“The tradition of the Vendetta will long prevent the reign of law in Corsica.”
Vendetta, a short story from Balzac, came free via Amazon for the kindle, and my copy is translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. While I am a die-hard fan of Balzac (I’m currently working my way, slowly through La Comédie Humaine), Vendetta is not going to make my favourite list. This is not something that I can pin on Balzac; the story is well-written, and while I enjoyed the first 2/3s of it, I disliked the final 1/3. This is a matter of personal taste. Stories in which characters passively accept their plight drive me around the bend, and unfortunately, Vendetta falls into the category.
The story begins in the year 1800 with the arrival in Paris of a man, his wife and a small girl. The man is Bartolomeo di Piombo–a Corsican who’s fled Corsica under some strange, disturbing circumstances. Piombo and his wife and child arrive at the Tuileries, and once here, Piombo demands to talk to Napoleon. At first this is denied, but eventually Piombo is taken to see Napoleon. The two men know each other, and Napoleon asks Piombo what brings him to Paris:
“To ask asylum and protection from you, if you are a true Corsican,” replied Bartolemeo, roughly.
“What ill fortune drove you from the island? You were the richest, the most—”
“I have killed all the Portas,” replied the Corsican, in a deep voice, frowning heavily.
Then Piombo relates what happened:
“We had made friends,” replied the man; “the Barbantis had reconciled us. The day after we had drunk together to drown our quarrels, I left home because I had business at Bastia. The Portas remained in my house, and set fire to my vineyard at Longone. They killed my son Gregorio. My daughter Ginevra and my wife, having taken the sacrament that morning, escaped; the virgin protected them. When I returned I found no house; my feet were in its ashes as I searched for it. Suddenly they struck against the body of Gregorio; I recognised him in the moonlight. ‘The Portas have dealt me this blow, I said; and forthwith, I went to the woods, and there I called together all the men whom I had ever served,–do you hear me, Bonaparte?–and we marched to the vineyards of the Portas. We got there at five in the morning; at seven they were all before god.”
There was, apparently, one survivor, a child, but Piombo tied the child to a bed before setting the house on fire. Then Piombo, his wife and child set sail for France. Napoleon, who owes Piombo agrees to give sanctuary to his old acquaintance as long as he forgets the idea of vendetta and obeys the laws of France. Fast forward fifteen years. It’s now 1815–a significant year for French history.
At this point Vendetta delves into the politics of the time and then becomes a love story. The lovers are the young, passionate and single-minded Ginevra Piombo and Luigi, a young man who fought with Napoleon’s defeated army and who is now hiding in the attic belonging to art teacher Servin. The story sets up the dynamics of the art class, the rivalries between the female students, and the division between the supporters of Napoleon and those who wish to see the return of the Bourbons:
The second return of the Bourbons had shaken many friendships which had held firm under the first Restoration. At this moment families, almost all divided in opinion, were renewing many of the deplorable scenes which stain the history of all countries in times of civil or religious wars.
The war that has divided France now continues in the art class. Ginevra “loved Napoleon to idolatry,” whereas other girls in the class “belonged to the most devoted royalist families in Paris.” Politics taints the friendships between the girls, and opinion is sharply divided between the two camps. Since Napoleon’s power is at an end, Ginevra’s popularity is in question.
These scenes in the classroom are brilliantly constructed, throughly enjoyable and peppered with Balzac’s sagacious observations of human nature. However, as the love story takes over and morphs into the morbidly sad conclusion, I can’t say that I enjoyed this part of the tale nearly as much. I loathe to be goaded into sentiment, and for me, this story did just that.