Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Passion in the Desert - Honore De Balzac

Author: Honoré De Balzac
Date: 1830
Setting: Egypt, during the Napoleonic campaign of 1798
Availability: Read A Passion in the Desert on line, free

Story: A Passion in the Desert is a story within a story. The narrator is a man who has been to the zoo with his wife (described only as “she”). While they are watching a wild animal tamer she declares that the show is dreadful and she doesn’t believe that anyone can be so certain of the “affection” of a wild beast to trust it for performances.

The man takes issue with her and insists that he knows a story, told to him by an old soldier, which will prove that wild animals and humans can communicate. The next day, he tells her the story of “The Frenchman in Egypt.”

An old soldier, with one leg, had given this first person account of his experience in the desert during Napoleon’s campaign to conquer Egypt in 1798. He had been captured by the Arabs, but managed to escape into the desert where he despaired for his life. But he finds a small oasis, which has a spring, a few palm trees (for dates to eat), and a cave. He curls up to sleep in the cave, and in the morning finds that he is sharing the space with a “panther” (which is described in detail, identifying it to modern readers as a leopard).

The leopard has recently had a meal and she shows no interest in eating the soldier. In fact, the soldier and the cat develop an uneasy relationship, and their bond grows stronger and stronger. Man and beast play together; he caresses her gently, and she purrs ferociously in pleasure. But when an eagle appears overhead the soldier’s attention is drawn to it, and the relationship changes with dire consequences.

Commentary: A Passion in the Desert is clearly symbolic of the dangers, and stages of human love. It will take several readings to uncover all of the meanings. The most obvious layer is that the man is captivated by the beauty and power of the female, but that she is the one who is in control. She enjoys the attentions of the man, but never lets him forget that he is alive because she tolerates him.

The device of having an un-named man tell the story to his un-named wife strengthens the illusion of being able to separate oneself from the raw truths learned in the desert. The final line of the story, a quote from the old soldier, cuts through any self-delusion, leaving only naked truth.

In 1998 a short film of the same name was made, directed by Lavinia Currier. The movie is based on Balzac’s story, but adds a great deal to the plot, and changes the meaning significantly.

Author info: Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was one of the most obsessed writers of all time. His masterpiece, The Human Comedy, was written over the course of 20 years, on which he worked almost 16 hours a day, every day. He died of exhaustion at age fifty. The Human Comedy is a collection of stories covering the scope of the human condition. A Passion in the Desert was one of the first ones written.

Balzac is often remembered for his romantic and sensuous novels which sold quickly and were often banned. For example, his name is brought up in “The Music Man” as a scandalous writer, who should be avoided by proper people.

He is, however, considered one of the pioneers of realistic fiction, with the creation of multi-faceted characters who are neither wholly good or bad, but inherently human

Unusual Words:
Mangrabins- north-African Arabs, probably derived from Maghreb
ma petite maitresse- my little mistress
Mignonne- darling, etc- a term of endearment
simoom- a strong, hot, sand-laden wind of the Sahara and Arabian deserts

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 10


No comments:

Post a Comment

Tell me what you think! Feedback is the lifeblood of blogs.