Thursday, November 18, 2010

Balzac's Les Chouans

Les Chouans (1829) is Balzac;s first real novel; it is about one of the numerous rebellions against the post-revolutionary French Republic in Brittany. The Chouans, named after the chouette (owl) whose call they use a signal, are at the same time Royalist, very Catholic, and very savage.

While the principal character, the Marquis de Montauran, an aristocrat, could the hero of a sentimental novel, his followers are ready to murder, rape, and torture with the utmost cruelty, all encouraged by priests, who see the Revolution and its troops as Satanic.

In fact, what the Chouans resemble, more than anything, are the wild Indians of the New World, to whom Balzac openly likens them:
Marche-à-terre, qui semblait posséder le don de voir dans l’obscurité, ou dont les sens continuellement en mouvement devaient avoir acquis la finesse de ceux des Sauvages, avait entrevu Corentin ; comme un chien bien dressé, peut-être l’avait-il senti.

Marche-à-terre [a Chouan guerilla], who seemed to have the gift of seeing in the dark, or whose continually active senses had to have acquired the keenness of the Savages, had glimpsed Corentin; like a well trained dog, maybe he had sniffed him out.
The novel is in part an homage to James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, published just three years before, and translated rapidly into French. As with Les Chouans, the Cooper novel is a tale from recent history of the clash of cultures, of organized government troops against daring irregulars, built around a central romance inn the Walter Scott vein between a man and woman on opposite sides.

This is a beginner's effort, and quire distant from the Balzac of La Peau de chagrin so soon to be published (1831). In its unevenness it resembles the occasionally exciting and sometimes wooden Last of the Mohicans. It is at its best in describing the details of peasant life in Brittany, where Balzac has made a tour before writing the book. His close observation of domestic life and the landscape outshines the intrigue.

Again like Scott, Mérimée, Hugo, and Cooper, like all Romantics, it gets its energy from the savagery so close-at-hand and so recent. For the French readers, this was like have Chateaubriand North American savages set down only 200 miles from Paris. Pretty soon, Balzac will discover the savages are in the back streets and the drawing rooms of Paris itself.

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