31 July 2007

Honore de Balzac - Sarrasine

This notable short story is famous as the subject of an essay by Barthes, S/Z, who broke it down into separate units for close analysis. It's a very early Balzac story, and as such is remarkable for its complexity.

A man, attempting to seduce a woman at a ball, tells her the story of Sarrasine, a man who becomes obsessed by a singer, Zambinella, whose beauty and voice enchant him. His obsession grows until he is compelled to declare his love, and is gently rejected. He plots to abduct Zambinella, who is a favourite at the court, and when he does he discovers, as he had been warned, that 'she' is a man, a castrato. The shock of this revelation leads to a catastrophic ending.

Balzac plays with the ambiguity of his story, and with the language, in a way that isn't translatable - 'son' et 'sa' are used where English can only have either 'his' or 'her', for example, while the gender of the possessor isn't revealed in French, but assumed. He refers to legends of androgyny - the beauty of Adonis, the strength of Sappho - and the transgression of the story is evident throughout. It has a feeling of a fantasy, connected through these legends to past stories,but it's rooted through the fact of castrati in present reality. It also plays on the fear of men - that the object of their desire isn't what they want, and of course submerged homosexuality.

The second story in this Hesperus edition is a slightly strange one about a love affair between a man and a panther, which ends tragically.


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