Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Juana, or The Maranas by Honoré de Balzac

The comic and the tragic
Les Marana, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1834. In English translation it appears under the title of Juana or The Maranas, or both. The story takes place in 1811 during the French storming of Tarragona, a Spanish coastal city, during the Peninsular War. Balzac introduces us to two officers, neither of whom is a model soldier. Captain Montefiore is a handsome Italian marquis and inveterate ladies’ man. His friend Diard is a quartermaster from Provence with a penchant for stolen art and gambling. As their regiment enters Tarragona, the city is in a state of unbridled pillage and plunder. Diard decides to profit from the general disorder by chasing after some priceless paintings. Montefiore, on the other hand, is enchanted by a beautiful woman firing a gun from the window of a house. The next day, when relative order is restored, he arranges to be quartered in that same house, in hopes of plundering her affections.

Montefiore has to cozy up to the parents of his host family before he can get close to the girl. He later finds out that the young woman in question, named Juana, is actually the daughter of a wealthy courtesan called La Marana. In fact, Juana is the descendant of a long line of such courtesans. Her mother, however, hopes that her beloved Juana will not follow in her ancestors’ footsteps. Wishing a respectable life for her daughter as a wife and mother, La Marana goes to great lengths to protect Juana’s virtue.

That may sound like the setup for a bawdy romantic comedy, and the book certainly starts out that way. Montefiore’s concerted quest to deflower this virgin is as humorous and entertaining as any comic opera. The lighthearted hijinx does not continue, however, and the book takes a darker turn. Balzac divides the novel into three long chapters, and by the time you get to the end of the third the sex and romance has been replaced by degradation and violence. When critics used to accuse Balzac of always concentrating on the uglier, baser aspects of life, this might very well have been one of the works they had in mind. For today’s readers, however, the problem with the book is neither its beginning nor its end but rather its middle, which is slow and rather dull. Balzac goes off on one of his favorite topics—marriage—providing an in-depth relationship examination that is a little too philosophical to be emotionally engaging or vicariously interesting. Thankfully, the plot does pick up again and the book finishes with a moving and memorable ending. Its long-windedness prevents it from being one of Balzac’s strongest works, but the story of Juana is likely to stick with the reader for a long time.

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