddest ruins.

  • Every description of the Grandet household is somber, from the forbidding street, the lack of sunlight, the sparingly doled-out candles, to the drab undecorated walls of the house. Into this somber world walks Charles Grandet, a vision in vivid color. 

Balzac expertly captures in that sparkle by describing Charles's foppish collection of vests/waistcoats: “Il emporta sa collection de gilets les plus ingénieux : il y en avait de gris, de blancs, de noirs, de couleur scarabée, à reflets d’or, de pailletés, de chinés, de doubles, à châle ou droits de col, à col renversé, de boutonnés jusqu’en haut, à boutons d’or."


(He brought his collection of most ingenious vests; there were gray ones, white ones, black ones, some were scarab-colored, some with golden highlights, some with sequins, mottled ones, double-breasted ones crossed like a shawl, others had straight collars; some had turned-over collars, some buttoned up to the top with gilt buttons.”

    The brilliance, the variety, the copious plenty of fashion and the inventiveness of the clothing trades of the big city stand in utter contrast to the provincial, drab surroundings, the patches and repatched clothing. For Eugénie, Charles shines like a creature from another planet.

  • Des Grassins, the président of the local court in Saumur, who pursues and finally marries Eugénie, is also betrayed by his clothing. At age forty, Balzac writes, when he comes courting at her evenings at home. “il se mettait en jeune homme” (he presented himself as a young man), “en chemise dont le jabot à gros plis lui donnait un air de famille avec les individus du genre dindon.” In a shirt whose large, pleated ruffle made him look like a member of the turkey family.)

  • Another devastatingly cruel description is the sketch of Charles eventual wife, whom he marries for a title and social position: “Mademoiselle d’Aubrion était une demoiselle longue comme l’insecte, son homonyme ; maigre, fluette, à bouche dédaigneuse, sur laquelle descendait un nez trop long, gros du bout, flavescent à l’état normal, mais complètement rouge après les repas, espèce de phénomène végétal plus désagréable au milieu d’un visage pâle et ennuyé que dans tout autre.”


(Mademoiselle d’Aubrion was a young lady who was long like the insect, her homonym*; thin, spindly, with a disdainful mouth onto which descended a too-long nose, thick at the end, normally sallow, but completely red after a meal, a kind of vegetative phenomenon, all the more unpleasant in the middle of a pale and bored face.)

* That bug, which I can’t find described elsewhere is maybe? be the ténébrion – the beetle that has the mealworm as its larva, though it’s hard to call that insect long

PS: Undertstood, thanks to a French acquaintance. It's not the "d'Aubtion" that is the homonymn. but the "Mademoiselle" or rather demosielle, the damselfly, an stick-like insect that fits the description,

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