Friday, September 21, 2012

Vendetta by Honoré de Balzac

A Corsican Romeo and Juliet
Vendetta is a novella of about 65 pages in length, written by Honoré de Balzac and originally published in 1830. It is one of the earliest works in his extensive series of writings known as the Comédie Humaine.

Bartolomeo di Piombo is a Corsican who kills his neighbor’s family in accordance with a vendetta, or blood feud, between the two clans. He flees to Paris and asks his old friend Napoleon for assistance in establishing a life there. Flash forward fifteen years: the Bourbon monarchy has been restored, Napoleon has been defeated, and those formerly loyal to the Emperor have fallen into disfavor. Piombo’s daughter Ginevra has grown into a beautiful and intelligent young woman with a promising future as a painter. This innocent girl is destined for tragedy, however, as she must inevitably suffer the consequences of her father’s vindictive obsession.

While the premise set up in the opening chapter promises excitement and suspense, Vendetta is really a rather conventional and familiar tale of forbidden romance between star-crossed lovers. The narrative takes the form of a series of tense and urgent conversations, all of which seem a bit unnecessarily long because their conclusions are so predictable. Balzac emphasizes the stubborn resoluteness of Bartolomeo and Ginevra as a trait characteristic of their being Corsican, but at times, particularly in the case of the daughter, their fierce conviction comes across as more robotic than passionate.

Perhaps the book’s greatest sin is its squandering of the blood feud as a plot element. If you’re going to introduce the extraordinary Corsican custom of vendetta into a novel, it should be made an integral part of the story. Here Balzac merely uses it as the source of a disagreement between father and daughter, an end he could have found 99 other ways to accomplish. While the vendetta provides the title for the book, in the story it merely feels like an afterthought.

Nevertheless, with his prodigious talents, it’s almost impossible for Balzac to write a bad story, and this novella is certainly not bad. His knack for crafting dramatic scenes and memorable characters is amply displayed here. Fans of the master’s work can certainly find much to appreciate in Vendetta, but for casual readers of Balzac it’s not a must-read by any means.

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