Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Croisilles by Alfred de Musset

Balzacian comedy of class
Alfred de Musset
Croisilles, a novella by French author Alfred de Musset, was originally published in 1839. The story takes place in the early 18th century. The title is a man’s name, in this case the hero of the narrative. Croisilles is the son of a goldsmith who lives in Le Havre. As the story opens, Croisilles is returning to his hometown after his father has sent him to conduct a business transaction in Paris. Upon reaching Le Havre, he is surprised to find his father’s shop closed and unoccupied. A neighbor informs Croisilles that his father has gone bankrupt and fled to America to escape his creditors. Disgraced and alone, Croisilles considers suicide. On the verge of killing himself, however, he realizes his one reason for living: his love for the beautiful Mademoiselle Julie, the daughter of a family much wealthier than his own. Despite their difference in class and the disapproval of her father, Croisilles decides to win Julie’s love by achieving great wealth of his own.

This is all related by de Musset in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek manner. Croisilles is a rather flighty individual, in many ways a man-child who can’t survive without his parents. Julie is vain and contemptuous. Her father is as implacable as any other father who doesn’t want his daughter to marry beneath her station. Quite frankly, at first there’s not a lot to admire from any of these characters, but the humor that de Musset injects into the story makes it enjoyable. Croisilles may be a buffoon, but he does come across as lovable. You find yourself rooting for him even when he acts like an idiot or squanders his money on stupid schemes. By the end of the story the reader is thoroughly involved with this odd love story, and even the icy Julie begins to appear sympathetic. De Musset caps the tale off with an delightfully unexpected ending.

If I had not seen de Musset’s name on this story, I would have sworn it were written by Balzac. It’s about as Balzacian as a story can get without actually having been written by Balzac. The subject matter is very in keeping with the concerns of class distinctions, societal conventions, and financial hardships so often explored in the works of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and de Musset attacks the issues with a similarly wry sense of humor. The story makes a wrong turn early on, right after Croisilles experiences the shock of finding himself destitute. De Musset relents somewhat from that dire sentence with a bit of a cop out: Oh wait, Croisilles really does have some money. It would have been a more effective rags-to-riches tale if the rags had been bleaker. Nevertheless, despite this one narrative misstep, overall Croisilles is a satisfyingly charming read.
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