Review of The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0940322749 (ISBN13: 9780940322745)

Easily the best entry point into Balzac’s impressive oeuvre, these two short novellas display the key features of this literary master’s ability.

The first feature is astounding, complex description, and the second is dramatic, intelligent dialogue. The latter is worthy of a grandiose stage play and the former is often as striking as a prose poem. Combining these approaches, Balzac allows the characters take on intense life during the simple dramatic context he constructs.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” provides the perfect setup for Balzac to discus (or show off) what he knows about artistic form and composition. At the same time, he displays these very architecturally sound qualities in his own writing. The characters are vivid in the extreme and the descriptions are superb. Balzac casually casts aphorisms and pithy pronouncements into intricate tapestries of sentences until it takes effort and concentration to grasp the far-reaching concepts he’s simultaneously lassoing in amid the interplay of ideas. Though he argues there is often an unbridgeable gap between conception and execution, he proves the exception to the rule by expressing with utter perfection lucid concepts and splendid thematic irony. Many artists have few affinity with the historical figures from the 17th century depicted in this story including Picasso and Cézanne.

This edition includes an excellent, if not essential, introduction providing additional historical context.

“Gambara” is the second, longer novella. Its focus pertains to music, though many of the pronouncements made by the eccentric characters echo those of the first piece. Taken together, they are both complementary and contrasting. With playful humor, the author contrives basic scenes to give his disproportionately ingenious characters a soapbox, and it is a joy to read their sinuous arguments and philosophical rants. Balzac is a consummate stylist, who with grand gestures and crystal clarity deepens verisimilitude. In this quick read, the expression of intelligence is everywhere in evidence.

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