Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Red Inn (l’Auberge Rouge) by Honoré de Balzac

A compelling story that deserves a better ending
Honoré de Balzac
The Red Inn, an 1831 short story by Honoré de Balzac, is actually a story within a story. At a dinner party in the home of a Parisian banker, the guest of honor, a German businessman named Hermann, entertains his fellow guests with a story from his past. His tale opens in October of 1799, as two young French medical students travel through Germany in order to meet up with their regiment. Upon arriving in the town of Andernach, on the banks of the Rhine, they decide to stay at a picturesque red inn along the waterfront. During the night a horrible crime takes place at the inn. The unnamed narrator of the present story—one of the guests at the dinner party who is listening to Hermann tell his tale—begins to suspect that another gentleman sitting at the table may have been involved in the crime.

The story goes on to become more complex than a simple mystery story, venturing into debates of morality and ethics, but to summarize it further would be to spoil its surprises. Though the dual level of narrative may sound confusing, Balzac intertwines the two stories with his usual deftness, weaving them together into a compelling whole. For most of its brief length, The Red Inn is quite suspenseful and engaging. Balzac always does a terrific job of establishing an atmospheric setting and populating it with fascinating characters. As is unfortunately typical of many of his earlier short stories, however, The Red Inn suffers from a weak ending. All the narrative riches Balzac amasses over the course of the story are squandered on a conclusion that is too talky and leaves too many issues unresolved. I have the utmost respect for Balzac as a novelist, but his shorter works often feel truncated and incomplete, and this piece is no exception. The Red Inn is worth reading in order to experience the clever twists and turns of its first three quarters, but its inconclusive conclusion will leave you wanting more.

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