Monday, May 05, 2008

Reader's Diary #355- Honoré de Balzac: Bertha the Penitent

Short Story Monday

When he wasn't too busy posing for GQ, apparently Balzac also wrote a few stories.

One of those, Bertha the Penitent, is my first exposure to the guy and it's left me perplexed. Granted at 19 pages I've only given the story a once through at this point, so anything I say at this point can be taken with that grain of salt.

It begins with a pretty chauvinistic view of women and ends with a moral that we husbands should respect our wives' infidelities. Oh, and we shouldn't murder their kids just because we may not be the real fathers. I'll wait until you write down that sage advice.

Very bizarre. Satirical, you might be saying? One would hope, but to be honest the story comes across as more than a bit nutty, so I'm not sure what the intent was.

This is the story of Sire Imbert de Bastarnay who, at fifty, decides to take a teenage wife named Bertha. Not that he fell in love, no, he simply wanted to pass down his genes. Afterall, women are apparently on Earth to have babies, and also, hopes the narrator, to clean up those slovenly men and make them more presentable to society.

Before long an effeminate-looking man named Jehan pretends to be Bertha's cousin Sylvia, and later the two engage in what to Bertha would have to consider an incestuous lesbian tryst (!). Bertha faints from all her bliss, at which point Jehan impregnates her. (Hey, I said it was bizarre, I didn't say boring.)

Shocked to realize the truth of the matter, Bertha convinces Jehan to join a monastery, promising him annual visits to her and their child.

The story progresses from there as everyone tries to repent to one another and to God.

Balzac's so-called realism doesn't add any normality to the story. At one moment he talks in a scientific detached tone "...the perfect heedlessness in the matter of death was in accordance with the nonchalance..."; and then in others he throws himself in the story, becoming an overbearing narrator, someone trying too hard to be your buddy, "I love the ladies above all things" (and if that doesn't make you cringe, look at his photo again and pretend he's talking to you).

What a remarkably odd story.


Anonymous said...

How very peculiar. Clearly I need to read something of Balzacs. Possibly a biography or lit crit too.

John Mutford said...

Carrie: I'll read more of his work. I think.

Allison said...

Odd and perplexing. I'm not certain I'm sold on attempting to read any of his work. I'll finish off Catch 22 as I decide.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Poor Balzac, I can never think of him without thinking of the small town of that name just outside of Calgary.

Once when Bob Hope was here, he asked someone before the show for the name of a place with a funny name nearby. Someone suggested Okotoks, which he rejected and then someone else suggested Balzac, which he loved. That night he opened the show by telling the audience, "it's great to be here in Calgary, gateway to Balzac."

John Mutford said...

Allison: Can't wait to hear what you think of Catch-22.

Barbara: That almost sounds like a caricature of Bob Hope. Love it. And I had no idea Alberta was so literary!

Anonymous said...

Whenever I'm at the public library I read a few Balzac stories from a collection called "Droll Stories". They're quite bizarre, hilarious, irreverent and possibly blasphemic in their depiction of lusty bishops and silly, powerful courtesans. I like them quite a bit. I sorta just take them as they come.

1morechapter said...

I forgot to come and tell you that I had a post this week here. I can host one in the next week or two if you'd like. I can even put up a Mr. Linky.