French Language Blog

Sarrasine! Posted by on Apr 14, 2010 in Culture

Félicitations, Bill Penn! Congratulations to our commentateur for guessing that l’écrivain I hinted at last week was Honoré de Balzac. Ce soir (this evening), we’ll discuss une petite nouvelle (a novella) by Balzac, qui s’appelle (which is called) Sarrasine. Links to the texte intégrale (full text ) in French and English can be found at the end of this post.

I almost can’t explain why I like Sarrasine so much, mais je l’ai relu (but I reread it- lire, to read; relire, to reread!) ce week-end and it all came back. Cette nouvelle is so gorgeously written it could take your breath away. Every sentence is a polished diamond; every thought is its own captivating reverie. The English is fine, but the French will change your life. It’s also, at just 57 pages in my edition, a manageable entrée into Balzac’s célèbre Comédie humaine.

Sarrasine a été publié (was published) en 1830, as part of une série (a series) intitulée Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes from Private Life). Scènes de la vie privée became the first part of the Etudes de Moeurs au XIXe siècle (Study of Manners in the 19th Century), which was in turn the first part of La Comédie humaine.  The Comédie humaine evolved over Balzac’s lifetime (1799-1850) to include 95 complete works and 48 unfinished works, shaping an imagined society in which characters reappear in different works, and placing a microscope to society à l’époque (in that time). Think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring cycle, mais en français, not Elvish.

Sarrasine begins at a party, as a man observes “d’une fenêtre” (from a window) the snow-blanketed city before him, while on the other side of the window “…fourmillaient, s’agitaient et papillonaient les plus jolies femmes de Paris, les plus riches, les mieux titrées, éclatantes, pompeuses, éblouissantes de diamants!”

The English translation by Clara Bell gives that sentence as: “There the loveliest, the wealthiest women in Paris, bearers of the proudest titles, moved hither and thither, fluttered from room to room in swarms, stately and gorgeous, dazzling with diamonds!” C’est hallucinant in any language, but I think you can tell that the translation is not word-for-word, and I beg you to faire l’effort with the French.

Beyond les joies du langage, Balzac’s social observations en valent la peine (are worth it) on their own merits. A party guest is “sombre comme un Espanol, ennuyeux comme un banquier”: dark like a Spaniard, boring like a banker. Balzac speaks of “les sommes qui vous sont égales”, the sums (of money) that you are equal to, or your personal wealth; what better way to evoke l’importance de la richesse?  Sarrasine is an excellent introduction to Balzac’s critique sociale.

It is also une histoire fascinante, sinistre, surprisingly familiar in its emotions despite its subject matter. Je ne vous révélerai rien—I won’t give anything away, but la révélation des sécrets is un thème récurrent de la nouvelle.

Voici les liens—here are the links. Bonne lecture!

En français: Sarrasine sur Google Books

In English: Sarrasine on Project Gutenberg

To buy from Amazon: Sarrasine (Garnier-Flammarion)



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