Friday, October 31, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: French III by Honoré de Balzac, et al.

The French Collection 3
Alfred de Vigny
In 1898 the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons published a ten-volume series entitled Stories by Foreign Authors, featuring short fiction by European authors in English translation. The first three books in the series were devoted to the literature of France. This is the third of these volumes, subtitled French III.

The book opens with its best-known selection, “The Hidden Masterpiece” by Honoré de Balzac. This classic tale of art and obsession gives the fictional account of real-life painter Nicholas Poussin’s meeting with Maitre Frenhofer, a master’s master equipped with almost supernatural artistic skills. Poussin, the upstart whose ambition knows no bounds, would give up everything to decipher this old man’s secrets. This is one of Balzac’s best shorter works. Art lovers in particular will be impressed and enthralled by the author’s breadth of knowledge on the art of painting.

In the next piece, Pierre Loti’s “The Sorrow of an Old Convict,” a boat captain strikes up a friendship with one of his passengers, an aged criminal bound for exile in New Caledonia. It’s a touching tale but a little too brief to be profoundly moving. Loti’s literary talent is evident, but the reader is left wanting a little more.

The weakest piece in the book is “The Mummy’s Foot” by Théophile Gautier, a mediocre horror tale. The story’s narrator goes to an antiquities shop to buy a paperweight and ends up purchasing the mummified foot of an Egyptian Pharoah’s daughter. From there the story moves in predictable directions, and even the surprise ending seems familiar and trite.

Next up, Edouard Rod contributes a very strong entry with “Father and Son.” When a businessman is informed that his father is dying, he must drop everything and return to his hometown. The journey home inspires nostalgic thoughts of youth and inspires him to contemplate the importance of family. Anyone who’s ever undergone such a life event can identify with Rod’s touching treatment of this universal human experience.

Despite the strength of Balzac and Rod’s entries, the best selection in the book is its closing piece, “Laurette or the Red Seal” by Alfred de Vigny. In 1815, a soldier in the guard of Louis XVIII is suffering a rainy journey on horseback to Lille when he makes the acquaintance of an aged infantryman traveling the same muddy thoroughfare. This old soldier used to be a sailor, and he shares a story from his navy days about a voyage he once made to the penal colony in Guiana. This is a riveting story that reveals its secrets slowly. Once de Vigny skillfully draws you into the lives of the characters, you can’t wait to find out what happens next.

If you like classic French literature, do yourself a favor and read the three French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series. You’ll find familiar names like Balzac, Zola, and de Maupassant, but the series’ true value lies in the discovery of lesser-known authors you may not have encountered before. In this case, Rod and de Vigny certainly stand out as authors worthy of a second look.

For some reason, neither Amazon nor Project Gutenberg offers ebook files of the French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but they can be found for free at Wikisource.

Stories in this collection
The Hidden Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac 
The Sorrow of an Old Convict by Pierre Loti 
The Mummy’s Foot by Théophile Gautier 
Father and Son by Edouard Rod 
Laurette or the Red Seal by Alfred de Vigny 

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