Monday, April 15, 2013

The Recruit by Honoré de Balzac

Provincial paranoia in 1793
Honoré de Balzac
The Recruit, also known as The Conscript, was originally published in 1831 under the French title Le Réquisitionnaire. It was written by Honoré de Balzac as part of his monumental series of works known as the Comédie Humaine. Though it is a short story of maybe 50 pages at most, like all pieces in the Comédie Humaine it is considered a stand-alone work of literature, and it is thus offered by Amazon in a Kindle file unto itself.

The story takes place shortly after the French Revolution. The royal court of Louis XVI has fled Paris and the palace at Versailles, and an overwhelming tide of anti-royalist sentiment has swept the nation. Madame de Dey is a wealthy and socially prominent widow living in the sleepy provincial town of Carentan, in Lower Normandy. She is beset by a flock of suitors who arduously strive for the attainment of her hand and her property, and surrounded by nosey neighbors of republican inclination who are just waiting for her to make a slip and betray her royalist sentiments. Her son, a soldier who has remained loyal to the royal cause, has followed the royals in their exile, leaving his mother alone to defend herself. When she cancels her weekly salon and closes her doors to visitors, it inspires a great deal of speculation and rumor among the suspicious citizens of Carentan.

Balzac does a brilliant job of encapsulating the paranoia and vindictive opportunism that pervaded provincial France following the Revolution. For American readers, imagine what it would be like if there were a civil war between liberals and conservatives in this country, and the persecution members of the losing side would face at the hands of the winners. While the Terror was taking place in Paris, with heads falling to the guillotine, personal dramas like those of Madame de Dey’s were taking place throughout the provinces, where the newly victorious Republicans looked for any excuse to confiscate the property of the rich. Here Balzac captures the danger and urgency of this situation in a lively and suspenseful tale.

Balzac does, however, commit a sin that is common to his short stories, which is capping the story off in an all too abrupt ending. He manages to cleverly tie up all the loose ends in one pithy paragraph, but the reader feels slightly cheated. The conclusion of the plot is itself satisfying, just the curt manner in which it is handled leaves one with the feeling of a door slammed in the face. I’ve always preferred Balzac’s novels to his short stories, and this story does little to change that, but there’s no denying this master’s Herculean literary talents in any format, large or small. The primary value of The Recruit lies in its role as a scrap in the grand quilt of the Comédie Humaine. When judged on its own merits, it’s a good story, but not a must-read for casual fans of Balzac’s work.

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