Funny how one gets turned on to literary treats. A writer friend posted a Facebook question: “What’s your favorite short story?” I thought the question a bit odd and I would have been likely to ask, “Who is your favorite short story writer?” And then, of course, I would be unable to whittle it down to a half-dozen, let alone one.
The first reply, from a journalist, was: “A Passion in the Desert,” by Honore de Balzac. I was unfamiliar with it, so I easily found the text online and printed it out. I’ve read it now and I simply cannot get the damned thing out of my head. What a wonderful piece of writing, one that creates the most unanticipated world and immerses the reader in it seamlessly.
Here’s a French chap writing in the first half of the nineteenth century who is not afraid to talk about passion between a man and a panther. A soldier and a cat. Two carnivores in a desert cave. It is a sensuous, physical story about seduction, deception, unwitting romance, sex, and betrayal. There is suspicion, there is attraction, there is violence, there is suspense in this world of sand and palm trees.
And yet, it is difficult to imagine the same story published today, except perhaps in some magazine that specializes in kinky, edgy tales that have been rejected by the commercial vehicles. The New Yorker likes urban, modern and middle class; they don’t mind a bit of sand, but they prefer it to be at a largish beach house in the Hamptons. The literary magazines might accept quirky but not to the point of man/animal drama.
And what strange bio would they print at the end? A man who falsified, or rather tarted up his name to pass as a bourgeoisie. A man who met the woman of his dreams via a newspaper ad, pursued her in an epistolary manner for 15 years until her husband finally died, and then beat out Franz Liszt for her hand, which Balzac only managed to hang onto for five months due to the fact that he then died. He seems to have known all about unusual relationships.
Reading “A Passion in the Desert” was sufficient motivation to catapult me into an orgy of Balzac. My poor local library is depleted of its inventory and I am resentful when I must work or sleep or visit and cannot read. What makes for an exceptional short story? One that is about nothing I know – military men, big cats, life in the wilds – but which nevertheless conquers my everyday reality and makes me commit, if we can judge by the height of the pile of library books, to an ongoing relationship to a writer I haven’t thought about for decades.