I thoroughly enjoyed Balzac’s novella Gambara–a tale that runs to almost 90 pages in my NYRB edition packaged with a companion piece of sorts, The Unknown Masterpiece . In Gambara, it’s New Year’s Eve 183o, and a wealthy, young Milanese nobleman is strolling in Paris on the look out for love and adventure. We’re told that Count Andrea Marcosini “is banished from his country, where several liberal escapades had rendered him persona non grata to the Austrian government.” (Of course, I’m thinking about Casanova.) The Count, due to his wealth, is not in hardship and is viewing his exile rather like an extended holiday. He expects to return in a couple of years and face no long-lasting consequences.
On New Year’s Eve, the Count spies a poorly dressed, but pretty woman, and he begins following her, not bothering to hide his interest. Part of the Count’s attraction to the woman springs from the sense that the woman suffers conflicting emotions. She notes his presence and may even seem interested but at the same time, she blushes and seems annoyed by the Count’s attentions. Her responses spark “unruly dreams which were exciting him,” and I think that’s a polite 19th century way of saying that the Count was enjoying sexual fantasies about the woman as he follows her.
“For after all,” he said to himself, “if she was avoiding me and wanted to put me off the scent, that means she’s attracted to me. With women of her kind, resistance is a proof of love.”
The woman’s poverty and tatty clothing seem to be erotic stimuli rather than a turn-off. The first step of this adventure ends when the woman slips inside a building and the Count discovers that she appears to live in some squalid lodging connected to a table d’hôte, and again, this very squalidness adds to the adventure and turns the Count on:
He wanted her in that very house he had seen her enter. “Am I enslaved by vice?” he asked himself, with some alarm.
Of course, with this powerful attraction eating away at the Count’s peace of mind, he returns to the rue Froidmanteau and while he wants to see the woman again, he decides a sly way to discover more would be to dine at the table d’hôte. Served by fellow countryman, Signora Giardini, the Count finally meets the object of his sexual obsession, Signora Marianna Gambara along with the annoying encumbrance of a husband. According to his host and chef, Giardini, many men have tried to seduce the beautiful Signora Gambara but all have failed. She remains loyal to her husband–in spite of the fact that he earns no money and is an eccentric musician.
The Count is intrigued by the Gambaras, and dining with Giardini in dingy, crude conditions allows him to monitor the object of his desire safely. Signora Gambara, of course, knows that the Count is there for her, but her husband, completely “mad” according to Giardini, is blissfully unaware of anything but his music. The Count is in a unique position, financially, to help both the Gambaras and the chef, Giardini, for both the musician Gambara and the chef, Giardini are idealists and will suffer nothing less than perfection. What torture, then that both men have difficulties with their respective trades and passions. Giardini, for example, boasts he serves “the best table in Paris”:
Yes, eccellenza, a quarter of an hour from now you’ll learn the sort of man I am. I’ve introduced refinements into Italian cooking which will astound you. I am a Neapolitan, eccellenza, which means I am a born chef. But what use is instinct without knowledge? Knowledge! I’ve spent thirty years acquiring knowledge, and you see where it’s brought me. Mine is the story of all men of talent! My discoveries, my experiments have ruined three restaurants in succession, in Naples, in Parma, in Rome. Today, now that I’m reduced to making a trade of my art, I indulge my ruling passions more than ever before. I serve these poor refugees some of my favorite dishes–and that’s how I ruin myself!
If I were the Count about to eat Giardini’s food, that comment about ruining three restaurants would have made me nervous. After all, there are several ways to interpret Giardini’s complaint as the Count is about to discover.
Curiously Giardini’s table seems crowded with idealists: a mediocre composer who’d like to write operas, a deaf orchestra director, exiled political radical Ottoboni, a journalist doomed to obscure papers because he refuses to sensationalize, and then, of course, Signor Gambara who has a very special problem….
The Count, a practiced seducer, realizes that Signora Gambara worships and protects her husband and so with no small amount of craftiness, the Count lays siege to the wife through courting her husband. But that’s enough of the plot. I thoroughly enjoyed the story for its exploration of human nature, and Balzac shows that giving people what they say they want doesn’t solve problems. Is the Count happy, for example, with Signora Gambara, or is desire directed towards her as an unattainable object? Will Giardini be happy creating endless dishes in a situation in which resources are not a concern? Perhaps idealists are never meant to function in a less-than-perfect world. Or then again, perhaps Idealism offers a safe refuge for the talentless and those whose talent is hampered by other issues. There’s a pleasurable cynicism to this story seen mainly through the way the Count hunts Signora Gambara, and the way in which, through Balzac’s intelligent mind, we see the consequences of his characters achieving that which they desire the most.