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Vendettas

July 19, 2011 20 comments

Vendetta by Honoré de Balzac. 1830.

I decided to join Caroline and Danielle in their readalong of Vendetta by Balzac. It is part of our contribution to Thyme for Tea and Bookbath’s July in Paris. Vendetta is part of La Comédie Humaine, in Scènes de la vie privée.

The story starts in 1800, i.e. when Bonaparte was First Consul, before he had the French Senate proclaimed him Emperor in 1804. The Piombos arrive in Paris after a vendetta with the Porta that decimated both families. A vendetta is a do-it-yourself justice. You don’t rely on the State justice but feel entitled to kill anyone belonging to the family you have a vendetta with. As Corsicans, the Piombos go to Napoléon and the father serves the Bonapartist administration.

In 1815, the Piombo family is still is Paris and are well-off now. Their daughter Ginevra loves to paint and takes painting lessons at Servin’s. He’s the most fashionable painting teacher among the high society and young girls from different families meet in his studio. It is just after the Restauration and Napoleon’s failed comeback to power. The aristocracy is triumphant and the Bonapartists are defeated.

As a Corsican, Ginevra is of course a fervent admirer of Napoleon. So when she realises that Servin hides Luigi, a former soldier of the Great Army in the studio, she doesn’t report it to the authorities but helps concealing his presence to the other students. As the reader expects, they fall in love and want to marry but Ginevra’s father is strongly opposed to this marriage, on the one hand because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter and on the other hand because Luigi is a survivor from the Porta family and the vendetta is still running.

It’s a short book but nonetheless full of thought-provoking events and descriptions.

Of course, the theme reminded me of Romeo and Juliet and I know Balzac admired Shakespeare a lot. We have the same ingredients here with these two young persons genuinely in love with each other and disregarding their family hate.

Balzac also insists on the particularity of Corsican temper all along this novella. According to him, it’s a lethal combination of pride, stubbornness and courage associated to a strong identity as a Corsican. The parents would rather turn their back on their daughter than accept her marriage with Luigi. Actually, Corsica has always had a very strong culture and it remains even today. One of their specialties is bombing public buildings to claim for their independence. These terrorist attacks rarely kill people but cost a lot of money. It’s become part of the folklore, of every day life. Allow me just an anecdote. There was an earthquake in the Mediterranean Sealately. The epicentre was somewhere between Marseille and Corsica. The morning after, you get to hear the habitual interviews on the radio: “how did you feel?”, “did you realise what was happening?”, blah blah blah. On the continent, the interviewee would have talked about her puzzlement. In Corsica, the interviewee naively declares that at first she thought the earthquake was a huge bombing. Her first reflex thought is bombing, isn’t that incredible? Well, back to Balzac.  

I wondered why Balzac chose Corsicans as characters. Under the romance I could feel political ideas. Does Balzac want to criticize Bonaparte through this Corsican family? He was a royalist and had little consideration for Napoleon. By describing the circle of these young girls learning how to paint, Balzac shows us a representative sample of the French society at that time. The aristocratic girls stick together and look down on the Bonapartist girls. They despise them as the defeated, the ones whose families chose the wrong side. The climate in that studio is that of the aftermath of a civil war. It’s not the first time Balzac describes this and it is also part of The Red and the Black. Is the word vendetta also relevant to call the chase of Bonaparte’s partisans after the Restauration? Luigi had to hide and walking in a uniform of the Grande Armée wasn’t safe.

Apart from the political issues, Balzac also takes the opportunity to describe the relationships between a father and a daughter. The moment when Ginevra announces she wants to get married is awful. Even before knowing the name of the groom, the father doesn’t want her to leave him. He’d rather she remained single than let her marry. It sounded so selfish and so different from the usual behaviour of fathers in Balzac’s time. Getting married was the only decent destiny for a woman in those times and being a spinster was being a sort of loser without a safe social status. Her father is over 70, could die pretty soon and leave her alone. As a parent, you don’t raise children to keep them by your side.

Furthermore, I wondered if Balzac criticised love marriages as foolish and wanted to teach the reader that loveless but reasonable marriages. I felt him conservative on the subject and condemning Ginevra for living according to her feelings rather than surrendering to her parents’ will. That their will is inappropriate, selfish or not doesn’t matter. As a daughter, she should obey. He also shows the consequences of a marriage defying the social rules and the social cost of such a choice.

As always, Balzac is a fine painter of human nature in all its pettiness. The scenes in the studio when Ginevra is observed by a jealous aristocratic girl are priceless. It could take place in a classroom between contemporary teenagers.

I wasn’t thrilled by this novella but it’s interesting to read. You can find Caroline’s review here and Danielle’s here. Very interesting too and really better written as well.

Bonus post: Vendetta by Guy de Maupassant.

After reading Balzac’s Vendetta, I noticed that Maupassant had written an eponymous short-story. I was intrigued and wanted very much to compare them. It’s a short story, shorter than Balzac’s text.

Bonifacio, in Corsica. Antoine Saverini is killed by Nicolas Ravolati. Antoine’s old mother swears on his dead body that she will avenge him and declares a vendetta. Nicolas flees to Sardinia. The old woman has no family, so she’s well aware that no one will murder Nicolas if she doesn’t. But how can she kill a strong and young man? She will imagine an incredibly cruel and efficient way to get him.

I leave you the pleasure to discover how she did it. Maupassant was really a master in short stories. There isn’t any superfluous word, everything runs smoothly until the shocking ending. Better than Balzac.

If someone wants to read it, here is the pdf file: vendetta

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