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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Day without a Tomorrow..., November 29, 2010
This review is from: Chouans (Folio) (French Edition) (Mass Market Paperback)
"Les Chouans is Honoré de Balzac's first "real" novel; he had previously published "pot boilers" under pseudonyms. It was published in 1829, following his multi-month stay the previous year, gathering background material, in Fougeres, in eastern Brittany. The novel is set in 1799, 10 years after the commencement of the French Revolution. It was the year that France, exhausted from the violence and excesses of the Revolution, embraced a "strong-man" savior, named Napoleon. But there was still not peace in the Brittany region, which contained strong Catholic and Royalist sentiment. The Vendée had been in revolt, and continued sporadic fighting since 1793. "Les Chouans" were followers of a rebel (i.e., anti-republican) leader, Jean Chouan, and they allied themselves with forces in the Vendée.

The two principal protagonists in this novel are Mlle. Marie de Verneuil and Marquis de Montauran, also known as "Le Gars." She is devastatingly beautiful, and as we learn much later, the "natural" daughter of an aristocrat. She is working for the Republican Chief of Police, Joseph Fouché (who would trump Machiavelli many fold in his devious and self-serving use of power), and has been sent to entrap Le Gars. In the process however - quelle suprise - she falls in (and out) of love with the man. There are a host of minor characters who plot and counterplot, cross, and double-cross each other, which seems to be the nature of war, particularly of the so-called "civil" variety, and also, alas, as the cynics would say, love too. Indeed, "hell hadth no fury like a woman scorned" is one of the themes also.

The first section of the book is entitled "L'embuscade." In it, Republican (Bleu) forces, who are leading a group of reluctant conscripts from Brittany to go fight in the wars against the other European countries which are trying to end the revolution, and are ambushed by Les Chouans, led by a youthful aristocrat. As an aside, I'd love to know if there is any evidence that Balzac inspired Faulkner, who commenced The Unvanquished: The Corrected Text with a chapter on an ambush, with similar themes of regional forces, in a losing game, trying to resist the stronger, central forces of the state. Comments are welcome.

For me, the strongest portions of the book are Balzac's evocative descriptions of the Brittany countryside, often enveloped in fog and mist. The author describes some walks in the woods that I'd love to repeat. Indeed, he has placed the "off the beaten path" town of Fougeres on the map as a "must-see" destination. He also describes effectively why the hedgerows of Brittany are ideal for "guerilla warfare." And by setting the novel in 1799 he helps illuminate a "cusp" period of French history, the transition from the Revolutionary period to the Napoleonic one. And Balzac had some "digs" at the political use of religion.

But lawdy, the downside to the novel is immense. The action resembles a poorly written "soap opera." The dialogue is all too often stilted and tedious. The characters seem to be made out of cardboard. Revealing the living conditions and attitudes of the Chouans, through the seemingly random wanderings of de Verneuil, during a time of insecurity in the countryside, was a mechanism riddled with implausibilites, particularly when she rescued the "miser," by scaring his torturers by feigning to be a ghost. And the owl, as a harbinger of misfortune, was likewise overplayed. Equally, the motivation of other characters for particular actions was either poorly explained, or non-existent. It was hard for me to believe this was written by the same man who produced the excellent Le Pere Goriot (Petits Classiques Larousse Texte Integral) (French Edition) and Eugénie Grandet: Scènes de la vie de Province. (French Edition). Fortunately for Balzac, as well as ourselves, there were many tomorrows after today, unlike the untimely demise of the protagonists, and I'd advise concentrating on his "tomorrows."

As for his first real novel, I found the almost 500 pages a thinly rewarding slog. 3-stars.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 3, 2013 4:26:26 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 3, 2013 4:26:39 PM PST
Liked your review. These Norman hedgerows that Balzac thoroughly described in Les Chouans caused havoc for American troops in WWII, providing another argument for a literate and well-read military.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 5, 2013 7:10:38 AM PST
Jane -

Thanks for your comment. The hedgerows were indeed one of the obstacles.

And a well-read military? But wouldn't that prevent the fun of making the same mistake, over and over again?

- JPJ
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