The miser’s mystery
|Honoré de Balzac|
Despite all the dark subject matter, Maître Cornélius is a lot of fun. Balzac layers on the spooky atmosphere, irresistibly drawing the reader into the mystery of the title character. Louis XI is another intriguing personage, a dying old man with a gleam in his eye and a sly and spritely soul. Eventually the book turns into a mystery story, and the king, of all people, gets to play detective. Through most of the story the reader really doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but towards the end things do get a little predictable. While the concluding revelation was probably a shock to the audience of Balzac’s day, the attentive reader of today will likely fail to be surprised. That’s a small mark against this otherwise highly entertaining story, however. The best thing about Maître Cornélius is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like every story involving a miser, there’s a moral about the perils of greed, but here it’s more of an afterthought than a pervasive theme.
In the first few years of his writing career, Balzac’s output was all over the map in terms of subject matter and quality. In his earlier, shorter works he often expends all his energy and ink building exquisite atmosphere and suspense, then raps everything up with a hasty and unsatisfying conclusion. That criticism also applies to this story, somewhat, but overall Maître Cornélius is one of the best of Balzac’s earlier works. Those who enjoy his better-known novels will certainly appreciate this gem of a novella.
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