Friday, October 22, 2010

Balzac, La Vendetta (1830)

Published soon after Mérimée’s Matteo Falcone, La Vendetta is another story based on Corsican “honor” and the murder of one’s own child in adherence to that code. It's probable that the Mérimée story inspired Balzac’s.

The Balzac novella is set not in Corsica but in near-contemporary Paris. Bartholoméo Piombo, feeling with his family from a blood feud in Corsica, makes his fortune due to his friendship with Napoleon. His artistic only daughter, Ginevra attends an art class full of young, wealthy ladies. She emerges as an inspired painter among dabblers.

At the early days of the Bourbon Restoration, refugee Napoleonic officers are proscribed and threatened. The artist/teacher hides Luigi, a handsome young officer, in a side room. Ginevra sees him, helps hide him, and falls in love. When he is introduced o her parents, it turns out that he is the son of the mortal enemy of Piombo, and while the modern Luigi is innocent of any wish to continue the blood feud, he is rejected. The couple elopes, and end up living in poverty in a garret. They have a child, but Ginevra wears herself down doing small painting jobs, as the couple and child starve and freeze. The well-off Bartholoméo, obdurate refuses them any help, and when he finally relents in order to see his grandchild. It is too late, Daughter and grandson die, for lack of resources he could easily have supplied.

  • In the free and easy society of the Bourbon restoration in Paris, where others change allegiance and principle on a whim, Piombo is this reminder of the rude, unflinching code of the maquis. The young lovers are explicitly compared to Romeo and Juliet. Typically (as with Grandet), the doting father is turned into a tyrant once his daughter opposes his will.

  • This is another Balzac story that takes place in the context f the world of painting. Ginevra is that rare female artist of promise. The artist who teaches her exclaims that one of her paintings is a masterpiece reminiscent of Salvatore Rosa, the pre-Romantic Italian painter. In spite of her talent, Ginevra can only find the most humdrum, ill-paying decorative jobs, the meanest work of the artistic world.

  • In Balzac we will see this patter of loving marriages and unloving marriages. The loving ones, as in this story, in Ferragus, in La Peau de chagrin, and other stories, end up crushing the couple. The loveless marriages (Eugénie Grandet, Goriot’s daughters, and La Femme de Trente Ans) have their own torments. In other words, most (all?) marriages are pretty dismal.

  • Napoleon himself appears as a character in the anecdotic start of the novella. He is presented as sympathetic, clever, and charming, Would such a portrait be allowed during the recently ended Bourbon restoration? I doubt it. This may be one of the first of many literary portrayals of Napoleon in France, at least since Waterloo.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mérimée’s "Mateo Falcone" (1829)

This terse, disturbing tale of father killing son has ancient Roman resonance (Lucius Junius Brutus and Manlius Torquatus); nevertheless, it is set in the 19th century and in France, at least a nominal part of France – Corsica. The story was originally subtitled ‘‘Les Moeurs de Corse’’ (‘‘The Customs of Corsica’’), and it does have a flavor of an anthropological study. Basically, the father executes his only son for betraying a fugitive to the gendarmes; even though the father has no great liking for the fugitive.

Mateo Falcone portrays a world diametrically opposed the Paris drawing rooms of most of the books we’ve read, all the more remarkable because it is in the same country and time. The morality of the maquis, the undergrowth that covers much of rural Corsica, implies tight family bonds, vendetta, and an unrelenting idea of honor.

The maquis itself is a character in the story, “si épais et si touffus, que les mouflons eux-mêmes ne peuvent y pénétrer.” (so thick and bushy that the mountain sheep themselves can't penetrate it). The maquis is the refuge of the outlaw:

“Si vous avez tué un homme, allez dans le maquis de Porto-Vecchio, et vous y vivrez en sûreté, avec un bon fusil, de la poudre et des balles,… vous n'aurez rien à craindre de la justice ou des parents du mort.”
(If you have killed aman, go into the maquis of Porto-Vecchio, and you will live there in security, with a good fusil , powder, and bullets… you will have nothing to fear from the law or from the relatives of the dead man.)

In other words, to disappear into the maquis is to find certain refuge. Mateo Falcone, a prosperous shepherd/small landowner, owns a house a short distance from the edge of the maquis. With the gendarmes on his heels, the fugitive bandit (who cannot quite reach the maquis) seeks refuge in the house. When the ten-year-old son, Fortunato, left alone in the house, finally betrays him, he does so for a watch, a rare luxury for the boy. The gendarmes carry off the bandit as Mateo comes home.

The boy has betrayed the code of hospitality and the general refusal to help the authorities. He has to die, regardless of his young age and inexperience. The scene where Mateo kills, rather sacrifices, Fortunato is rendered as a sacrament:

“- Dis tes prières. - Mon père, mon père, ne me tuez pas. - Dis tes prières ! ” répéta Mateo d'une voix terrible.”
(Say your prayers . -Fathere, father, don’t kill me. –Say your praters, reoeated Mateo in a terrible vocie.”

Of this story, still included in “great short story anthologies”. rhe English poet and critic Walter Savage Landor called "Mateo Falcone" "the cruellest story in the world." His fellow French Romantics could have learned something from his terse style. But the biggest influence of Mérimée may be the way in which Romanticism sees the exotic, the alien, the primitive, nearby, in France, Spain, and Italy, without resorting to Gothic devices or far-off shires. In Mérimée, Falcone amd Carmen are even further from polite society, wilder than Atala and René in the wilderness of the New World.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Balzac's "Pierre Grassou” (1839)

This slight short story is centered on an amusing anecdote. The mediocre painter Pierre Grassou earns his bread, early in his career, by making copies of paintings by the Masters – Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Later, an established portrait painter, he is brought to the private collection of his future father-in-law, an art loving bourgeois who made his fortune in manufacturing bottles. As it turns out, the whole collection, for which its owner has paid a small fortune over the years, is made up of the knock-off paintings that Grassou sold for next to nothing!

Balzac (like Zola) was at home in the contemporary art world, and this is one of several works (La Chat-qui-pelote, La Bourse, and La Vendetta, for example). It is most similar to La Chat-qui-pelote. Like that novellas it involves the marriage and courting of a daughter of the bourgeoisie by an artist. But is in almost every way its opposite.

The hero of Chat-qui-Pelote is portrayed as a handsome genius, at the forefront of his profession. By contrast, Pierre Grassou is generally considered a mediocrity, even by his fellow painters. Finally, he has some success at the Paris Salon with a mediocre, half-disguised copy of a Gerard Dow painted. That image of a condemned man getting his last haircut he has cleverly entitled “The toilette of a Chouan, condemned to death in 1891.” This painting of a Royalist hero about to be executed by the Revolution attracts the eyes of none other than Charles X and the Duke of Orléans, the latter of whom buys the painting. The implication is that the more advanced paintings of the better artists are beyond the king’s understanding. His reputation made.
Commissions follow. Grassou becomes a favorite portraitist of the bourgeoisie and his reputation only grows, as does his frugally managed nest egg.

(A further complication is that Grassou comes from Fougères in Brittany, in the center of Chouan country, and, not coincidentally, the site of Balzac 1826 novel Les Chouans, which got Balzac’s career started, and appealed to the Bourbon court.)

In any case, Grassou, unlike his brother painters (and unlike Balzac), manages his money, marries into the bottle makers’ family and a substantial dowry, and lives a life the opposite of Bohemian. His wife loves him dearly, but is rather plain in appearance. He has the good taste to appreciate his more avant-garde contemporaries, and gradually replaces the fakes in his father-in-law’s collection with their work, supporting them when they need money.

Being an artist in nineteenth century fiction means living a life of debt, mental anguish, alcohol, sex, and alternating feast or famine. The prudent Pierre Grassou is a notable exception.

Ce peintre, bon père et bon époux, ne peut cependant pas ôter de son cœur une fatale pensée : les artistes se moquent de lui, son nom est un terme de mépris dans les ateliers, les feuilletons ne s’occupent pas de ses ouvrages. Mais il travaille toujours, et il se porte à l’Académie où il entrera.
(However, this painter, a good father and a good spouse, could never remove a fatal thought from his heart: other artists make fun of him, his name is a term of scorn in the ateliers, the newspapers do not bother with his work. But he always has work, and he is on the path to the Academy, where he will be admitted.)