Sunday, April 12, 2015

Unexpected Joys: Honoré de Balzac’s The Vendetta

Very few book-lovers actually disdain the classics – your Victor Hugos, your Dostoyevskys, your Henry Jameses – but they can be difficult to pick up and really enjoy. This is not because of any fault in their writing, but because there is nothing quite so capable of sucking the joy out of a new book like being told over and over again what an ‘important’ book it is. Almost anything from the canon of classic fiction authors is going to be important – we all know that. But the joy of a new book is also the joy of uncovering something new and unexpected, however famous the author might be. For several years in my teens one of my favorite books was Anna Karenina, and I would ascribe the great love I had for that book to the fact that I picked it up almost entirely blind, without knowing the first thing about Tolstoy, Russian literature, or really anything at all. If I remember correctly I was about to go on a trip and could only take one book… so I decided to find a nice long one.

Honoré de Balzac is an author that I was never really attracted to – I’m guessing my disinclination can be partially explained by the fact that I was assigned selections from his magnum opus, The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine), in my high-school French classes. (Books assigned in high school never get the love they deserve. My recent advice to a 15-year-old book lover about to be assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in English class was to read the book beforehand so she could actually enjoy it.) The Human Comedy is a massive compendium of almost all of Balzac’s works, broken down into sections and subsections, containing in the final analysis over 2,000 individual characters. As epic and challenging as such a work is, there is a problem with approaching Balzac through such a tome: it is just too damn much. In the flurry of narratives and characters (though they are almost uniformly wonderfully written and remarkable stories) the individual tales get lost. Such is the case with The Vendetta, written and first published in 1830 and included in Scenes from Private Life in 1833 before being final subsumed into its eponymous section of The Human Comedy. It’s re-release in 2008 by Herperus Press, with a new translation by Howard Curtis, gives us the opportunity to appreciate this novella on its own.

The Vendetta opens in 1800, as a small family of refugees from Corsica arrives in Paris and throws itself upon the mercy of well-placed acquaintances. (The down-on-their-luck often follow the same procedure today, but it is perhaps rarer for such acquaintances to be quite as useful). Bartolomeo di Piombo, his wife, and his young daughter have fled the violence that killed their other children and caused Bartolomeo to commit his own crimes – and while Bartolomeo is a sort of hero, his dark side is immediately on display. (Spoiler alert: he ties a six-year-old child to a bed before setting the house on fire. Oops!) Via the good graces of an old acquaintance who is now highly-placed in the Napoleonic administration, Bartolomeo is introduced to Napoleon Bonaparte himself, who history tells us has just cemented his political power in France and is a mere four years away from being declared Emperor. The sketch of Bonaparte provided by Balzac is interesting, particularly given that Balzac wrote his description only 15 years after Napoleon’s final disgrace and banishment. Bonaparte emerges as an honorable man, one who is true to his origins (he is also a Corsican), and who works to balance the demands of natal loyalty with his political and leadership duties. He is willing to grant Bartolomeo and his family a certain degree of refuge and help, but he is also quite stern in forbidding any of the violence that seems to have been a normal feature of life in Corsica to follow Bartolomeo to Paris. “If you use your dagger,” Bonaparte warns Bartolomeo, “you can expect no mercy. Here the law protects all citizens, and no-one takes the law into his own hands.”

Print from La Comédie humaine (Furne, 1846)
In a sense, this is an amusing moment. On the one hand, it does demonstrate the degree to which Bonaparte was attempting to undermine the ‘system’ of aristocratic nepotism that was such a part of French society. On the other hand, he is in the process of becoming the one citizen who can take the law into his own hands and who is, at least temporarily, above that law. In his introduction, translator Howard Curtis (himself well-known and the recipient of the John Florio Prize in 2004 and the Europa Campiello Literary Prize in 2010) notes that that Bartolomeo’s appeal to his acquaintances is one of the elements of the story that echoes characters from Balzac’s life; the depth of Bartolomeo’s character, in both its negative and positive aspects, may also reflect Balzac’s complicated relationship to the original model. Whatever the inspiration, Bartolomeo is a fascinating man. He is proud, intelligent, and loyal, but he also keeps his wife living in fear and neglects his daughter’s education while encouraging in her all the depths of emotion which, undisciplined, can run contrary to the exercise of reason. And of course, he has no compunction about murdering young children. There is that.

Once the refugee family is settled, the story fast-forwards 15 years, to the time immediately following the final downfall of Bonaparte. In the aftermath of Bonaparte’s death, his followers, including the di Piombos, stand on shaky and shifting ground as the aristocratic classes of Paris reassert their authority. It is a time in Paris when being a ‘patriot’ is an insult. In 1815, the main character of Balzac’s story is no longer Bartolomeo di Piombo but his daughter Ginevra – beautiful, talented, and still undisciplined – who is subjected to the taunts and insults of aristocratic colleagues at the artists studio where she and other young women of repute go to learn the basics of painting and art appreciation.

It is there that Ginevra meets the young man who will change her life forever, and the twists of that story speak to why Balzac is to be included in the canon of great authors. While there is no real surprise to some of the identity-twists that emerge in the story, they are also really not the point. Yes, it is a story of love (and interestingly, a story of the conflict between the love of parents and the love of a lover as much as anything else). It does in fact bear resemblances to many classic love stories, and to many tragedies. But one remarkable feature of Ginevra’s life is that it is not a slow and inevitable slide into tragedy: there are also moments of great joy, even after the point when more classic authors would have begun to deny their characters anything but pain and sorrow. The joy of Ginevra, years of joy in fact, are perhaps a testimony to the realism for which Balzac is so famous.

For me, it was the spare hand with which Balzac paints the tragedy of vengeance that is remarkable. In the end, the tragedy is not so much the result of the original vendetta as it is the inability of Bartolomeo to let the vendetta go. Early in the book, Bonaparte tells Bartolomeo that, “[a]s long as the custom of vendetta persists, there can be no rule of law in Corsica… We must do everything we can to destroy it.” By the end of the book it is clear that not even the legal eradication of vendettas can limit their reach, as long as those involved refuse to let them go.

Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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