I really thought I’d read enough Balzac in my life. He’s a great writer, no doubt, but in the 19th Century the writer was God to his characters and Balzac is a very cruel one, the God of Job, tormenting his characters to the point of perversity. I don’t mind tragedy – I’d even argue that almost all great fiction has an unhappy ending, but, an unbelievably harsh denouement is just as unsatisfying as an improbably good one. In search of naturalism and realism, Balzac (and I have the same beef with Hardy) makes things un-realistic by giving his creations unending bad luck, tilting the whole universe against them in an unfair way, making them, as Shakespeare says "like flies to wanton boys." I realize that naturalists like Hardy, Zola and Balzac were to some extent trying to act as correctives to the sentimental excesses of previous fiction, but, like many reactions, to me they go too far in the other grim direction. As much as, say, a Dickens happy ending strains credibility by all the coincidences that conspire to create it, so does a Balzacian unhappy ending.
Of course, that being said, when I saw this neat copy of the New York Review of Books edition of The Unknown Masterpiece (which is really a short story) bound with a novella called Gambara at the library sale I bought it. You know how things go at library sales – Richard Howard is a crackerjack translator after all and, heck, it was only a dollar. And, despite the predictably downer ending, it’s a cool little piece of work, and the intervening years have added a ironic twist to both stories than even the great Balzac couldn’t foresee.
The plot of "The Unknown Masterpiece" is quite ingenious. In the year 1612 an up and coming painter, Poussin, is coming to pay his respects to the current court favorite, Porbus. Porbus inadvertently takes him into the presence of the older Frenhofer, who, although unknown to the world, is evidently one of the greatest painters of all time. Frenhofer has a masterpiece which he refuses to show to anyone which he claims to be the only work of art to not only faithfully reflect a living woman, but to be an actual living being itself. Poussin is avid to see it and offers up his beautiful mistress as a nude model for Frenhofer in exchange. Frenhofer eventually agrees – the way I read it he doesn’t actually want to paint the mistress but to just compare her nude form to his creation to see if the latter stands up to the former, which, in his judgement, it does. Of course, this being Balzac, the unknown masterpiece proves to be, in fact, an unintelligible mass of over painting except for the perfect image of a foot at the bottom. Poussin and Porbus’s reactions betrays this and although Frenhofer pretends to be unperturbed, that evening he burns all his work and dies.
"Gambara" has a similar arc, with a mad composer who thinks his operas are masterpieces when in fact they are noisy din, the fact uncovered by an interested Italian noble who is after the composer’s beautiful wife. The noble discovers that when drunk the composer abandons his rigid theories and produces sublime lyrical melodies of genius. Unfortunately Gambara refuses to stay stewed, returns to his operas, and the noble takes his wife. In a coda, having been abandoned by the less than noble noble, she returns to live with Gambara again, a toothless ruined woman, and they cling to a precarious and unpleasant existence, the composer repairing musical instruments, the formerly legendary beauty taking in sewing, the both of them starving, his works sold as scrap paper. In the end a kindly Italian Principessa flips them some gold coins, like Balzac granting the reader a few sparkles of light in the unrelieved gloom.
But the really ironic part, the part that even their creator Balzac didn’t know, is that if Frenhofer’s painting weren’t turned to ashes and Gambara’s compositions used to wrap fish, they would today be considered brilliant precursors to Modernism. This is Balzac’s description of the unveiled unknown masterpiece (known in all but the final revised version as La Belle Noiseuse):
"The old fraud’s pulling our leg," Poussin murmured, returning to face the so-called painting. All I see are colors daubed one on top of the other and contained by a mass of strange lines forming a wall of paint."
"We must be missing something," Porbus insisted.
Coming closer, they discerned, in one corner of the canvas, the tip of a bare foot emerging from this chaos of colors, shapes, and vague shadings, a kind of incoherent mist; but a delightful foot, a living foot!
Of course this sounds exactly like modern art, a Picasso or Pollock, and had it been painted in the 17th century (or even the 19th) would have considered a visionary masterpiece of genius. Similarly Gambara’s theoretical atonalities and dissonances strongly suggest Schonberg, Cage and much of 20th century classical music. Here’s an irony of which even Balzac, the master of cruel irony, was unaware.
The introduction to the volume by Arthur C. Danto is also pretty good and makes some cogent points about the Romantic conception of art and the naked female body:
It is as if only something of a magic potency as great as that possessed by woman (or at least by beautiful women) is sufficient to transfigure a picture into reality.
From the story’s perspective, of course, the gaze does not make objects of women, as feminist theory insists. Rather the story regards the bare female body
as of so high a potency that it verges on numinousness.
The symbolic equivalence the story establishes between seeing a woman’s exposed body and seeing a work of art is an effort on the part of a Romantic writer to find something as valuable as art itself.
It’s refreshing to read a scholar deviating from the party line of the nude as a form of exploitation. Like Marxism, feminist aesthetics seeks to overturn the entirety of human nature and culture overnight on the basis of a few unfounded theories. The female nude has been the most profound subject of art since the days of (possibly matriarchal!) pre-history, and I don’t intend to renounce it now (but that’s for another rant). I can’t buy Danto’s assertion, however, that Frenhofer crashes and burns because Poussin and Porbus can’t comprehend what is actually a masterpiece – I know Balzac enough to be certain such slight mercy is beyond him, and that he means the painting to be an absolute and total failure.
The introduction also revealed that Jacques Rivette made a movie called La Belle Noiseuse (the beautiful pain in the ass), which, since it is almost four hours long and set in the present day, can only be said to be loosely based on the short story. That rang a bell and I dug through the mound of VHS movies I’d picked up at the library sale to find, yes, I’d acquired that at some point too. I’ve only watched the first hour or so, but so far I’m enjoying its leisurely French New Wave pace and its close focus on the creative process. Frenhofer’s played by an actor, but the hands and paintings shown in the film are from an artist named Bernard Dufour (who I’ve never heard of) and his stuff, unlike the junk you usually see in Hollywood movies, is actually quite good.
Well, it seems like book review week here in UBULAND – tomorrow may well break that pattern – but I’ll end, as usual, with a memorable passage, here from Balzac’s Gambara :
To let himself be lured by one of those glances that prompt without being exactly provocative; to have followed for an hour, perhaps even a whole day, some lovely young woman idealized in his thoughts, her most trivial actions interpreted in a thousand flattering ways; to have started believing in sudden, irresistible sympathies; to have imagined, in the heat of a passing exhilaration, an adventure in an age when romances are written precisely because they no longer occur; to have dreamt, wrapped in Almaviva’s cloak, of balconies and guitars, of stratagems and locks; to have written a rapturous poem and now be standing at an ill-famed door; and then – for a grand finale! – to discover his Rosina’s decorum to be no more than a precaution imposed by a police regulation – is not all this a disappointment many men have endured without admitting it?