Friday 6 July 2007


Thank you very much, lovely people at Hesperus Press, for sending me a pile of books the other day. You are nice folk. I've seen a few other people review The Calligrapher's Night by Ghata, and Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin, so I decided to go for Sarrasine by Honore de Balzac. As usual, imagine the accent.

Hesperus' copy, pictured, has both 'Sarrasine' and 'A Passion in the Desert'. The latter is a short story; 'Sarrasine' is one of those short-novella-long-short-story things which only seem to happen in Europe, and hasn't been given a proper name in English yet. It is a framed account of a sculptor, Sarrasine, and his infatuation with La Zambinella. With surprising consequences. Sounds a little lurid, doesn't it, but of course it isn't - Balzac's narrative is thick, rich prose which one can sink into and admire, without being put off. The descriptions are delicious, especially the first page, which depicts an extravagant crowd at a party.

'... The raised voices of the gamblers at every unexpected throw, and the ringing sound of the pieces of gold, blended with the music and with the murmur of conversations. The crowd, which had been intoxicated by everything the world had to offer in the way of seductions, was stupefied by the perfumed vapour and general drunkenness that was affecting their crazed imaginations.'

Better than 'went to a party; everyone was wasted', isn't it?

At the risk of belying my moniker at the bottom of this entry, let me quote Kate Pullinger's Foreword: 'The theorist Roland Barthes' book S/Z is entirely devoted to a detailed semiotic examintaion of Sarrasine. I first came across the story not through Barthes (however much I'd love to claim the contrary)..." Well, Kate, I'm one step ahead of you - whilst ploughing through my first year module 'Text, Context, Intertext' (TCI to its friends), I read Barthes lengthy, wordy and largely incomprehensible book. In doing so, I ought probably have read 'Sarrasine', which is quoted in its entirety, in little chunks - but I started skipping these in the end. In a toss up between Barthes and Balzac, I know who I'd choose - though one of
Barthes' terms is nice, and very useful. It's 'the casuistry of discourse' - when the text is trying to limit what it tells you, without lying. Think detective novel - the book can't say "And Mr. Peterson killed Miss Knight with a dagger in the study" if the unveiling of Mr. Peterson is the denouement - but it also can't say "Mr. Peterson was on a train to Moscos when Miss Knight was stabbed", unless he has a complex system of pulleys. The 'casuistry of discourse' is in play when the novel writes "Miss Knight was killed". Not lying; not giving the game away. Haven't you always wanted a term for that?

Barthes entitled his book S/Z because Sarrasine would normally be Sarrazine, or something like that, and this is all to do with castration (pretty much everything is to do with castration for Barthes) - but I think S/Z is a very useful model for a transatlantic audience such as I have... as this little sketch demonstrates...


  1. Err... sorry about that, Simon. Not quite sure what happened there!

    Just wanted to say thanks for this, and really glad you enjoyed it. I agree that Balzac's prose is sumptuous; I also think it's a very good translation. I've never read the Barthes, although I really enjoyed Mythologies when forced to read it for a similar course. Is 'S/Z' an awful lot more heavy going?



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