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)

38 thoughts on “Balzac: La Vendetta (1830)

  1. I do generally like Balzac, although he had his ropey patches. My field of research is 20th century (and 21st, I should add) so reading the 19th always had a bit of a holiday air to it. Not that I have ever read Merimee, although I believe I do own a collection of his stories somewhere… I should pick it up next time I am in holiday mode!

    • I rather like Mérimée. Carmen, Mateo Falcone and some others. I think whenever Balzac is still more rooted in romanticism he tends to be on the tacky side (with some exceptions). I’m not sure why it is holday reading? Because you can leave the critic aside and read for pure pleasure?

    • Wild Ass Skin is one of the more famous ones I haven’t read yet but I’m looking forward to it. It is a favourite Balzac for many, I heard only good things and it is quite different.

      • I think I’m going to go for Physiology of Marriage. I’ve read a few all over the map and then I read The Chouans (the first). I think Physiology of Marriage is the next one, isn’t it? It’s tempting, of course, to read the really big (good) ones, but then that would leave the rest…

        • I’m not sure whether it is the next one and it is alos one of those I haven’t read yet. I must admit, I was tempted to start with the later work. I usually prefer shorter books but in his case, after La Fille aux Yeux d’or I didn’t read a lot of his shorter fiction.

        • There are a couple of ways to read La Comedie humaine–chronologically as they were written or Chronologically by story action. At the Yahoo Balzac group, we decided to do the latter as set forth in Royce’s book Balzac As He Should Be Read. You’ll be able to find out the order at the group:
          We hope eventually to also have this at the group’s blog but at this point we only have the Publication Chronology entered.

          • I picked them like they tempted me and so far I liked the choices. There are some which should be read together but I never thought it was needed to read them in chronological order. What did you thik about La Vendetta?
            I need to see how you grouped them. It is quite possible that I followed that order unconsciously.

            • I liked Vendetta, actually I think it was one of those which I enjoyed better on the second reading even though I more or less remembered how it would end. I always live in hope, lol. It is one of his very earliest works published under his own name.

              It also comes relatively early in Royce’s recommended reading order for those who want to trace the lives of the characters: 18 of 98.

              We actually read it earlier in the group, as the 7th one. Royce groups all the stories set prior to the 1790s at the beginning (before we get into the recurring characters). This would be The Exiles, Christ in Flanders, Maitre Cornelius, The Elixir of Life, The Hated Son, The Unknown Masterpiece, Sarrasine and About Catherine de Medici (which Royce counts as three). But we felt our interest would flag early if we read all these at once since we were interested in the continuing characters, so we interspersed them with the early ones such as The Chouans, The Red Inn, An Episode Under the Terror, etc. Aside from The Chouans and Catherine de Medici, they were all relatively short–gave us a chance to save up some stamina for the blockbusters.

              • Thanks so much for this comment.
                The problem was that I expected something much more like Mateo Falcone. Reading it a second time would probably be good as that type of expectation would not be there anymore.
                I think it was wise to intersperse them. As interesting as the short ones arefor those of us who would like to rea al of him eventually, they are not to be compared with his master pieces. I still think he is a master of the novel. What I love so much about Balzac are the characters that reappear.
                I have to read a longer one next. I think The Black Sheep would be quite a good choice.
                Danielle was suprised that the ending was so dark. I really think, he didn’t write a lot of happy endings, did he? I can’t remember any.

                • The Black Sheep is a good one!

                  I can think of one Balzac with a happy ending: The Purse (La Bourse). Domestic Peace also, as the title might indicate. I think there may be one or two more. Then some are more like slice of life bits, no real ending. I believe The Country Doctor ends on an optimistic note.

                  Balzac wrote five plays himself and there were several plays produced by others which were based on his work. Pere Goriot, The Magic Skin, Euguenie Grandet, even Cousine Bette has one based on the Valerie character. I’ve not read the last one, but I know that in the first two, the endings were changed to happy ones. What liberties, eh?

                  • That’s so bad, to change the ending. Especially The Père Goriot.
                    In any case, considering how much he wrote, five+ books with a positive/happy ending isn’t all that much. The Country Doctor is another one I have here.

          • I decided to go the chronology route. That’s what I did with the Rougon-Macquart (there are other suggested ways too). In the case of the Rougon-Macquart, I’m glad I selected the chronological order as it mixed up the good, marvellous and just ok titles. I think it’s possible to read a handful of the Zolas and wonder what all the fuss it about, but then it’s also possible to read another half a dozen and recognise them as some of the world’s best books. I have a feeling that La Comedie Humaine is that way too. I’ve read a few sporadic choices and need to dig in.

            • That’s quite true. And maybe the chronological order will mix them up better. I’m to much of a mood reader that’s why I only rarerly follow this type of order. I think it would take longer for me to be in the mood to read Les Chouans than The Black Sheep. I wonder what he would have suggested.

  2. I have read about a third of the Human Comedy titles, but not this one – thanks for the write up. It sounds – well, typical of second-tier Balzac.

    “Mateo Falcone” is a terrifying story. Walter Pater called it “perhaps the cruelest story in the world” which is plausible.

    I’ve written quite a bit about Balzac – I had a big 11 part roundup a couple of years ago that may or may not be useful (ending here).

    • Thanks for the link. I think I also read about a third. I still need to read many of his novellas and short stories. I think he isn’t really a short story writer, unlike Mérimée who excels in the short form. Mateo Falcone is a perfect story. I think the vendetta as such is not Balzac’s theme.

        • No I haven’t. I liked Le Colonel Chabert but it is a novella. You don’t agree about his short stories, I guess? Well I have read a few and non of them impressed me much plus La Fille aux Yeux d’or is insufferable.

            • “Typical Balzac” is a tricky choice of words anyway. There is a main body of his work with similar themes but his writing style is very different from one book to the other and there are so many untypical books that are still very much part of his world and of his world only.
              The funny thing about La Fille aux yeux d’or is that it isn’t only bad for Balzac but it is by far one of the worst coming from the 19th century I have read.
              La Vendetta is one of those that is quite well written, unlike Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes which offers a great story but the style is not convincing.

  3. Pingback: Vendettas « Book Around The Corner

  4. I see you were blown away either. I think Balzac isn’t that good at writting short-stories.
    I’ve seen other issues than you in the text. I can’t tell if I’m right or not.

    Danielle, if you read this, I can’t get to you blog. My computer won’t let me read your posts. It’s not the first time it happens, I hope to get to your review soon.

    • Odd… Maybe not loading?
      I also think the short story isn’t exactly the best form for him. There certainly are exceptions. Maybe La passion dans le désert is one…
      I’m glad Danielle liked it well enough to want to read more of his work.
      It is well written and I liked the end. I just think the whole Corsican thing distracted me and I compared it too much with Mérimée.

  5. This was probably not the best place to start with Balzac since I didn’t know his themes or strengths, but it wasn’t a bad story. It just felt overly melodramatic. It makes more sense if what he is trying to write about is the father’s possessive love for his daughter–it goes to extremes really. It somehow felt a little thin–I had a sense of Ginevra and her father but it still felt rushed. Still it wasn’t a bad story by any means and puts me in the mood to read more by him or from this era. Quite a bleak ending however! Are all his stories so dark?

    • It isn’t bad, rushed, is true. I am not keen on fast forwarding. I would have like to read how they achieved their wealth and the end was melodramatic I agree.
      Now that you mention it, most of his books have rather dark endings, some more, some less but you wouldn’t find a happy ending. There is always some sort of lost illusion or other involved. And often the “good” ones are struck by bad luck.
      I never paid attention to this… It seems so realistic.
      One you would like a lot is Letters of Two Brides. I don’t remember it as dark at all. It isn’t one of his most famous but it’s really good. I love epistolary letters anyway.

      • “rushed” that’s the word. That’s why I think Balzac is not such a good writer of short stories. (I’ve also read La Fille aux yeux d’or and Passion dans le Désert)
        Maupassant’s short stories or Maugham’s or Hardy’s (the latest classic ones I’ve read) never sound “rushed”.

        I second you on Letters of Two Brides. Very interesting about women’s condition and the epistolary form is always nice.

        • Some writers are better at short stories, some like Maugham are good at both but Balzac isn’t one of them. He has written some great novellas was he has tendency of compressing the pre-story into a few pages. The idea of the short story is not to sueeze 500 pages into 20. You choose other topics for a short story.

  6. Wow, that does seem like a lot to squeeze into a short story! Sounds more like the plot of a full-length novel. It’s interesting that you feel he didn’t do the Coriscan people and their customs justice. It’s an easy trap to fall into, using people for a particular theme rather than reflecting the full breadth of the culture. I read another book on the same theme of vendettas, by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare (Broken April) and it was really beautifully done. It didn’t feel stereotypical – in the world of the novel, the vendettas were perfectly normal and unavoidable, and there was no judgement of them. Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking review!

    • Thanks, Andrew. And also for mentioning Kadare, I need to read him as well. Thanks for the recommendation. I had friends from Tibilisi when I used to live in Paris and one of them lost his father to a vendetta. It is still quite common in some Eastern European country, in that case Georgia.
      Balzac is a writer who needs room to develop his full potential. He may have written the one or the other shorter piece that was OK but it isn’t him. He is such an exuberant writer.
      I don’t think he knew a lot about Corsica other than Napoléon was from there and that they practiced vendetta. His descriptions feel artificial, pure exotism. It could be tied to his dislike of Napoléon. The problem wasn’t that he mentioned vendetta at all, it was really the whole description of the people “all Corsicans are passionate, all Corsicans are hot-tempered”…. Such things. And he is judgmental.

    • There is a similarity to Romeo and Juliet, I agree. I prefer Romeo and Juliet because I didn’t like how he wrote about the Corsicans. Family feuds are so terrible, they can affect many generations.

  7. I was just about to say the same think as Ondrej that it reminds me of Romeo and Juliet.

    As I always, I enjoy reading your review tho I am not going to start puting the book on my hand and reading it. I think this kind of story has been told so many times either in books or movies.

    • I’m glad you enjoy it. 🙂 If you compare it to Romeoen and Juliet I would say RJ is much better. La vendetta isn’t bad at all but not all that good either and you would really have to make a huge effort to find.

  8. Pingback: Balzac: La Vendetta (1830) | Most Popular Books

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