Sunday, January 1, 2012

Balzac’s “Un Drame au bord de la mer” (1834)

Set on the wild Breton coast, this short story is a precursor of later stories by other authors. More immediately, it had to be influenced by Prosper Mérimée’s gripping 1829 story, "Mateo Falcone'.

 Like that story, “Un Drame au bord de la mer” is about a father’s deliberate murder of his son. It too is set in a part of France (Corsica, Brittany) still outside the mainstream of French civilization, a place where the father feels entitled and obliged to serve as judge and executioner of an only child.

In the Balzac story, the narrator is the man from a pair of (unmarried, Parisian?) beachgoers, in a time and a remote (pre-railroad) place, where the outside world has barely touched. On the beach, they encounter an impoverished fisherman/beachcomber. Too poor to afford a boat, he makes a meager living harvesting the occasional lobster, crab, or fish that pass within reach. The narrator and his mistress are appalled to hear how little the Breton and his blind father live on (eating barnacles and buckwheat cakes, drinking wine only a few times each year), and pay him generously for his catch.

The story illustrates the contrast between the Romantic holiday view of the beach landscape (sea, sun, and sand) and the point of view of the locals, where the barrenness of the landscape means no firewood (the locals gather cow patties for fuel), and the narrowed choice between fishing (dangerous) and salt-harvesting (back-breaking).

The tourists engage the fisherman to guide them to an old stone lighthouse further along the beach. They pass on the way a strange hermit who sits impassively on rocks by the shore, staring out to sea/ “son immobilité stoïque ne pouvait se comparer qu'à l'inaltérable attitude des piles granitiques qui l'environnaient.” (his stoic immobility could only be compared to the unchanging attitude of the granite piles that surrounded him.) Forbidding, he has merged with the forbidding landscape.

We then learn the back-story, from the mouth of the guide/beachcomber, in a narrative-within-the –narrative that reminds me of Maupassant or Chekhov. It’s a tale of rough justice. The spoiled only son of a fisherman is indulged by his father and mother in spite of early misbehavior. He grows to be become a reveler, am idler, and a thief, driving his parents into poverty. The long-denying father finally gets plain evidence of the thefts, and determines to execute the out-of-control youth. He throws the tied-up boy, weighted down, off his boat into the sea. Soon after, the mother dies from grief. The father punished himself by taking up his vigil on the shore not far from where the execution took place.

This powerful raw story is a major departure for Balzac in many ways. It's narratively concise, almost laconic, and mostly outside the social sphere that is Balzac’s obsession.

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