Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Perils of Plausibility in Balzac's "Facino Cane"

Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Perils of Plausibility in Balzac's "Facino Cane"

Article excerpt

LIKE many early nineteenth century French novelists, Honore de Balzac is a difficult writer to classify. Though he is often heralded as the "father of French realism," his attachment to scientific exactitude and narrative objectivity is occasionally counterbalanced by a taste for mystical spirituality and a penchant for the fantastically improbable. (1) But nowhere are the competing tugs of romantic escapism and realist objectivity more prominently in evidence than in the short story "Facino Cane." Often read as a semi-autobiographical account, "Facino Cane" teeters maddeningly along the precipice between a commitment to scrupulous objectivity and outright surrender to melodramatic implausibility. In this frame story, two very distinct characters, a young student of science and a blind and aging musician, narrate texts that are radically different in tone, texture, and style. The framing narrative, recounted by the student, respects the overriding values of the realist tradition and center-stages the toil and subsistence of working class characters. The secondary narrative, on the other hand, relates the swashbuckling adventures of a former Italian noble, Facino Cane. Although the realist text ultimately triumphs in the end, it is a Pyrrhic victory in that a major casualty of the battle for textual supremacy is the "plaisir du texte."

Facino Cane's quest to recover the lost treasure may strain the limits of credibility, but even the most jaded reader hopes nonetheless for a most improbable ending: that the two protagonists will manage somehow to locate the lost fortune and live wealthier ever after. Pulmonary disease brings about a very ordinary end to Cane's extraordinary life, but in so doing, it demonstrates a truth with which realist writers were routinely obliged to grapple. Unalloyed hardships make for disappointing narratives. Fantastic adventures, on the other hand, such as those recounted by Facino Cane, beckon the reader into an irresistible world of unlimited possibilities, one far more compelling than the realm of humdrum banality offered by writers committed to a mimetic representation of dreary reality. (2)

The fact that both narrators make reference to Arabian Nights, a work that epitomizes even today the ne plus ultra of fantastic exoticism, demonstrates how anchored in the fabulous and the fantastic is the art of narrative production. (3) For Facino Cane, the reference is metaphorical. The treasure he promises to locate is as vast as that depicted in the Arabian fable ("Voulez-vous me mener a Venise, m'y conduire, voulez vous avoir foi en moi? vous serez plus riche que ne le sont les dix maisons les plus riches d'Amsterdam ou de Londres, plus riche que les Rothschild, enfin riche comme Les Mille et Une Nuits"). (4) For the primary narrator, on the other hand, the link is metatextual rather than metaphorical. He likens himself to one of the fictional dervishes in Arabian Nights because like a dervish, he has the power to control others in fictional constructs he creates:

Chez moi l'observation etait deja devenue intuitive, elle penetrait l'ame sans negliger le corps; ou plutot elle saisissait si bien les details exterieurs, qu'elle allait sur-le-champ audela; elle me donnait la faculte de vivre de la vie de l'individu sur laquelle elle s'exercait en me permettant de me substituer a lui comme le derviche des Mille et Une Nuits prenait le corps des personnes sur lesquelles il prononcait certaines paroles. (1019)

Like Scheherazade herself, then, the primary narrator betrays an uncanny talent for story-telling. Unlike the tales in Arabian Nights, however, his texts are anchored solidly in the familiar milieu of his lower-class neighborhood, and are, therefore, aligned with "realist" narratives of the time. Similarities between the narrator's texts and realist texts abound. To begin with, his attachment to scientific inquiry betrays his positivistic leanings. He spends much of his time hunched over tomes in a nearby library, breaking away occasionally to indulge in his favorite pastime of people-watching. …

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