Archive for June, 2011


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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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Sick Love– Robert Graves(1895- 1985)

O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
And feel the sun and go in a royal array,
A smiling innocent on the royal causeway,

Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:

Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head,
Exquisite in the pulse of tainted blood,
That infirm passion is not to be despised.

Take your delight in momentariness,
Walk between dark and dark- a shining space
With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.

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François Villon (1431 – 1465) French

King of the beggars, brawler, thief and roistering drunkard and poet, who influenced great many writers including Gautier, Voltaire and Anatole France, was born in Paris in 1431, the year in which the Maid of Orleans was burned at stake. François de Montcorbier, better known by his adopted name of Villon, though born poor had the good fortune to be sent to University of Paris in 1446, due to the kindness of a relative, Canon of St. Benôit. At the age of 21 he became a Master of Arts and a Licentiate in Theology. He fell in with bad company. He got into real trouble in one occasion and was banished for a time from Paris. Returning to Paris in 1456, about a year after the fatal fracas in which he had to kill his assailant, he joined Colin de Cayeux, an expert pick-lock. A series of highway robberies and housebreakings, in which he had a hand, were revealed by one of the gangs babbling in his cups. Villon, now a wanted man in Paris, went on four and a half years of self imposed exile, wandering through much of France. In the summer of 1461 he landed himself in the prison at Meung.
He was saved by the clemency of the new king of France, Louis XI. After returning to Paris in November 1462, he wrote his masterpiece ‘The Great Testament’, which along with the small Testament constitute his literary legacy to the world. He also wrote several ballades in the argot of the underworld of which he was most familiar with. The ‘Great Testament’ written as though it were his will, bequeathing jesting or bitter legacies to his friends and foes, gives numerous sidelights of the poet’s life and times and its eight line stanzas are interspersed with several beautiful ballades and rondeaux. He was one of the most exquisite poets who ever turned a verse or cut a purse. The glaring contrast between the ugliness of his life and the beauty of his lyrics had exerted undying charm to the later generations. He holds his place in history both because of the greatness of his work and its influence on other writers and for that extraordinary contrast of lofty genius, religious feeling and drunken knavery that made up his character.
When Villon left Paris in 1463 after being banished for ten years ‘in view of his bad character’ he was only thrity two. Broken in health and spirit the poet (who had only one poetical theme – himself) disappeared from history; leaving a legacy great enough to keep his name alive for generations to come. The quatrain given below neatly sums up his credentials for kingdom come either for hell or for paradise it should be said.
I am François, which is unfortunate,
Born in Paris near Pontoise,
and with a six-foot stretch of rope,
my neck will know my arse’s weight.


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Ballade of the Hanged

Brother men who come after us live on,
harden not your hearts against us,
for if you have some pity on us poor men,
the sooner God will show you mercy.
You see us, five, six, strung up here:
as for our flesh, which we have fed too well,
already it has been devoured and is rotten,
and we the bones, now turn to dust and ashes.

If we dare call you brothers, you should not
be scornful, even though we have been killed
by Justice. All the same, you know
that not all men are wise and strong;
commend us, now that we are dead,
to Jesus, Son of Virgin Mary,
that His grace’s source shall not dry up for us,
and that He keeps us from thunderbolts of Hell.
We now are dead-let no one harry us,
but pray to God that He absolve us all.

The rain has washed and cleansed us,
and the sun dried and blackened us;
magpies and crows have hollowed out our eyes
and torn away our beards and eyebrows.
Never, never are we at rest,
but driven back and forth
by the wind, changing at its pleasure, we,
more pecked by birds than a tailor’s thimble.
Be not of such a brotherhood as ours,
but pray to God that He absolves us all.

Prince Jesus, master of us all,
let Hell not hold us in its sway;
we would have no debts or business there.
Men, here there is no joking,
but pray to God that He absolves us all. (tr.Anthony BonnerBantam classic,1969)

François Villon(1431-1463?)
For scholars who wanted to know more of this poet in 1870 police records of the period came as a help. That he was a first rate poet there is no doubt. There are no more than three thousand lines to the whole body of his verse but a single line of it alone would suffice to his genius.
Mais ou sont les nieges d’antan?’
encapsulates in a line so deftly phrased the profundity of the ages.( William Carlos Williams). It is not in the snow freshly fallen, or the slush it has become but in the fresh virginal snow all those snow in the past is represented. The transience of human life and memory his line seems to challenge. François Villon was in and out of scrapes and a couple of times came, almost under the shadow of a gibbet. After his last encounter with death on Jan. 5,1463 he was banished from Paris ‘in view of his bad character.’ The Provost’s sentence was overturned by Parliament and nothing more is known of his subsequent life in exile. How he came to his end we shall probably never know.
Trivia: he was born in the year Jeanne d’arc was burnt at the stake.

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