Monday, March 3, 2014

Maître Cornélius by Honoré de Balzac

The miser’s mystery
Honoré de Balzac
Maître Cornélius, a novella by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831. The story takes place in 1479 in the city of Tours. A young nobleman visits the cathedral on All Saints’ Day for purposes of love rather than prayer. There he meets the beautiful young countess he is attempting to woo. Unfortunately, she’s married to an aged and abusive count. Finding such stolen rendezvous insufficient to satiate his lovestruck heart, the young man comes up with a plan to get closer to his loved one by establishing himself as an apprentice in the household adjacent to hers, that of the silversmith Maître Cornélius. The plan is more dangerous than it sounds, because this mysterious metalsmith from Flanders has an evil reputation and is even suspected of practicing black magic. Shunned by the citizens of Tours, his only friend is King Louis XI, who resides in the nearby chateau of Plessis-lez-Tours. Though Maître Cornélius may not be as terrible as rumors suggest, he is indeed a surly misanthrope and an incurable miser. And when he feels his riches are threatened, no one is safe from his relentless pursuit of fatal justice.

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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