Friday, October 26, 2012

Farewell by Honoré de Balzac

Like an epic war novel in a pint-sized package
Honoré de Balzac
Two friends, Colonel Philippe de Sucy and the Marquis d’Albon, get lost in the woods while out hunting. They stumble upon a dilapidated old convent where they find a remarkable woman, bewitchingly beautiful but wild like an animal, who seems to possess the mind of a child. An investigation into this mystery woman’s past reveals a flashback to the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Russia in November of 1812. The defeated French forces, starved and freezing, amassed upon the shore of the Beresina River in Belarus, with the pursuing Russian horde close upon their heals. This scene of human wreckage provides the setting for a pivotal moment in the lives of both Philippe and this mysterious, savage woman-child, Stéphanie, who was once his childhood love. Reunited at last, can they overcome the lasting effects of that horrifying ordeal?

Farewell (French title: Adieu) is a novella by Honoré de Balzac, first published in 1830. It is a brief work penned in deceptively brisk prose which flows by quickly and effortlessly. Balzac is a master at quickly establishing scene and characters, thereby ensnaring the reader immediately in the world of his story. Once involved in the lives of these characters, the reader is swept along by a stream of revelations and surprises. Like many works written during this time period, the expressions of love may seem a little over the top for today’s audience, but the occasional sickly sweetness is tempered by the stark and gruesome descriptions of the Beresina battlefield. The relationship between Philippe and Stéphanie is really quite moving, and the war sequences offer plenty of exciting action. In addition, Balzac treats the subject of mental illness with thoughtfulness and dignity, and raises interesting philosophical questions about the limits of love, the fragility of the mind, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Farewell is part of Balzac’s magnum opus, the Comédie Humaine, but like all works under that heading it can be read as a stand-alone novel. I would recommend it to diehard fans of Balzac or to general enthusiasts of classic literature who are newcomers to this great author’s work. Though not one of his better known pieces, it is a pleasant surprise and deserves a higher degree of notoriety. The slight investment you’ll make in reading time is more than rewarded by a satisfying emotional richness that far surpasses the brevity of its page count.
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