Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gambara by Honoré de Balzac

For opera lovers only
Count Andrea Marcosini, a handsome, young, Milanese nobleman temporarily banished by his home country, strolls the streets of Paris, enjoying the New Year’s festivities of 1831. He spies a young woman of radiant beauty, and though by her shabby dress she appears to be far beneath his social class, he pursues her in hopes of an amorous conquest. She leads him through a red light district to the door of a run-down boarding house inhabited by Italian expatriates. He enters the house under the pretext of dining at its table d’hôte, and sits down to a meal with the tenants. He discovers that the young woman, Marianna, is the wife of Paolo Gambara, an aspiring composer. Andrea and Gambara bond over a love of Beethoven, and the two form a friendship while Andrea attempts to woo the other’s wife. Despite possessing a profound intellect, Gambara is a failure as a composer because his work is far too radically avant garde for the audience of his day. To Andrea’s ears, Gambara’s music is merely a hideous cacophony. Taking the composer under his wing, Andrea ventures to boost Gambara’s career by getting him drunk, in hopes that the alcohol will subdue his intellectual genius and allow his poetic passion to shine through.

Balzac is a superb author, and nine times out of ten I enjoy his work, but getting through this one was a grueling experience. Gambara is a novella, but feels a lot longer. At least half of the text is taken up by Gambara’s blow-by-blow commentary of two operas. One is a fictional masterpiece of his own making; the other is Robert le Diable by Meyerbeer. These lengthy, mind-numbing descriptions, sprinkled with key changes, can only be loved by the most enthusiastic patron of the opera or those possessing a master’s degree in classical music. The sole purpose of the story seems to be to allow Balzac to showcase his ability to express musical concepts in prose. The story that surrounds these passages is not particularly engaging, and the touching epilogue is not moving enough to redeem all the boredom that precedes it. Gambara can be seen as a companion piece to The Hidden Masterpiece, another tragedy of artistic genius by Balzac. The latter story, which focuses on painting instead of music, is far more interesting, more elegantly written, and more accessible to the general reader. All but the most diehard admirers of Balzac should steer clear of Gambara.

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