Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sarrasine by Honoré de Balzac

Love is blind, and absolute love blinds absolutely
Balzac’s Sarrasine could be considered either a long short story or a short novella. The entire piece can be read in an hour and a half. Nevertheless, as usual Balzac packs his pages with delightful entertainment and provocative insight. An unnamed narrator attends a sumptuous soirée at the salon of the Lanty family. This wealthy family is new to Parisian high society, and much speculation abounds as to the source of their fortune. A mysterious, strikingly ancient figure ambulates his way amongst the partygoers like a walking corpse. Balzac spends about a quarter of the book describing this bizarre creature. To the guests, he is a source of fascination and revulsion. They whisper discreetly to each other, debating the identity of this spectre and his relationship to the family. But only our narrator knows the real story, and as he confides it to his female companion, we are also let in on the secret. A tale is told of the sculptor Sarrasine who, while studying his craft in Italy, becomes obsessed with the beautiful opera singer La Zambinella. . . .

As is true with all of Balzac’s works, the less said about the plot the better. He is a writer who thrives on surprise, and the best course of action in reading his work is to wander in with little prior knowledge and no expectations. Balzac’s style of writing is like a cross between a naturalist novel and a mythological fable. On the one hand, he is a keen observer of nature and society, brilliantly describing the world of his story and the characters who inhabit it. On the other hand, his characters are largely allegorical, and the events that take place are often larger than life. He’s far more concerned with making a philosophical point than he is with creating any semblance of realism. Though firmly grounded in historical verisimilitude, Sarrasine seems more removed from reality, more of a fairy tale, than much of Balzac’s work. It often feels like there’s a bit of a wall between the reader and the action, as if you’re watching an opera on a stage rather than moving amongst the characters of a novel. Had the book been a little longer, and the reader given more time to become emotionally involved with these characters—to see them more as human beings who love each other and less like merely symbols for an obsessive lover and his coquettish quarry—it would have delivered more emotional impact. The book would also have benefited from more time spent on the flashback and less on the party scene that bookends it. These are minor criticisms, however, which amount to the difference between a masterpiece and a very good book. Sarrasine may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a prime showcase for Balzac’s masterful storytelling skills. Perhaps I liked it so much it left me wanting more.

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