Sarrasine by Balzac

“I shall always have in my memory, a divine harpy, who will come and stick her claws in all my masculine feelings, and who will stamp all other women with the mark of imperfection.”

At this point, I could consider myself deep into my Balzac project, but after taking a look at this great resource, I see that I’m still in 1830….

No matter. It’s the journey, not the destination, right?

My copy of Sarrasine is published by Hesperus and it comes as a two-fer combined with Passion in the Desert. Sarrasine isn’t the best story I’ve read from Balzac but it is, for spoiler reasons I can’t explain, one of the strangest so far….

Sarrasine is set at a ball, and it begins with the narrator noting the stark contrasts between the exterior and the interior of the mansion which belongs to the mysterious and wealthy de Lanty family.

Seated in a window opening, and hidden by the wavelike folds of shimmering material, I was able to contemplate in comfort the garden of the mansion where I was spending the evening. The trees, not perfectly covered with snow, stood out faintly against the greyish background formed by a cloudy sky, barely whitened by the moon. Seen amidst this fantastic atmosphere, they vaguely resembled ghosts poorly wrapped in their shrouds, a gigantic image of the famous ‘dance of death’. Then, turning round to the other side, I was able to admire the dance of the living: a magnificent drawing room, with walls in silver and gold, with twinkling chandeliers, and gleaming with candles! It was teeming with the prettiest women in Paris, who were bustling and flitting around. The richest, the most highly titled women were there, radiant, pompous, and dazzling you with their diamonds; they had flowers in their hair, sewn onto their dresses, or as garlands on their feet. Their light tremblings of joy and voluptuous steps caused the cotton and silk lace to ripple and the muslin around their delicate sides to roll up. Some looks, which were too vivacious, broke through all this here and there, eclipsing the lights and the fiery brilliance of the diamonds, and enlivened hearts that were already too passionate.

The narrator continues his observations on the contrast between the lively ball and the proximity of death along with thoughts about the origins of the mysterious de Lanty family. No one is really quite sure where they came from, and there are various rumours concerning the family–Parisian society, however, is perfectly willing to overlook the stories as the de Lanty family is fabulously wealthy. Suddenly a bizarre old man enters the ball. His back is bent ‘like that of a daily labourer,” and he’s also very thin–so thin that his clothes hang from his frame:

He was wearing black silken pantaloons that fluttered around his emaciated thighs, forming folds like a veil that had been pulled down.

The old man is extremely well-dressed, and although his skin is yellow, he appears to be wearing make up. He’s also  wearing a curly blond wig, and ostentatious jewelry–including gold earrings, and here’s a wonderful quote:

Lastly, this kind of Japanese idol kept a permanent fixed expression of laughter on his blueish lips, a harsh mocking laughter, like that of a death’s head. Silently, and as immobile as a statue, it exhaled the musky odour of the old clothes that the heirs of a duchess exhume from her drawers during an inventory.

Now that conjures up a powerful image.

The old man sits down next to the young and beautiful Mme de Rochefide–she’s appalled by the newcomer and tells the narrator that the old man “has the smell of the cemetery about him.”

 The narrator, who’s obviously trying to impress Mme de Rochefide goes to her home the next day and relates the story of Sarrasine–a rather wild young man, an artist who in 1758 travels to Italy where he meets the singer, Zambinella and falls madly, passionately in love. Of course this story eventually ties into the story of the de Lanty family. While it’s not Balzac’s best, there’s an element of the phantasmagorical to the tale.

My copy is translated by David Carter, and just as a point of comparison, here’s a couple of passages–the David Carter translation:

Soon the natural exaggeration among people in high society caused the birth and accumulation of the most amusing ideas, the strangest expressions and the most ridiculous stories about this mysterious person. Without being precisely a vampire, a ghoul, an artificial man, a type of Faust or Robin hood, he shared something, according to those people who were lovers of the fantastic, with all these anthropomorphic natures. There were to be found here and there some Germans who considered these ingenious mocking expressions of malicious Parisian gossip to be true. The stranger was simply an old man. Several of those young men, who are accustomed to decide every morning the future of Europe in a few elegant phrases, would have it that the unknown man was a great criminal, and possessor of an enormous fortune. Novelists recounted the life of this old man and gave you really strange details about the atrocities committed by him during the time he was in the service of the Prince of Mysore. Some bankers, more positive people, introduced a specious story: “Bah!” they said, shrugging their large shoulders in a movement expressing pity, “This little man is a Genoese head’ “

“Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, would you be so good as to explain to me what you mean by a ‘Genoese head’?”

“Sir, it is a man on whose life enormous capital funds are based, and it is on his good health no doubt that the revenue of this family depends.

Now to compare this to the same passage translated by Clara Bell and others. It’s free for the kindle:

Ere long the exaggeration to which people in society are naturally inclined, produced a large and growing number of the most amusing ideas, the most curious expressions, the most absurd fables concerning this mysterious individual. Without being precisely a vampire, a ghoul, a fictitious man, a sort of Faust or Robin du Bois, he partook of the nature of all these anthropomorphic conceptions, according to those persons who were addicted to the fantastic. Occasionally some Germans would take for realities these ingenious jests of Parisian evil-speaking. The stranger was simply an old man. Some young men, who were accustomed to decide the future of Europe every morning in a few fashionable phrases, chose to see in the stranger some great criminal, the possessor of enormous wealth. Novelists described the old man’s life and gave some really interesting details of the atrocities committed by him while he was the service of the Prince of Mysore.

Bankers, men of a more positive nature, devised a specious fable.

“Bah!” they would say, shrugging their broad shoulders pityingly, “that little old fellow’s a Genoese head!’ “

“If it is not an impertinent question, monsieur, would you have the kindness to tell me what you mean by a Genoese head?”

“I mean, monsieur, that he is a man upon whose life enormous sums depend, and whose good health is undoubtedly essential to the continuance of this family’s income.”



Filed under Balzac, Fiction

15 responses to “Sarrasine by Balzac

  1. I don’t think this story can be spoiled anymore, not once Roland Barthes got done with it. it has been spoiled, tenderized, fricasseed, reconstituted, and on and on with more cooking verbs.

  2. I dodn’t always mind spoilers but judging from your answer to Tom in this case it’s better to avoid reading the Barthes – or any other in-depth analysis before?

    • The Barthes book is a pretty special case. It takes this one minor Balzac story and works through it line by line, word by word, but not because the story is particularly good or important or anything, but because any text will do.

      The funniest result of S/Z is that there are a many expert readers of the highest theoretical sophistication have read one and only one Balzac work, “Sarrasine.”

      • That is indeed funny. Maybe he chose this book because it’s not that good. I’m not particularly fond of this approach although I found some of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ dissecting of different South American myths quite fascinating. It’s different though done with oral traditions as it’s an analysis that helps compare different social systems as mirrored in the myths.

      • That really is funny when you think about it. Especially as it’s not his best

      • That sounds awfully boring to me. Maybe Balzac wrote this in a hurry to earn money and erudites try to analyze it as if every word was weighed, thought through.

    • Some novels are so complex that there are many spoilers and chances are that in one article, they won’t ALL be given away. In Sarrasine, there’s just one “shocker” although I’d begun to suspect.

  3. See my previous comments on all your other Balzac posts 😉

  4. I haven’t read this one but I’ve read Passion in the Desert. A strange tale.

    As for the part regarding translations, I just wonder what the French is.

    PS: we say Robin des Bois, and it seems only fair to give the name in English in the English version.

  5. After reading Sarrasine, it clicked that Barthe’s book was about this story, so I went out to get it. I had only read Mythologies by Barthes, which I found rather entertaining, although too much. S/Z I found ridiculous. I totally disagree with this approach to criticism, and I think it’s simply an historical oddity of the 1960s. In fact, I’m not sure how serious Barthes meant it to be – it seems like parody at times, but maybe that’s because of all its imitators.
    Isn’t Borge’s story of Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote, the final statement about this approach to literature?

  6. BTW, I posted about Sarrasine, but unlike Barthes, I had nothing to say, so I just quoted it…

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