Sunday, May 23, 2010

Une Conversation entre onze heures et minuit

“Une Conversation entre onze heures et minuit” is a story from Contes Bruns, a collection of stories to which Balzac contributed two, the others being written by the now little-known Philarète Chasles (critic and historian) and Charles Rabou (journalist). It appears that the collection was originally published anonymously.

The story in question here is surprisingly experimental. It consists of an overheard conversation in an elegant drawing room filled with ladies and gentlemen. It consists of a set of “can-you-top-this” anecdotes contributed by a variety of speakers. These little stories concern such subjects as jealous husbands, war atrocities, prison escape, suicide of a pregnant woman, and tales of executions.

The model for this pattern of storytelling is the Decameron and its many offshoots, where a miscellaneous set of narrated stories )Some naughty, some tragic, some suspenseful) are strung together by the comments and reactions of a set of genteel listeners. But what Balzac does here is to have the little stories, many filled with real emotion and striking details, just peter out in a rushed conclusion, trampled over in many cases buy the eagerness of the next story teller.

This is an unusual touch. The excitement here is in the spinning of ever new tales, not in any moral reflection or carefully plotted dénouement. In this way, it resembles a realistic party conversation where endings are trampled over as the buzz of conversation marches on.

What I was reminded of was experimental 20th century narratives like Cortazàr’s Hopscotch (1963) or Calvino’s If on a Winter Niight a Traveler (1979) that play with the expectations of narrative. To be sure, “Une Conversation enttre onze heures et minuit” is hardly as problematic, but it certainly shows the young Balzac very consciously playing with the tools of his craft and the reader’s expectations.

One particular tale gets truly meta. One of the storytellers, a man, tells of how, as a young boy, he found himself unnoticed and privy to a conversations between “eight or nine” worldly women (duchesses and countesses) , discussing matters that mostly went over his head, but which fascinated him nevertheless.

J'étais resté coi en entendant ces dames raconter, sotto voce, des histoires auxquelles je ne comprenais rien; mais les rires de bon aloi qui terminaient chaque narration avaient piqué ma curiosité d'enfant.

(I remained quiet while listening to these ladies tell, sotto voce, stories of which I understood nothing; but the genuine laughter which ended each narration piqued my childish curiosity.)

When one lady, whose turn it is, tells the story of her wedding night, or rather, the way in which a she, as a very young innocent held in a convent before marriage, was told by a sympathetic nun about the realities of men and women and the wedding night. At the crucial (presumably salacious) moment of the narrative, we are denied satisfaction:

Là, le groupe féminin se rapprocha, madame de... parla à voix basse, les dames chuchotèrent et tous les yeux brillèrent comme des étoiles; mais je ne pus entendre de la réponse de la religieuse que deux mots latins, employés par la belle dame, et qui étaient, je crois: Ecce homo!...

(Then the female group gathered together, Madame de … spoke in a low voice, the ladies whispered, and all eyes sparkled like stars; but I could make nothing out of the nun’s answer except for two Latin words used by the beautiful lady, and which were, I believe “Ecce homo!’)

The narrator is toying with us, with the layers of overheard stories in a piece of fiction all about overheard stories. Like the child in the salon and like his listeners in the main story, we are eager to hear some naughty details. We are disappointed at the crisis, and the next story begins.

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