Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Balzac, La Grenadière

This 1833 novella is a surprisingly delicate work, which approaches sentimentality but never crosses the line. It's named after a simple but beautiful country house on a hill overlooking the Loire, very close to Balzac’s native Tours. A significant portion of the novella is Balzac’s careful description of that landscape in all its fertile beauty. It is said that he wrote it one night.

What he does in the opening of the work is like a cinematic zoom in to the house in question, from its wider environment to the details of the gardens, the buildings, and finally the interior of the house itself. This, in a way, is typical Balzac, to elaborately dress the scenery before having the protagonists come on stage, and when they do, letting us inspect them from head to toe as well, before they actually open their mouths. Here we have the anachronistic effect of a camera zooming in from an aerial shot, something that I can’t imagine any author doing before Balzac.

The story itself concerns the raising of two sweet brothers in a little Eden and the slow death of their mother, a mysterious beauty. The boys are the fruit of her affair with an English nobleman, but it ambiguous why they were separated or what the issue of the marriage was. In any case, they are cast adrift with little money. Nevertheless, the mother, adored by her children, takes pins to have them educated both scholastically and morally.

The end of the story is sad but not lachrymose. The woman dies in bed after admonishing the elder brother to help the more innocent younger son. The elder enters the navy as a cabin boy, the other son, through whatever money can be scraped together, is sent to a collège in Tours.

The mystery of the story – who is this woman and why is she abandoned, what is eventual fate if the boys – is only partially resolved at the end of the story. The lack of a formulaic narrative solution (for example, the husband arriving at her deathbed, the children inheriting a fortune) makes the story sound like a slice of real life. The rude cross at her simple graveyard reads “CY GIT UNE FEMME MALHEUREUSE, morte à trente-six ans,” (Here lies an unfortunate woman, dead at age 36).

The ending of the novella is cinematic also. The older son stands at the rail of the ship he is assigned to as it sails away from the coat of France.
il regardait les côtes de France qui fuyaient rapidement et s’effaçaient dans la ligne bleuâtre de l’horizon. Bientôt il se trouva seul et perdu au milieu de l’Océan, comme il l’était dans le monde et dans la vie. — Il ne faut pas pleurer, jeune homme ! il y a un Dieu pour tout le monde, lui dit un vieux matelot de sa grosse voix tout à la fois rude et bonne. L’enfant remercia cet homme par un regard plein de fierté. Puis il baissa la tête en se résignant à la vie des marins. Il était devenu père.

he watched the shores of France, which quickly fled and disappeared into the bluish line of the horizon. Soon he found himself alone and lost in the middle of the ocean, as it was in the world and in life.
- Do not cry, young man! there is a God for everyone, said an old sailor in his deep voice at once harsh and good.
The boy thanked the man with a glance full of pride. Then he lowered his head resigning himself to the life of a sailor. He had become [the[ father.
He had become the man of the family, the father he never knew. He is launched.

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