At first glance, the English translation of the title might seem somewhat of a misnomer. Essentially, this work is a collection of four separate volumAt first glance, the English translation of the title might seem somewhat of a misnomer. Essentially, this work is a collection of four separate volumes that are essentially loosely joined together through one central theme and figure, i.e. the infamous Jacques Collin and his string of aliases from the priest Carlos Herrera, to Vautrin. Though one might think the “harlot” referenced in the English translation refers to the story’s professional courtesan, Esther Gobseck, this is not a true conclusion. The story is essentially a study of interactions amongst men and women in Parisian society—husbands, wives and lovers. In essence, all daughters of Paris when they fall in love—be they rich or poor—experience and inhabit the highs and lows of the courtesan. Love for these women is likened to an addiction which will eventually reach a crisis stage that threatens to take over reason, leading to ruination, madness or even death. In this crisis stage, the Parisian woman in love can conjure up untold amounts of strength...even ripping out the steel bars of a prison gate!
The pacing of these four volumes might be a detraction for some readers. In truth, the first two volumes describing the organizational workings of Parisian society read rather slowly. The interweaving of roles are numerous: husbands, wives and their lovers—equally accepting, understanding and supporting; the petty female jealousies felt by opposing friends and lovers vying for attention: old biddies like Diane de Maufrigneuse and Mme de Sérisy trying to recapture their youth by lusting after young virile men, who are engaged to their friends’ virginal daughters, and their plans to establish continued understandings with these male lovers after their marriage. Then, there is the male lover’s attempts at seeking pleasure—not just from his intended wife and older lover—but through the arms of his own established mistress. This web of corrupt intrigue that Balzac painstakingly weaves is phenomenal. It reminded me of Thackeray’s puppet theatre imagery that is the essence of Vanity Fair. Yet none of Balzac’s characters within these four volumes ever realize that they are being manipulated by a master puppeteer—though unlike Thackeray’s own role of “manager,” the role of the master in Balzac’s story is entrusted to the criminal mastermind, Jacques Collin.
It is only within the last two volumes that the reader is fully acquainted with Jacques Collin’s significant role. He is rather reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Frank Abagnale, Jr. in the film, Catch Me If You Can. The scam Jacques Collin has in play is wonderfully complex: the whole of Paris is within his control. It is so much fun to see how he pulls and tests the strengths of his power, fully aware of his own strength and Paris’ weaknesses. Though, Balzac is careful in not allowing him to appear infallible: Jacques Collin does have one weakness in the form of his protégée, Lucien de Rubempré, the protagonist of Lost Illusions. His plan is guided solely for the benefit of Lucien, assuring Lucien’s future happiness within Paris’ financial, political and social web.
Overall, despite the somewhat dull beginning, Balzac devised a masterful and entertaining conclusion to this 600 page work. ...more
When one comes across the name Elizabeth Gaskell, one may readily associate the name with Dickens as one of the Victorian social issue writers of thatWhen one comes across the name Elizabeth Gaskell, one may readily associate the name with Dickens as one of the Victorian social issue writers of that age. Gaskell’s novel, Ruth, can easily be placed into that category, considering its main theme of the fallen woman and her attempts to survive in a society that scorns her position and that of her illegitimate child. However, rather than using the fallen woman theme to its full advantage, i.e. through a realistic depiction of her heroine’s survival, Gaskell seemingly compromises realism for idealism to perhaps assuage the sensibilities of the novel’s Victorian audience. The resultant overtly religious tone of a “just” penance for such a sin is detrimental to the novel’s underlying message of survival.
As well, one can argue that Gaskell’s portrayal of Ruth lacks depth. Even though Ruth is the titular heroine, for the most part she remains a background figure, self-conscious and penitent for past wrongs; and yet she is strangely secretive about certain subjects that she should have outwardly confronted from the start. Ruth’s failure to recognize the need to divulge the full truth—namely those secret meetings—to her benefactors, which in turn could have helped her situation, hurts the pious reformer image Gaskell tries to depict, and thus could in part account for the strange turn of events at the novel’s close. As written—though I don’t think this was intentional—, the reader is open to question Bellingham’s role as Ruth’s seducer and antagonist—are these really “just” categorizations for him? Through these possible readings, Ruth does not fit the “pure woman” image Thomas Hardy later faithfully portrays in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
For a novel of its time, Gaskell’s subject can be considered daring, but it lacks the vision and depth one typically associates with Gaskell’s later works. Overall, Ruth is a novel that doesn’t show Gaskell in her best form....more
The Unknown Masterpiece - Balzac mixes fact with fiction in this tale of a mythical artistic genius named Frenhofer. It is a tale that plays on artistThe Unknown Masterpiece - Balzac mixes fact with fiction in this tale of a mythical artistic genius named Frenhofer. It is a tale that plays on artistic conventions and the changes of style from past and present...what’s deemed acceptable or objectionable in art. What I found interesting is Balzac’s use of role reversal. Youth and old age are paired, and where one would think that the younger generation would be more accepting of a modern vision; it is the older generation that actually appears the more daring. Balzac juxtaposes the two ideas well.
In regards to Frenhofer’s masterpiece, the reader could interpret it in two ways—either as a failure or a success. Could Frenhofer be a mad genius, an artist whose vision has escaped him...does he see only what he wants to see? Or, could he be viewed as an artist ahead of his times? Both seem to be equally valid arguments and I find either interpretation equally intriguing. As a side note, I wonder if Zola ever read this story, since it shares some of the same themes he incorporated into his later novel, The Masterpiece.
Gambara - Balzac takes on the theme of the mad genius in this tale of a composer named Gambara, who is unable to be accepted by society. Gambara’s genius is overwhelming. His grand oeuvre, an operatic composition on the life of Mohammad, is so technically detailed that even if the reader has some musical background, as I have, it is easy to become swept up and drowned by the descriptions. This story is not for casual reading; it requires careful attention to be fully understood and enjoyed. Yet the composition of this tale is remarkably balanced. Balzac complements the technical aspects of the tale with a bawdy romance, complete with lustful eyes and salacious yearnings that will surely come to a bad end. All in all, it is a rather good tragicomedy.
The two stories, The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara, are seemingly well paired, illustrating the frustrations of a mad genius in the expression of his art. That said, the pairing does pull the reader more towards the interpretation of the artist as a failure in the two stories.
Of the two, Gambara is the more dense due to the technical detail of Gambara’s operatic composition, and thus requires more patience to read. However, while Gambara balances comedy and romance with tragedy, The Unknown Masterpiece is purely tragical in tone. Though both are excellent stories on their own, of the two, The Unknown Masterpiece is the more intriguing and offers more possibilities in regards to interpretation. ...more
Hamsun penned an interesting take on the tragic muse tale. However it’s not the story itself that really captures the reader, but how Hamsun digressesHamsun penned an interesting take on the tragic muse tale. However it’s not the story itself that really captures the reader, but how Hamsun digresses from it, through Johannes’ inner musings and the poems and stories that Johannes is writing throughout. It is these sections that transform the basic tale, making it indeed something truly special. There are so many layers of meaning that the reader can extrapolate from these sections...psychological vs. social commentaries on one’s sense of place and how this in turn affects the identity of oneself and others’ perceptions of that identity. How these sections are able to demonstrate Johannes’ inner turmoil are wonderfully achieved.
That said, unfortunately I don’t think Hamsun succeeded in writing a convincing love story, or at least, this translation doesn’t really portray a passion that is equally felt by the two doomed lovers. Throughout the story Johannes is haunted by his feelings...a curse he can’t be rid of, no matter what he does. Victoria is his inspiration and his muse, without her in his constant thoughts, he wouldn’t be able to write. In essence, Johannes lives and breathes her. Victoria’s feelings on the other hand, are not so readily apparent. Despite the span of years in which the story takes place, Victoria never seems to grow or change. She very much reminds me of a child who has too many toys...doesn’t know which one she wants to play with, only understanding that she wants them all to be close at hand, ready to be played with. Every move Victoria makes in regards to Johannes seem to be little tests of assurance. Is he still within her grasp? Whenever Victoria is near, Johannes becomes her little puppet. These sections of the text are embarrassing to read, since he essentially fails to recognize his situation. There’s a childlike selfishness attached to Victoria’s every move, and when the reader does come to the final proof of her affections towards Johannes, there can be multiple readings—both good and bad—of what’s said and left unsaid. Heathcliff and Cathy they are not—the love between Victoria and Johannes simply fails to transcend all boundaries....more