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À mon chevet: 'Un début dans la vie'

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

book cover
The three young fellows were now as dull as thieves caught in the act; they dared not look at each other, and were evidently considering the consequences of their fibs.

"This is what is called 'suffering for license sake'," said Mistigris.

"You see I did know the count," said Oscar.

"Possibly. But you'll never be an ambassador," replied Georges. "When people want to talk in public conveyances, they ought to be careful, like me, to talk without saying anything."

"That's what speech is for," remarked Mistigris, by way of conclusion.

The count returned to his seat and the coucou rolled on amid the deepest silence.

"Well, my friends," said the count, when they reached the Carreau woods, "here we all are, as silent as if we were going to the scaffold."

"'Silence gives content'," muttered Mistigris.

"The weather is fine," said Georges.

"What place is that?" said Oscar, pointing to the Château de Franconville, which produces a fine effect at that particular spot, backed, as it is, by the noble forest of Saint-Martin.

"How is it," cried the count, "that you, who say you go so often to Presles, do not know Franconville?"

"Monsieur knows men, not castles," said Mistigris.

"Budding diplomatists have so much else to take their minds," remarked Georges.

"Be so good as to remember my name," replied Oscar, furious. "I am Oscar Husson, and ten years hence I shall be famous."

After that speech, uttered with bombastic assumption, Oscar flung himself back in his corner.

"Husson of what, of where?" asked Mistigris.

"It is a great family," replied the count. "Husson de la Cerisaie; monsieur was born beneath the steps of the Imperial throne."

Oscar colored crimson to the roots of his hair, and was penetrated through and through with a dreadful foreboding.

-- Honoré de Balzac, A Start in Life (translation by Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
This is one of the best stories I have read so far in Balzac's La Comédie humaine. The first half recounts in embarrassing and entertaining detail the voyage of a lumbering public carriage, of a type known as a coucou, in the territory outside of Paris. The passengers are thrown together from several overlapping narratives, all making the trip to the manor house at Presles, but they do not understand completely the identities of the other men in the carriage. Balzac lets the reader in on the secrets in advance, so that as the younger men in the carriage weave outrageous lie after outrageous lie, we can watch them hang themselves in their own dishonesty -- none worse than naive Oscar Husson, the least worldly of them all.

One of Balzac's more delightful characters appears here, Mistigris (the nickname of Léon de Lora), a rapin, or apprentice, to the painter Hippolyte Schinner. Mistigris is a garrulous but dangerous wit, always ready with a demeaning put-down and a scabrous command of Latin, taking his place in the long and honorable tradition of puns and dirty jokes in that elevated language. (When the group finally arrives at Presles, they are offered the chance to take part in the hunt, one of the few delights of the country, to which Mistigris mutters, 'Veni, vidi, cecidi,--I came, I saw, I slaughtered.') Rolling his eyes at the bald-faced whoppers told by the others, Mistigris ridicules them, pointing out "That's what speech is for" (to talk without saying anything) and, when they are finally quiet, he adds "Silence gives content." One can only hope that someone somewhere at some time actually said such things.

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