Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Balzac's "Madame Firmiani"

"Madame Firmiani" (1932) is a rather minor short story. It is based on two mysteries, both of which are uncovered at the end.

First, there is Madame Firmiani, a mysterious woman of uncertain martial status, but accepted into society. We see her at first only obliquely, through the opinions of over a dozen observers, a few admiring, many more spreading contradictory rumors. That long introduction is a little narrative tour-de-force, a deviation from the omniscient narrator of most of Balzac's fiction.

The hero, Oscar, is a young aristocrat who has apparently squandered his fortune and also appears to have a liaison with Mme. Firmiani. How and why he has ended up living in a garret teaching lessons is buzzed about, and it reaches his unclad benefactor, who undertakes to come to Paris to straighten things out.

In the end, the apparent scandal turns out to be quite the opposite. Oscar has been shamed into paying back the fortune that his father got through fraud, restoring the income of an impoverishing family. The mysterious Mme. Firmiani, who advised him to make good his father's crime, has been waiting until her husband's death abroad is confirmed and her inheritance clear. She arrives triumphantly to rescue Oscar from the garret and marry him.

Probably the most noticeable aspect of the story is a familiar Balzac obsession – both in life and in fiction, Namely, the affair between the richer, older married woman and the brilliant but penniless youth with aristocratic pretensions. In the story, as so frequently in Balzac's life, the financial embarrassments of the young man are cleared by the loving older woman.

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