Facino Cane by Honoré de Balzac

Facino Cane


The first person narrator of this story, who lives in a garret and studies all the time, has as his only hobby people-watching. He claimed “a faculty of penetrating to the soul without neglecting the body; or rather, a power of grasping external details so thoroughly that they never detained me for a moment, and at once I passed beyond and through them. I could enter into the life of the human creatures whom I watched . . .”

The narrator describes his following a couple at night and listening to their conversation. “As I listened, I could make their lives mine, I felt their rags on my back, I walked with their gaping shoes on my feet; their cravings, their needs, had all passed into my soul, or my soul had passed into theirs.” Where does the narrator get this gift “to be another than myself through a kind of intoxication of the intellectual faculties?”

The narrator describes his charwoman and her family and emphasizes their drudgery, poverty, honesty, and generosity, explaining why he was invited to a family wedding and why he went. Another page goes to seemingly nonessential musing and matters extraneous to the story but giving a fascinating glimpse of how Balzac thinks and feels.

I find it interesting that the author tells us the exact amounts of money people earned, were given as tips, etc., in the manner of an omniscient narrator. This also emphasizes the great importance of money to the very poor. And contrasts with the untold wealth we are soon to read about in the story old man tells.

The music at the party was played, badly, by three blind men on a fiddle, a clarinet, and a flageolet. The narrator focuses on the clarinet player who is described as looking like a red-lit plaster cast of Dante, his face registering bitterness and sorrow, and indicating “one sole insatiable desire.” This man, interestingly, was playing with no regard for “time or tune.” The narrator discerns that he is Italian and observes in his expression traces of violent passions, both good and evil, which have a dramatic effect on the narrator.

“There was something great, something too of the despot about this old Homer bearing within him an Odyssey doomed to oblivion. The greatness was so real that it triumphed over his abject position; the despotism so much a part of him, that it rose above his poverty.”

The musician says he is from Venice and describes his blindness as a gutta serena, that is, a condition that has no obvious cause. When the narrator makes a polite remark about what a fine city Venice is,the clarinetist grows animated and offers to go there with the narrator and his face brightens with hope. We learn that this intriguing man’s name is Marco Facino Cane and that he styles himself Prince of Varese, a descendent of a condottiero (a mercenary soldier) of the same name from the late middle ages. The narrator takes in this information without questioning the veracity of the old man. I am suspicious.

The narrator now pictures himself walking about Venice, hitting all the high spots, admiring the architecture. And he wonders about the history of Facino Cane. He observes that the old man knows what he is thinking, that there is a “thought-communication” between them. The man’s invitation to go outside sends a thrill like an electric shock through the body of our narrator, who seems a particularly sensitive sort. The man begs the narrator to take him to Venice, promising to make him fabulously wealthy. Then he tells his story.

Madly in love with a young married woman Bianca, he was found talking to her of love by her husband and when the man attacked him, he killed his attacker. He was forced to flee but he was able to take with him as he fled to Milan his diamonds, his gold, and five Titians. He confesses to a monomania for gold.(Interestingly, there’s no discernable guilt for killing a man.)

His treasure was soon gone as he gambled and was ruined by cheating opponents. He then returned to Venice and was hidden by his beloved. Her powerful suitor found them in flagrante delicto and in the ensuing fight the gold-loving outlaw killed the man. He was captured and put in a dungeon.

As is so often the case with these dungeon inmates, Facino Cane digs his way to freedom after finding a handy description of previous attempts to do so. His digging delivers him not to the outside of the palace and freedom but to a vault filled with heaps of gold. This is the Secret Treasury of the Republic and he offers to share it with his jailer for help escaping. They bribe a sentinel, carry as much of the loot to their gondola as they can, and set out at daybreak for Smyrna.

His accomplice dies – I’m not sure from the narrative whether Facino Cane pushed him overboard or what happened to him. He sold the gems he had taken and put all of his treasure in gold and then hid for five years in Madrid. He arrived in Paris in 1770 and led a gay life until he was stricken blind. Bianca was now dead, and he had fallen in love with a friend of Mme du Barry. But she deserted him, having taken all of his treasure. I don’t quite follow the transition but she sends him to an insane asylum and then arranges for him to be admitted to the Blind Asylum in Paris. She seems to have waltzed through the French Revolution without any difficulties which seems unlikely for a friend of du Barry.

Facino Cane wants to go back to Venice and find his cell. He is convinced that he would be able see the gold through the prison wall and hear it where it lies. He has written to influential people in Venice but they all think he is a lunatic. He offers to make the narrator the Prince of Varese if he will help him to return to Venice and find the gold.

The narrator feels mixed emotions about the story the old man has told him. The clarinetist, understanding this, plays a song akin to the lament in Psalm 137, “by the waters of Babylon . . .,” which expresses the longing to return to his lost place in the aristocracy of Venice. But his thoughts soon turn to the gold and diamonds.

They agree to proceed to Venice, “as soon as we can get some money.” “However, Facino Cane died before the winter was out after a two months’ illness. The poor man had taken a chill.”


Read it here

Summarized by Mary, June 2009


One comment on “Facino Cane by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Balzac presents himself as the narrator in this story – a sympathetic intellectual performing scientific analysis of the working classes. Of course, many of his observations were of the bourgeois and nobility, but he can be quite empathetic to the working classes at times. This story is really more of a sketch of the life of Facino Cane, and I would have enjoyed it more if I’d gone into it with that in mind as there was a buildup to a fresh treasury robbery, and then an abrupt ending with “and then he died”. It is a fascinating sketch overall but would have been better without the twist of the narrator’s planning to take Facino back to Venice. It does stretch credulity, but we like that in Balzac, right?


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