2008: 117. The Unknown Masterpiece and Other Stories

“Toward the end of the year 1612, on a cold December morning, a young man whose clothing looked very thin was walking to and fro in front of the door to a house located on the Rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris.”

~First Lines of “The Unknown Masterpiece”

The Unknown Masterpiece and Other Stories, Honore de Balzac

Another Dover Thrift edition, but this time I managed to overcome my aversion - possibly because it was short stories rather than a novel?  I read this as my “B” book in the commuting game, but the real reason I was drawn to it (and, I suspect the reason my husband originally purchased it) was because we had to read the title story when we were studying abroad in Lyons for the semester.  And, despite my middling French and the valiant efforts of Professor Desormeaux, I must admit that I could not figure out for the life of me what the hell happened in that story, and vowed to come home and read it in translation some day - which I promptly forgot to do.  So, I was pretty excited to read the story in English and figure it out.  

However, the path of enlightenment never runs smooth, because after reading  it I am still not sure what exactly Balzac (or is that de Balzac) is on about.  I get the gist - which I got even in the French - it involves a mysterious an aging artist called Frenhofer, who is the greatest painter of his day, although no one knows of him - he can paint with such skill that it seems he has recreated the living world. Frenhofer reveals to two of his ardent admirers, Pourbus and Poussin (actual historic figures), that he has been working on a secret painting which has for years consumed all his creative powers. Pourbus and Poussin then scheme to get Frenhofer to show them the painting by procuring a beautiful young model for its completion. When they finally see the Unknown Masterpiece it appears to be nothing but a mess of lines and layers of paint which they immediately interpret as being the work of a raving madman.  What is the point, exactly? Overworking art destroys it? Art can make you a lunatic? I didn’t get it when I was 19 and I don’t now, and I am not ashamed to admit that I am a philistine.

Luckily, I enjoyed the other stories quite a bit more. They were all sort of swashbuckling, while still ending on a sardonic note, and I read the whole book in about a day.  I particularly enjoyed “An Episode During the Terror” which details a nun and two priests hiding out during the Revolution (when religion was forbidden) and the strange benefactor who they meet.  Without giving it away I will say that I found it 1) strangely touching and 2) I think it would make a hell of a film - at least as part of like, a tv drama anthology.  Maybe if I ever decide to become a film-maker I will start with Balzac...

Date/Place Completed: 7/29/08; D.C.

Categories: Fiction; Commuting Book 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017