The Red Inn by Balzac

The Red Inn (L’Auberge Rouge), a short story from Balzac, is a seemingly simple tale that asks the question: how does one accept a fortune that is gained on blood–a fortune that is not morally yours?

This tale begins at the home of a Parisian banker who is entertaining friends and business acquaintances with dinner. Included in the guests is a German named Hermann who is asked to tell the guests a story over dessert:

At this moment the guests were in that happy state of laziness and silence which follows a delicious dinner, especially if we have presumed too far on our digestive powers. leaning back in their chairs, their wrists lightly resting on the edge of the table, they were indolently playing with the gilded blades of their dessert-knives. When a dinner comes to this declining moment some guests will be seen to play with a pear seed; others roll crumbs of bread between their fingers and thumbs; lovers trace indistinct letters with fragments of fruit; misers count the stones on their plate and arrange them as a manager marshals his supernumeraries at the back of the stage. These are the little gastronomic felicities which Brillat-Savarin, otherwise so complete an author, overlooked in his book. The footmen had disappeared. The dessert was like a squadron after a battle: all the dishes were disabled, pillaged, damaged

It’s so easy to imagine this scene with the satisfied guests around the table, laden with overly-full, heavy stomachs and loathe to move. Taking a pinch of snuff, the German begins his tale which rather appropriately involves two young Frenchmen in Germany. The year is 1799. The two men, Prosper Magnan and the other named “Wilhelm” (the story teller claims to have forgotten the name of the second man) have been removed from medical school and conscripted into the army as assistant-surgeons. They reach the town of Anderbach at nightfall and decide to spend the night at an inn that is painted red, aptly named The Red Inn. The inn is full, but the innkeeper gives up his own bed to the two men. Shortly afterwards a German merchant arrives also seeking shelter. A meal and a few drinks later, the merchant spills the information that he travels with one hundred thousand francs….

That’s as much of the story as I will reveal, but let’s just say that there’s an ironic twist of fate, and since this is Balzac, expect human greed to play a large part in acts that unfold. Conscience, however, plays an even bigger role with more than one character, and we see how conscience can direct a person’s actions–or even lead in one case to inaction and indecision. I liked the way this story was after-dinner entertainment while the guests digested their meal. Apart from the coincidences, it was quite believable and wasn’t marred with over-the-top dramatics.

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and FREE for the kindle.

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17 Comments

Filed under Balzac, Fiction

17 responses to “The Red Inn by Balzac

  1. Guy – I know that Balzac is one of your favorite authors. I am not sure why but before I read your posts on his work I always thought his style was serious and solemn. After reading about these tales he sounds very entertaining and perhaps evan fun. I need to try his works soon!

  2. There’s a huge range: this one is a who-dun-it really, and with a kindle you can try Balzac for free.

  3. This one goes in the Père Goriot Plus collection I have envisioned, along with “Gobseck” and all of the other stories that illuminate some of the mysteries of Goriot.

    Brian – Balzac is a wild man. He has some of everything.

  4. Père Goriot Plus collection sounds good. I’ve still not read all of the stories which are hinted and or tied to Père Goriot, it eally is the heart of the Comédie Humaine, don’t you think? That’s said, I haven’t read this short story.

  5. I wanted to write hinted at

  6. That quote is marvellous, especially the playing with crumbs, pear seed… Sounds like end of evenings with friends. This hasn’t changed in two centuries.

    I have to say I’m intrigued by this story.

  7. “heart of the Comédie Humaine” – yes, exactly. The place where all of the knots get tied. And the beginning of a giant insane epic if you follow it through Lost Illusions and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.

  8. Your posts on Balzac have reawakened my fondness for him. I have downloaded the story and look forward to reading it.

  9. Brilliant imagery and sense of detail in that description. I haven’t read any Balzac yet, although Kundera does say that detail is his speciality.

  10. Thanks for all the comments. I chose the end-of-dinner debris quote because it reminded me of Balzac, the man more than Balzac the writer, and yes it is marvelous to come across these “loose ends” or bits of history regarding the various characters.

  11. Ann

    I just finished reading The Red Inn, and I’ve been googling to try and figure out whether the last line is supposed to be a joke, an irony, or a serious question. I downloaded the work relatively blindly from the free classics site for kindle, and I have no experience in reading Balzac. I was enjoying the story immensely, but then I was taken aback at the abrupt ending. I felt like the acquaintance who doesn’t get an inside joke between mutual friends.

  12. SPOILER ALERT
    Hello Ann: Both Prosper and the other young man came from Beauvais. We’re told that very early in the story, but the man telling the story cannot remember the name of the other young Frenchman–even calling him “Wilhelm.” (He later remembers his name was Frederic). When the narrator asks Taillefer (who’s been acting weird throughout the telling of the story) is asked if he is Frederic Taillefer from Beauvais, he admits this. This confirms what we’ve suspected all along–that Taillefer is the other young Frenchman in the story.

    IMO:

    The last line is one of those ‘why did you have to ask that awkward question’ statements:
    “Idiot! Why did you ask him if he came from Beuavais?” By asking the question, the narrator learned the truth, and then by doing this, was confronted with a moral dilemma re: Victorine Taillefer’s money. How can one accept a fortune that is based on blood?
    In other words, not asking the question would have avoided a moral dilemma as the narrator would have merely suspected the truth and would not have had to face making a tough decision. It’s an ‘ignorance is bliss’ scenario.

    • Ann

      Thank you! I see now how that fits together. I had understood the significance of the narrator asking the question as soon as I read it, though at that point it was more of a, “That’s noble of you, but are you sure you want to go there?” We soon learned, of course, that he regretted going there. But when I came to the ending, I just wasn’t sure if there was more to it that the Puritan, narrator, and intended audience knew that I didn’t as a 21st century American 🙂

      As I said, I enjoyed the story, and I’ll be searching for more Balzac to download and read.

    • This very story is the history of a fortune which is hinted at in Pere Goriot.

  13. http://www.balzacbooks.wordpress.com is a great resource. I’m trying to read chronologically and will be rereading some of the titles along the way. I consider myself lucky that the kindle is there for the free Balzac.

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