Saturday, November 28, 2009
L’Enfant maudit (1831) is quite different from other Balzac’s works of this era. Though set during the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century, the era of the French wars of religion, it is no historical novel. The events and the personalities of that conflict, later so rich a vein for Dumas, are just a very faint background elements in this novella.
Nor is L’Enfant maudit in any way realism. The tale takes place in a dark gothic castle on the shores of Normandy, which, by Balzac standards is only superficially described, primarily in terms of atmospherics, not explicit detail.
In some ways L’Enfant maudit resembles Gothic fiction like The Castle of Otranto (1764) or The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), It h has storm scenes, a forbidding castle, a monstrous count, and the melodramatic struggle of good and evil. There is an element of the Grimm fairy tales as well, and it also resembles romantic German fiction, like Tieck’s Der blonde Eckbert (1795) and E.T.A. Das steinerne Herz (1817) with their dark romanticism, identification with the power of nature, longing, suicide, and Liebestod motifs. On that respect, the story also looks forward to Wagner, and to symbolist works like Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s Axël (1890) and Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande (1892), all set in a kind of ahistorical, medieval-like scene with vaguely delineated surroundings and characters divorced from the specific actions of daily life and from any real psychological detail.
The novella begins on the proverbial “dark and stormy night,” with the wind and the sea raging outside the castle. The countess d’Hérouville is going into labor, seven months after her marriage to the monstrous count, who is sleeping by her.
The child is born sickly, perhaps premature, sensitive and puny. His bullying, wrathful father suspects but cannot prove the worst, but in nay case disdains the son’s weakness. The mother protects the boy, raising him away from the eyes of her husband, and eventually installing him a fisherman’s hut outside the castle, where he grows up essentially on his own, communing with the ocean, reading, and learning to sing, but still delicate and haunted. When, some years later, his mother is dying he is not allowed inside the castle, but sings to her from outside, comforting her on her deathbed.
As in a fairy tale, there exists a perfect match for the shy, intense young man – the young daughter of his doctor who has also been raised in innocence. They are introduced and fall in love, initially through singing. It’s remarkable that this novella was never made into an opera, as far as I can tell.
Meanwhile, a second son, a chip off the old block, dies, and the father recognizes the first son as his heir. When he learns of the marriage, his rage and threats against the boy and his beloved are so powerful, and the couple’s delicacy so extreme, that they fall down dead from fright!
A strange ending indeed, especially since it had already been well established that the young man had long nursed a desire to be as one with the sea, spending his days among the tidal rocks (dubbed his “domaine”, his “délicieuse patrie”). He spends his days exploring that domain, studying the mysteries of tidal flora and fauna. He feels a “malaise” whenever he goes outside it, into the castle. The key moments of his life (his birth and his mother’s death) are accompanied by a troubled sea. We are expecting the son and his girlfriend to walk arm in arm into the sea, not simply plotz from fear in the castle.
In any case, this is quite a different Balzac from the author of Père Goriot or Eugénie Grandet.