Monday, March 5, 2012

At the Sign of the Cat and Racket by Honoré de Balzac

Strong start, flat finish
At the Sign of the Cat and Racket is a short novel by Honoré de Balzac. It was first published in 1830, but the story takes place about two decades earlier. It is one of the earliest pieces Balzac wrote for inclusion in his Comédie Humaine, the collection of 91 interconnected writings in which he documents the entire scope of French society in the early 19th century. While this particular entry is an adequate showcase of this great author’s formidable talent, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be counted among his masterpieces.

Balzac begins the book by describing an ancient building on the Rue Saint-Denis in Paris, which stands out from its neighbors like a relic of centuries past. This edifice, adorned with a whimsical old painting of a cat playing tennis, houses the shop of the cloth merchant Monsieur Guillaume. The antiquated Guillaume runs his business with the tried-and-true methods of an earlier era and governs his brood of two daughters and three apprentices with an almost military strictness. Guillaume plans to marry his eldest daughter Virginie to his reliable senior apprentice Joseph Lebas, thus insuring the future of the family business. Lebas, regretfully, would much prefer the hand of the younger Guillaume daughter, Augustine. The feeling is not mutual, however, since Augustine has fallen in love with a rich and successful artist, Théodore de Sommervieux. After much negotiation between old Guillaume and the various lovers, the daughters are married off. What follows is a contrast between two marriages—one for love and one for duty—and an investigation into whether love is enough to insure a happy long-term union.

I can usually count on Balzac for at least a four star book, but this piece doesn’t quite measure up to the majority of his work. Balzac does his usual superb job of establishing the setting, and the reader becomes enthralled in the inner workings of the Guillaume household. Once the story turned to the philosophy of marriage, however, my interest waned. The subject matter and tone of the two halves differ to the point that the book as a whole suffers. As I was plodding through the lofty, heart wrenching romance toward the end of the novel, I found myself longing for the more humorous tone and naturalistic style exhibited in the earlier pages. Balzac caps the story off with an all too abrupt ending, which further compounds the disappointment. Beyond the halfway point, this novel ceases to be an ensemble piece and concentrates almost exclusively on one couple. The couple in focus, unfortunately, is far less intriguing than the supporting cast. The good thing about the Comédie Humaine, however, is that often the supporting characters eventually get their due treatment in another work. Those wanting to learn more about the fate of the Lebas family can find them in César Birotteau and Cousin Bette.

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