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Balzac’s second visit to Italy was taken under a severe cloud of financial strain. In the early months of 1837 he owed more than 53,000 francs owing to the failure of the Chronique de Paris. He was threatened with legal proceedings and he had to use aliases in order to duck the process servers. He was ill also. But a female admirer came to his rescue. Insead of going to Russia and spend two years there, he went instead to the south. Armed with several letters of introduction he reached Milan on 19 Feb. He visited La Scala and was lionized in the press. The change must have worked wonders with him but his visit to Venice didn’t augur well. Here he was not well received in the press on complaints that he didn’t seek out the local talents or praise the Venetian art life. However having discharged tasks undertaken on behalf of Guidoboni-Viscontis he returned home. Result of his brief sojourn was in two works Gambara and Massimilla Doni. In these two works he worked on a a familiar theme: any work of art risks being lost or misunderstood due to undisciplined fervor of the artist. His passion for art must be directed dispassionately as if the purpose is on the podium as the conductor. His right hand and left must fulfil their roles as one. In Gambara the composer fails because of his music is incomprehensible. For the work to be convincing Balzac had to know the musical terms and his ignorance of musical technicalities were corrected with the help of Jakob Strunz, a composer.
Massimilla Doni was written in 1837 but not published till 1839.The theme once again the same: excess of passion can kill a work of art . By the same token it can put a damper to male virility. The male lover ‘fails’ with his mistress but may prove potent with a prostitute for whom he cares nothing. Excess of imagination can exhaust a man’s strength so the opera singer who cannot put a distance will fail in performance.
This novella is Balzac’s best and most daring and works in two levels. Between the Prince and Massimila, Emiliano knows it will end in disaster if he seeks to possess her; Genovese the tenor cannot sing at his best if Clara is not on the stage.The duchess noted for chaste love is ready to outperform Clara in bed in order to save her lover. This rather ‘odious’ theme may have been unconsciously derived from Stendhal’s Armance.
Another crucial fact is in the power of music on an occupied nation. Italy at the time was under the iron heel of Austria and whose liberty has been made a short shrift of. The scions of noble houses were reduced to accept a ducat, a mere pittance for their loss in their landed goods. Symbolic value of Rossini’s Moses cannot be lost on the reader. The opera is dealt extensively in order to give a context for the national dilemma. It is mirrored in lovers state of mind as well. Just as characters in the Opera are star crossed and strike a parallel with the private dilemma of the Duchess and the Prince. How the core of the book is delineated and preserved through these multilayered narrative,- and given life in the way the author juxtaposes them! All these imbibed by Balzac who only needed a few hours among the then Venetian society!
(ack: Prometheus: The Life of Balzac-A. Maurois)

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Chapter-4
Agostino The Martinet

Agostino kept an open house. It was in keeping with the custom prevailed in that region. Even when he went visiting for three or four days at a stretch.
He vaguely knew where he had come from and of a few of his distant relations who still lived here and there. He took trouble to seek them out little by little. Having found those old souls took warmly to his rekindling their kindred spirits he made more frequently such visits.
Besides such visits sharpened his appetite for coming home: ‘looking up his dolls’ as he said. His dolls, twenty of them kept his house he knew. He learnt to tolerate the presence of boys and girls who dropped in as matter of custom and left by sundown. His critical eye as always looked out for trouble. Whenever he came in from his visits he looked out if the children were in best of their behaviour or not.
Once on his return he found children assembled about his dolls. They were fully into their game and it did not upset him as much as what his creatures: Marcos was pushed around and apparently had knocked Diana almost to the edge. Quickly he attended to them and said as if no one in particular, ‘Do not touch!’ That rule holds whether I am out or in!” Controlling his annoyance he laid on the table some titbits he had brought along. He avoided looking at any one in particular. Since he knew he had made the point clear enough he thereafter tried to act as normal.
After that irritated outburst there ensued silence. The boys were cowed and girls pale with nervousness.
The children soon went off after nibbling some roasted nuts and raisins. Polybus the bird-catcher’s son however murmured, after making sure he was safe, ”Augustine could be annoying!” Their fantasies where they played them out didn’t mean a thing. But the dolls were crucial to them. The doll-maker was becoming somewhat crabby to their taste.
After he had freshened up Agostino went leisurely over his dolls. These were his life-blood, the result of endless sweat and dreams. He was assured of his success in the manner children from the neighbourhood took to them. It always made him feel good. But his concern for their safekeeping also alarmingly grew. He always was alert that the creatures were not damaged by mischief.
” The children are for mischief,” the dollmaker asserted,” but not with my dolls!” He grew more watchful when his young admirers trooped in.
One night. In the middle of that night he got up with a start. And he had heard some stirring; and it came from the hall! He peeked and he stood stock-still, his heart thumping with excitement. Those dolls were not in their usual place. He turned around and saw them on the worktable. “My dolls are alive!” he exclaimed despite of himself. Yes, they were as natural as those children who for every afternoon had kept their vigil by them. They skipped and hopped across the chisel marks and looked over the traces of glue with the intensity of a child in real life. Three boys turned to Deborah and one offered a butterfly that had permanently settled on his forefinger. While Glacis held out a bunch of grapes from a little wicker basket he held in his other hand. Another showed surprise at Safiah a girl who showed jealousy at the attention Deborrah got from boys. It was so uncanny that shook up the old man. Agostino gasped.
They obviously overheard and they immediately went to their appointed places.
The doll-maker was elated but as he went back to his bed he was troubled. “The children served them as models! No doubt of that!” He was convinced.
Next morning he got up with a start, “What if the children were to serve them as bad example?” Agostino had poured his entire life and he knew too much was at risk. ‘He was certain the children under his roof had to be perfect in all manner. That much lay within his power. He was sure. “I cannot allow my life’s work to be spoilt.”
In the day’s to come Agostino showed much attention to their presence. The children noted with a sinking heart. His proffered glasses of lemonade or dried fruits didn’t lessen the rigor of his course in good manners. They noted he was more like a school master than as a doll-maker. They chafed under his crabbiness that didn’t take note of their spontaneity. The more he became a stickler for proper decorum he became as odious as a Pecksniff. ”Don’t do this, don’t slouch, sit up!” and thus went on his admonitions. He began noticing words and gestures that had hitherto escaped him and every slip in their manners was named. He didn’t so much intend to shame them but keep what was acceptable behaviour fixed in their minds. It was for dolls’ sake!
No one could understand why it had to be this way. Their fantasies they had for long tied to the dolls that in some way expressed their innocence and their childhood. Now the wet blanket of a doll-maker loomed large and so menacing! and their fantasies were in danger of being smashed to bits and pieces! In the days to come the children took secret council far away from presence of the doll-maker and they concluded that they had to shape up. They could not risk making him an enemy. In order to be able to play with the dolls, – these were their world too, they would do all to please their maker.
But their heart was not in it. So much was obvious to the doll maker in a matter of three months. He had let the children who were so well behaved and so considerate free run of the house as before. Each month he would be gone on visit and he noticed nothing amiss. How relieved he was as he came home as usual!
The dolls were as perfect as the first time.
Six months later he had retired as usual and in the small hours he was awakened by some alarm. Safiah was on a rampage and was astride over Deborah pummelling her left and right. Those two boys whose attention to the fair Deborah had snapped something in her, obviously. Agostino took their spirited fight as if transfixed. Soon the dolls took sides and a general brawl broke out. It was something he had never foreseen. It didn’t take much to lay the cause of their bad behaviour.
Agostino didn’t sleep for he was upset. He looked back at the delight that he found in their creation. ‘It was all for nothing!” He sadly shook his head. How they were spoilt was beyond his ken. Only that he knew those children whom he let in had contributed to their bad conduct. He felt deceived! From that point his anger built on itself by fits and starts. He was in a fury.
When those kids from the nearby lanes dropped in they were astounded to see the doll-maker barring their path. He shook his fists and spluttered with rage, ”Be gone!” They stood there shuffling unable to understand. But his fury and threats made them well understand they had better clear off. They went off.
(to be cont’d)

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