Setting the scene
‘Thus, at my right was the depressing, silent image of death; at my left the decorous bacchanalia of life; on the one side nature, cold and gloomy, and in mourning garb; on the other side, man on pleasure bent. And, standing on the borderland of those two incongruous pictures, which repeated thousands of times in diverse ways, make Paris the most entertaining and most philosophical city in the world, I played a mental macedoine[*], half jesting, half funereal. With my left foot I kept time to the music, and the other felt as if it were in a tomb. My leg was, in fact, frozen by one of those draughts which congeal one half of the body while the other suffers from the intense heat of the salons—a state of things not unusual at balls.
Its language really is beautiful, intimate and candid charting the observations and thoughts of a guest cum voyeur at a well-to-do party where the reader gets to be privy to things that the guests are just barely concealing from each other. It is classic literature akin to Victorian/Edwardian.
Thankfully at no point did I need to dip my hand into my figurative holster and pull out my trusty though falling apart dictionary when reading this story though as you can see above the language is very descriptive, atmospheric and metaphorical. I’m at an age of I dunno somewhere on the crustier side of Oscar the Grouch but a smidgen younger than Daria and so my past love for the classics is less enthusiastic than it used to be, and so from the onset I feared the language might just be too descriptive and consistently so to the point of boring or putting me off. Get to the point before I roll my eyes (you say)?
But that is the point! For some reason I felt compelled to keep reading, the descriptions of the surroundings and incumbents were immersing me gently and then all of a sudden the game was afoot! Amongst all the chatter going on regarding the mysterious past of the family throwing the lavish ‘do’ there was another, even more intriguing mystery about one of household members in particular. Their wealth assured the family’s acceptance into high society and provided welcome distraction not to mention parties such as this for their guests to parasite upon. Where the mother, son and daughter were embodiments of fortune, charm, beauty, talents and generally endless attraction and the father at least smart there was a person of extremely opposing image and seeming character – the “old man” for whom the gossip consisted mostly of folklore-ish comparisons and even discomfort.
A touch of Gothic horror?
The author inspired many other authors including those of the classic hair tingling horror persuasion such as Edgar Allen Poe and in his descriptions of the mysterious member of the family I can see why. The perceptions and reactions this character receives are nothing short of theatrical in their suspicion, fear and awe yet gentle but still scared tenderness and devotion from the family. The character is both fragile and imposing, a wretched creature wrapped in the decadence of finery royalty would be envious of but all that adornment is in stark contrast to the bodily visage. The mannerisms, raspy voice and weakness in general, a person with so many wrinkles and stooped shuffling about and needing both attention and affection but causing repulsion and anxiety. An ungodly, un-earthly, pitiful sufferance.
Nowadays I don’t like so much articulation but the language flows and details the the picture and characters without needing to give them much dialogue. The narrator gives them colour, characterizing those around with sharp contrasts and making astute observations. And then…
I got tired.
*Sigh* it was inevitable. Seriously, stop describing every single thing, every movement, every sound as if experiencing it for the first time. The plot moves at good pace surprisingly enough but still.
At this point I was beginning to wonder about the narrator’s and his companion’s age, he obviously has great sensory prowess, his observations are graphically embedded in his mind but they do seem immature in their defensiveness and touchy sensitivity, but then that doesn’t just apply to the young. Either way it’s tiresome in real life let alone to read.
So what to do? The author did the best thing and got to the main part and it’s very topical indeed.
The narrator relates the story of Sarrasine after being questioned about a statue/relic and its origins. Sarrasine was every bit the stereotypical ‘artistic temperament’ he both shot and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and feeling being extremely talented, introverted and easily bored. His father and teachers were frustrated with him and he was taken on as apprentice to a famous artist who knew exactly how to soothe the savage beast. He quickly met success and moved on but it was to his detriment as he had not matured from his tumultuous state and having little in the way of social skills.
As befitting his disposition he suddenly and passionately fell in ‘love’ with a beautiful and wondrous singer called Zambinella and on top of the usual impact celebrity glamour has coupled with the star being an illuminated and bedazzling spectacle on stage he was overwhelmed by these new feelings. The hypnotic vision, his naivete and imagination bewitched him and like any artist and muse he’s inspired into a frenzy to create an idol worthy of Zambinella’s perfection whilst attending her performances religiously.
But as in any such tale there are great impediments; beauty is owned, controlled and abused and the rescuer made only more determined when warned off as Sarrasine is regarding the cruel reality of his beloved’s situation, well, before he finds out all of it. Is he really the ‘rescuer’ and Zambinella does indeed need rescuing – but due to his ego, immaturity and violent personality/behaviour he hopes and is excited by a ‘life and death’ romantic drama where there must be a fight in order to prove himself and be victorious of the prize. Be careful what you wish for.
The rest of the story within the story is extremely sad, tragic and most eloquently moving.
Battle of the Sexes
To expound on the theme a little bit, the main moral conundrum presented in the book asks what makes a man/woman and is romantic love conditional on that? Androgyny, hermaphrodites, homosexuality and bi-sexuality were obviously not alien in ancient civilizations, there are many cases of gender bending and indeed perhaps to the surprise of many afterwards there was an elitist perspective towards male homosexuality in the upper Grecian echelons as the ‘superior love’, the ideal love as men were superior and mating with women was more of a practical necessity. Ganymede/effeminate men have always had their poetic place as well in the higher and artistic circles whereas lesbians have not really had the same adulation (more used/seen as titillation) but also neither the same hatred not in the Western civilizations anyway. Sexual mutilation was and is common for both and this story of star crossed lovers brought and brings to light the some of tragedy it can bring and in hindsight how long such issues can last.
I’ve previously mentioned ‘original gender’ on the blog – it’s a concept in some cultures of a single sex, it was ‘feminine’ but not necessarily as we think of it because we are no longer one sex. Basically ‘its’ called feminine because of the motherhood connotations of creation and because genetically we all start out ‘female’ and if the XX mutates into an XY we get the ‘male’. So the theory goes that ‘children’ were created asexually or through divine blessing e.g. all those stories of babes from plants and later all creatures got ‘split’ via some kind of intervention but as with anything a few ‘abnormalities’ meant some were androgynous and some hermaphrodite, that applies to emotionally as well as physically. Even though this is barely remembered the ramifications remained relevant to society even today for all types of sexuality but due to prejudice especially so-called ‘alternate’ orientations. I’m mentioning this (and it’s usually hidden by most religion and even in circles of those who study religion and mythology because it relates to the root cultures not the empires) because in its way this book also talks about gender equality though more in terms of the psyche.
The story cleverly implies that in truth whilst people understand the act of intercourse they don’t often understand sexuality let alone gender or sexual orientation and if we don’t understand ourselves we perhaps are not understanding each other (or vice versa depending on the individual). The book initially shows the lopsided narrator, a male who feels both hamstrung yet enjoys the volatile feelings his position brings but then it turns on its head with a male apparently sure of his feelings only to be confronted by someone who is struggling to live with the changes in sexuality imposed upon them.
Castration has been carried out over the years for many reasons, in this case Zambinella is a thespian that was castrated pre-puberty to ensure the voice did not break. I will refrain from saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘s/he’ because it’s unclear how or what Zambinella considers their sex to be, if any, we know the gender is a she but that’s it. This particular practice was to create an ‘ultra feminine’ voice more likely to reach the higher ranges, seen in the usual elitist way as superior it continued it finally went out of fashion and women were allowed/became common features on stage. Many think very linearly when it comes to ‘men’ and ‘women’ and the conflict between but when it comes down to it people have been manipulated into not realizing that there have been and are those that who’ve been experimenting/’creating’/tampering with others to their own interest/ideas/ideals of sexuality and castration is one of those methods. Whether they care or not about the effects this has on people the author of this book did or least was aware of those that did and illustrated it via this method expertly describing the deformities that ensues when carried on prepubescents. Why the author chose this method? I don’t know.
“Crime and infamy have a right of asylum here; virtue alone is without altars.”
In likeness to the topsy turvy nature of the subject interestingly I’ve ended up writing this part at the close rather than the beginning… Sarrasine was a novella written by Honoré de Balzac (20 May 1799 – 18 August 1850 – eek look at the date, I started writing this review randomly yesterday due to a competition), French novelist and playwright, it was published in 1830 and later became the first in his extensive and socio-politically poignant ‘La Comédie Humaine’ series.
The book is relatively short and contains quite a number of cultural (literature/art) references well suited to its raconteur narrative. If subject to modern tastes and editing could have been much shorter but I think it’s fine for its genre and can be read quite easily and quickly which is a feat considering the first half is mostly somebody’s internal monologue and as such could have sounded more like one of those scenes in some operas where everybody’s singing different lines at the same time competing to be heard ending up a confusing mess.
It’s one of those stories that can be easily overlooked or discarded due to impatience early on yet it is enchanting and thankfully I reached its revelations and managed to review it. I hope I’ve managed to if not emulate hopefully compliment this text and from what I’ve seen in a way that is different and perhaps eye opening as it deserves.
*Macedoine is a card game.