“Nemo me Impune Lacessit”

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(above: Honore de Balzac)

You might think Edgar Allan Poe’s spine-tingling tale of horror, “The Cask Of Amontillado,” set the precedent for all future stories of “entombment.” You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

Poe’s story was published in 1846 (it may be read for free online here if you’d like to revisit it). It was pre-dated, however, by some fourteen years by Honore de Balzac’s story, “The Mysterious Mansion.” Balzac’s story, included in my anthology “Great Short Stories of the World,” found its way onto my list of 52 stories for my 2013 Short Story reading project. This weekend I drew the seven of spades, which was the card to which I had assigned this story…

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The Mysterious Mansion begins with an almost two page exposition on the titular dwelling and grounds. This may be one of literature’s best descriptions of the effects of nature reclaiming property from the prior ownership of man. The mansion captures the imagination and curiosity of the story’s narrator, who learns of its tale from a woman, Rosalie, who played a small part in it.

If you’d like to read the story before proceeding, it may be found online here.  (It’s only about eight pages long) Otherwise – MAJOR spoiler alert! 🙂

The cruel Monsieur de Mellet suspects his wife has become involved with a Spanish grandee. One night, upon returning home early, he knocks on the door to his wife’s chamber and thinks he can hear the door to her (conveniently-sized) “walk-in” closet close before he enters, finding his wife across the room by the fireplace. At first he gives her the benefit of the doubt and rationalizes it must be the maid, Rosalie. This hopeful explanation is immediately shattered however, when Rosalie enters the room from the same door he did.

He quickly puts two and two together and makes known his intention to throw open the door to the closet and reveal the proof of his wife’s infidelity. She protests vehemently even threatening, “If you find no one in there, remember this, all will be over between us!” and eventually he says. “No, Josephine, I will not go in there. In either case it would separate us forever. hear me, I know how pure you are at heart, and that your life is a holy one… Here, take your crucifix and swear before God that there is no one in there.” (did I mention he was cruel?)

She, somewhat reluctantly, swears. He promptly sends for a mason to seal up the closet with bricks and plaster. The mason is clandestinely bribed by Josephine (via Rosalie) to leave a “crease” that will allow Josephine to later free her lover. M. Merret leaves for awhile but purposefully returns before she can have time to free the Spaniard. She feints upon his return, and he repairs the damage, staying then with her in her room for twenty days. The chilling finale:

“In the beginning (of the twenty days), when there were sounds from the walled closet, and Josephine attempted to implore his pity for the dying stranger, he replied, without permitting her to say a word: ’You have sworn on the cross that there is no one there.’ “

This final scene also reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (yet another “literary entombment” – how many are there, I wonder. Do you know of any?”)

What about you? What, of Balzac”s works, have you read?What do you recommend?

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A Passion in the Desert

This weekend I read the wonderful short story, “A Passion in the Desert,” by Honore de Balzac. A local “Great Books” discussion group was tackling this work in January, so I met up with them at the Nora library on Indianapolis’s north side last night. It was a nice group of six (counting me)! evenly split between men and women (something of a rarity in book groups). The fact that we were able to have a nearly 90-minute discussion on a 14-page short story is either a testament to the richness of the story, or the quality of the discussion – or both!

For those who don’t know, the story deals with a French soldier who was part of Napoleon’s Egypt campaign around the turn on the 19th century. The soldier is captured by the Arabs (presumably the Mamelukes?) but escapes their clutches only to find himself stranded at a small oasis in the desert, which he learns also happens to be the home of a female leopard. Providentially for the soldier, he first meets the leopard just after she has fed, thus reducing the immediate danger to himself. The two begin a wary friendship, with the soldier initially just biding his time for a chance to kill the leopard or make his escape. Over time, however, the friendship grows (almost) into a kind of love. But, in the end, it “ended as all great passions do – by a misunderstanding. For some reason, one suspects the other of treason; they don’t come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part from sheer obstinacy.”

I won’t reveal how the story ends. You can read it for yourself for free online at:

http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/pitdbalz.html

Interesting also is that the story of the soldier and the leopard is framed as kind of a story within a story, told by a man (who had met the soldier as an old man and heard the story from him first hand) to his lady friend after a visit to a menagerie, where the woman marvels at the tameness of the wild animals. This framework meant very little to me while reading, but garnered much focus at our discussion, with one member astutely pointing out that the wonderful story of the desert had become diluted to be used just “to impress his date.”

The story also includes some powerful natural descriptions of the desert, and in a wonderful exchange at the end the soldier says, “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.” When asked to further explain that statement, he replies, “It is God without mankind.”

Definitely worth a read.

(below: Honore de Balzac)

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