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À mon chevet: 'Béatrix'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
If this ancient dwelling attracts your imagination, you may perhaps ask yourself why such miracles of art are not renewed in the present day. Because to-day mansions are sold, pulled down, and the ground they stood on turned into streets. No one can be sure that the next generation will possess the paternal dwelling; homes are no more than inns; whereas in former times when a dwelling was built men worked, or thought they worked, for a family in perpetuity. Hence the grandeur of these houses. Faith in self, as well as faith in God, did prodigies.

As for the arrangement of the upper rooms they may be imagined after this description of the ground-floor, and after reading an account of the manners, customs, and physiognomy of the family. For the last fifty years the du Guaisnics have received their friends in the two rooms just described, in which, as in the court-yard and the external accessories of the building, the spirit, grace, and candor of the old and noble Brittany still survives. Without the topography and description of the town, and without this minute depicting of the house, the surprising figures of the family might be less understood. Therefore the frames have preceded the portraits. Every one is aware that things influence beings. There are public buildings whose effect is visible upon the persons living in their neighborhood. It would be difficult indeed to be irreligious in the shadow of a cathedral like that of Bourges. When the soul is everywhere reminded of its destiny by surrounding images, it is less easy to fail of it. Such was the thought of our immediate grandfathers, abandoned by a generation which was soon to have no signs and no distinctions, and whose manners and morals were to change every decade. If you do not now expect to find the Baron du Guaisnic sword in hand, all here written would be falsehood.

-- Honoré de Balzac, Béatrix (translation by Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
Balzac's La Comédie humaine has become an obsession of mine this summer, as it is for lots of people. I have nearly finished the Scènes de la vie privée section, most of which is bite-size short stories and novellas, perfect for episodic summer reading. Béatrix is one of the full-length novels in the collection, which begins with a memorable description of the Breton village of Guérande. The speck of a town has, at its center, a noble house that time forgot, which strikes me as possibly having inspired Alain-Fournier's description of Les Sablonnières in Le Grand Meaulnes.

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