Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Facino Cane by Honoré de Balzac

The clarinetist of Monte Cristo
Honoré de Balzac’s series of writings known as the Comédie Humaine consists of around 90 works of literature ranging from tiny short stories to epic novels. All of these works are downloadable as individual ebooks, so I review them all separately as individual pieces of Balzac’s grand design. Facino Cane is one of the briefer entries in the Comédie Humaine. This short story was first published in an 1836 issue of the journal Chronique de Paris.

Facino Cane is only about 20 pages long, and the first 10 pages are all set-up. The reader doesn’t even meet the title character until around the halfway point. Balzac’s story is told by an unnamed narrator, a Frenchman of twenty years of age. In the opening pages he introduces himself, talks about his life in Paris, and describes himself as a curious observer of humanity. While attending a wedding, he notices an interesting-looking musician among the band providing the evening’s entertainment. During a break in the music, the narrator strikes up a conversation with this fellow, an elderly blind clarinetist named Facino Cane.

The name Facino Cane is taken from an actual historical figure, an Italian commander of mercenaries during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Balzac’s story, however, does not concern him. The real Facino Cane serves merely as the namesake for a fictional descendant living in 19th century Paris. Over the brief course of the story’s second half, Facino Cane tells the narrator his whole life story. He was born in Venice and lived a life of wealth and intrigue. The narrative he relates is like The Count of Monte Cristo condensed into ten pages. Because of its extreme brevity, this story-within-the-story reads more like a rough plot sketch than an actual finished narrative. When Facino Cane concludes his tale, the narrator likewise wraps up his own account with a two sentence epilogue, and the short story is done.

Balzac is always entertaining, but this is not one of his better works. It feels more like an idea for a story than an actual finished work of literature. After reading it, one can’t help but wonder what a great novel it might have made had Balzac chosen to develop it at length. Since the story requires such a minimal investment of time, however, it is certainly worth a read for Balzac fans.

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