Thursday, November 26, 2009

Un Épisode sous la Terreur

This 1830 short story might be considered a piece of historical fiction, but in truth the Reign of Terror happened not all that long before it was written, in 1793-4. That’s 36 years – 5 years before Balzac was born, it is true but very real in the memories of many of his readers. By comparison, the Watergate incident was 36 years ago, and that is fresh in many memories, mine included.

In any case, this story starts with the same elements as Balzac’s works about contemporary Paris. We see the inconnue, an old woman, walking furtively through a poor quarter of the haunted city. The night is snowy, the streets are ill-lit and deserted.

She starts to hear the heavy tread of a man following behind her, but she is too nearsighted and the night is dark, so she can't really see hin. The Terror of the revolution is reflected in her own personal terror.

She ducks into a pastry shop, her destination, and is given a mysterious package. The proprietor and his wife are at first welcoming, then terrified and threatened when it is revealed she is being followed. It’s not clear, but there is some kind of illegal transaction going on, and her fear of the police and police informants is palpable. The old woman returns to her home, an icy flat in a ramshackle tenement, still being followed. After she arrives to be greeted by a man and a woman, there is a terrible knock on the door of their attic flat.

Balzac soon unties the mystery, but the atmosphere of terror is masterfully engineered. As we learn, the old woman is a nun, her flat-mates are another nun and a priest, all hiding from the wrath of the very anti-clerical Terror – and it doesn’t help that the nuns are from the aristocratic class. The package from the baker contains communion wafers. The stranger, although terrifying in appearance turns out not to be a police informer, but a man who has been looking for a priest so that he can receive the Eucharist, along with a blessing and forgiveness for his sins.

He leaves after getting his wish, and leaves behind a mysterious box. As Balzac, winking at us. puts it: "Pour les deux innocentes religieuses, une semblable aventure avait tout l'intérêt d'un roman.” (For the two innocent nuns, an occurrence like this has all the interest of a novel.) Overcome with curiosity, the nuns open the box, finding s blood-soaked handkerchief with the royal ceown embroidered on it. They step back from the “relic” in horror.

After the incident, an invisible benefactor, presumably the stranger, has firewood, food, and clothing quietly delivered to the flat. Switch forward to the days after the Thermidorian reaction, and the priest and nuns celebrate their new freedom from fear by going out on the now-crowded streets. They see a procession go by, with wagons that carry, they are told, the accomplices of Robespierre to their beheading. One of them is the mysterious penitent. When the priest learns that he is Sanson, the executioner of Louis XIV, his family, and many others, he faints.

This is a very crafty short story – suspense, a slow sense of discovery, and then an ironic twist at the very end. Balzac can in other works be long-winded and digressive, here is the master of the short form.

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