Saturday, May 9, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015: Prosper Merimee's "Mateo Falcone" and Balzac's "La Grande Breteche"

Albert George notes that the history of short fiction has been largely ignored in France because of the lowly oral origins of the form, an echo of the obstacles Boccaccio encountered in elevating oral tales and anecdotes to the level of literature at the end of the middle ages.  In 1829, however, with his story "Mateo Falcone," Prosper Merimee electrified a folk legend with the same kind of unified effect that Poe described in his famous Twice-Told Tales review, thus originating the formal French short story by moving French short fiction away from the eighteenth century conte philosophique of Voltaire.  R. C. Dale has noted that, like Poe, Merimee demanded total control over the reader's attention in his tales.  Even its implications are withheld, says Dale, until the narrative has run its full course and the writer has relaxed his control; only then is the reader free to contemplate the `meaning' of the story.  "Mateo Falcone," a tale that Walter Pater once called the "cruelest story in the world," admirably fits Poe's requirement of a sustained state of narrative illusion.
The story opens with the reader's simulated journey, led by the narrator, into the interior of Corsica, to the edge of an area of dense underbrush called the maquis, in which different kinds of trees and bushes are so entangled that one can only get through it with a machete.  It is a world in which the ordinary laws of society do not apply.  "If you have killed a man," the people of the area say, "Go to the maquis."  Establishing the truth of the event by casually mentioning that he saw Mateo Falcone two years later, the narrator's description of Falcone's legendary skill with a rifle, his sense of honor, and his cold-blooded murder of a rival are not merely bits of legendary background, but rather the necessary preliminaries for the story's inevitable conclusion.
The dialogue between the escaping bandit and Falcone's only son, ironically named Fortunato, is characterized by the boy's absolute calm and control, reminiscent of what we already know of his father.  When the adjutant arrives and quizzes him, the boy is still in control, showing no emotion, an ironic confirmation of the "promising qualities" that have been noted about him.  However, the character of the boy shifts during a hypnotic scene when the adjutant dangles the watch in front of him: "His face visibly betrayed the conflict that was going on in his mind between covetousness and respect for the duties of sanctuary.  His bare breast heaved violently, and he seemed on the point of suffocating."
 It is the only moment of conflict in the story; because of the nature of the world in which the characters live, once the boy makes his decision, everything follows inevitably.  When Falcone returns home and discovers what has happened, the reader gets no indication of a conflict inside him.  The final scene when the boy says his prayers, begs for forgiveness, and makes a last desperate attempt to cling to his father's knees, is horrible because neither Falcone nor Merimee give in to sentiment or comment.  The irony, of course, is that the boy must die by the hands of the father for acting according to the bandit nature of the world in which his father lives.  What makes the story so powerful is not simply the final horror, but rather the stark simple world Merimee creates--a world of crime, punishment, betrayal, cunning, pride--in which moral issues are simple and therefore terrifying.
Honore de Balzac's "La Grande Breteche" (1832) is an important story that marks the transition from the plot conventions of short fiction used by Boccaccio and Cervantes to the psychological conventions characteristic of gothic obsession and romance. The story begins with the convention of the mysterious house and the secret of its past.  The convention of having a doctor tell the story, later used by Sheridan Le Fanu, is a means of establishing authority and authenticity; with Poe and others the device becomes part of the convention of the ratiocinative mystery story in which a man of science tries to solve a basic mystery of motivation.  The mysterious house is an echo of the house built by Cervantes' jealous Hildago, for it represents the closed-in world that the husband wishes to create, a house of fiction, as it were, like the castle of Prospero in Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," to keep contingency out.  What makes Balzac's story of the jealous husband different than the treatment of the theme by Boccaccio and Cervantes story is the shift away from Boccaccio's anecdotal irony and Cervantes' individual psychological interest.
The emphasis of the house is on its isolation, surrounded by weeds, no path, dilapidated:  "An invisible hand has written over it all: `Mystery.'" Also introduced early in the story is the theme of the mystery of the past as the motivating cause of the house's condition:  "What fire from heaven can have fallen there?  By what decree has salt been sown on this dwelling?  Has God been mocked here?  Or was France betrayed?  These are the questions we ask ourselves.  Reptiles crawl over it, but give no reply.  this empty and deserted house is a vast enigma of which the answer is known to no one."  Like the narrator in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," the teller is mystified by the effect of the house and creates various stories to account for this "monumental embodiment of woe." 
When the notary of Vendome comes to ask the protagonist not to walk in the gardens of the house, he thinks that he must give up his reveries and romances about the place and hopes instead to learn the truth "on official authority."  Although the verification of the truth based on the authority of the teller is a common nineteenth-century story convention, the notary is not a very good storyteller.  He must back up and fill in information he has forgotten to tell and lapses into legal language; when mentioning the meadow where the Countess burned everything, he digresses, asking the doctor if he has ever been there, for it is a very fine place.  Although the doctor tells the notary that he has so vividly impressed him with his description that he fancies he can see the Countess's glittering eyes, he says he is near to falling asleep in spite of his interest in this "authentic story, lost in a reverie รก la Radcliffe. 
The second telling of the mysterious past events occurs when the doctor summarizes the "creepy and sinister story" to his landlady, to which she listens in "a happy compromise between the instinct of a police constable, the astuteness of a spy, and the cunning of a dealer."  When he queries her about why the de Merrets parted so violently, she tells a tale of a young Spanish grandee who disappeared one day while swimming, a story that fills him with "vague and sinister thoughts," "romantic curiosity," and a "religious dread not unlike the deep emotions which comes upon us when we go into a dark church at night and discern a feeble light glimmering under a lofty vault--the sweep of a gown or of a priest's cassock is audible--and we shiver."   The effect the doctor describes is another example of how Balzac transforms a Boccaccio type story of infidelity and revenge into a gothic type story in a very self-conscious way. 
Vowing he will find out the whole story, the protagonist is determined to get it from the maid Rosalie, even being willing to seduce her for the secret.  When she sits down to tell the third tale within the tale, Balzac reminds us that the nature of tale-telling is indeed the story's central focus:  "Now as the event of which she gave me a confused account stands exactly midway between the notary's gossip and that of Madame Lepas, as precisely as the middle term of a rule-of-three sum stands between the first and third, I have only to relate it in as few words as may be.  I shall therefore be brief."  The denouement then related is the solution to the mystery that the previous tellers have established, and, more importantly, that the protagonist's romantic and gothic imagination has created.

In his own words rather than those of Rosalie, the protagonist presents the basic Boccaccio intrigue.  The husband, by "one of those accidents which it is impossible to foresee" comes home late and goes into his wife's room just in time to hear the door to a closet click shut.  Accusing her of hiding someone there, he threatens to look, but she denies it and says that if he looks and no one is there, she will leave him forever.  The plot complications that follow focus on various reversals in which the Count has the closet walled up, the Countess has a crack left, and the Count catches her chipping away at the mortar and stays with her for twenty days while the lover dies in the closet.  "La Grande Breteche" is a prototypical story of the shift from the Boccaccio type story of intrigue, infidelity, and jealousy to the nineteenth-century gothic type story in which jealousy becomes a projective obsession and in which narrative modes of transmission become so important that the story becomes a self-reflexive exploration of nature of storytelling itself.

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