Balzac: La Vendetta (1830)

I read La Vendetta as part of a mini-readalong together with Danielle and Emma. It was Danielle’s idea to read it for  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

You can find different English versions of the novella or, if you read in French, you will find it in the collection La Maison du chat-qui-pelote or as a stand alone.

La Vendetta is one of Balzac’s earlier stories and part of the so-called Scènes de la vie privée. It is an interesting story for various reasons. On the one hand because it reflects some of the themes that were fashionable in the literature of the time but also because we can already see some of Balzac’s key themes emerge. I would say this novella is still rooted in romanticism with only a touch of realism.

The central story is the story of two families, the Piombos and the Portas,  who are connected by their mutual hatred. We learn at the beginning that after the Portas killed almost the whole family of the Piombos, the old Piombo killed the whole Porta family with the exception of a son, Luigi.

As Balzac tells us, the Corsicans are a fierce people and take revenge, or vendetta, as they call it, seriously. It is almost a religion for them. There will be no mercy or forgiveness ever. It’s a blood feud that can cost each and every member of a family his or her life.

After seeing their family so drastically decimated, Bartholoméo Piombo decides to leave Corsica and look for assistance by Bonaparte in Paris.  He has to learn an important lesson before being accepted in Paris. He must acknowledge that there will be no more vendetta. In Paris justice is not a personal matter but part of an official legal system.

After the first scene in which Bartholoméo is introduced the book fast forwards some ten years and focuses on the daughter of the family, Ginevra. The young woman is taking painting classes with a famous painter. She is quite skilled and produces many a good copy of existing pieces of art. The girls taking these calsses are a composite group. Some are of aristocratic background, some are nouveaux riches. There are many petty rivalries that are influenced by their families political orientation

Ginevra is a beautiful and cherished young woman. She is already 25 years old but has never fallen in love. She thinks that she will never leave her family and go on living a peaceful life at the side of her elderly parents. Destiny has other plans and one afternoon, while painting, she discovers a young soldier, who has been hidden by the painter. The young man is no other than Luigi Porta. It is a time of great turmoil, Napoléon has been overthrown for the second time and all those who followed him are in grave danger. Luigi has endured a lot, he was part of the Berezina campaign, he fought at Waterloo.

The two young people fall in love and Ginevra wants to get married but her father doesn’t want to accept this. His reasons go far beyond the fact that the young man is a Porta. He doesn’t want to lose his daughter. He doesn’t even care that this refusal might lead to a tragedy. When he finally realizes that he has made a mistake, it is too late.

I can’t really say I liked La Vendetta. Should you know Merimée’s Mateo Falcone, a novella on a similar theme, written just one year prior to La Vendetta, you will know why. Mérimée’s novella is accomplished and renders life and customs of Corsica without falling into the trap of stereotypes. Unfortunately this isn’t the case here. Balzac doesn’t do the Corsican people justice. He probably chose the theme because it was fashionable and I think what he really wanted to write about is the jealous possessiveness of a father. Bartholoméo Piombo isn’t the only selfish father in Balzac’s books. There are many others. This is why I could at least appreciate parts of the story. Another typical Balzac theme is the artist. Balzac was fascinated by painters and regularly evokes them in his stories. I found it sad that Ginevra who seems to have been very talented wasn’t encouraged to paint anything else but copies and in the end this speeded up the economical downfall of the young couple. This element is certainly realistic. There weren’t many accepted female painters in the early 19th century. Still it saddened me to see that young girls with talent had to paint mediocre works.

La Vendetta isn’t a bad novella but it isn’t Balzac at his most original. We see a few glimpses of the future master, but he isn’t there yet.

I’m curious to read what Emma and Danielle think.

Here are the links:

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Emma (Book Around the Corner)