Gambara by Honoré de Balzac


In Paolo Gambara, we have another Louis Lambert, another Balthazar Claes, another Frenhofer – in a word, another powerful intellect of original ideas who has never received the accolades due to him. I cannot help but think that Balzac feels himself a member of this elite cenacle, which is why he keeps coming back to the same basic situation.

Here, we are in Paris shortly after the July Revolution of 1830 that placed the “Citizen King” Louis Philippe on the throne. A wealthy Milanese nobleman by the name of Count Andrea Marcosini is slumming in an area adjacent to the Palais Royal that is frequented by prostitutes; and, in fact, the young Count is in hot pursuit for immoral purposes of an intriguing-looking young woman who disappears into a slum building. When he makes inquiries, he eventually meets a fellow Italian (from Naples) named Giardini who promises to introduce Andrea to Madame Marianna Gambara, wife of a misunderstood and eccentric composer of music.

Signor Giardini himself is a misunderstood artist in the culinary line, but one with a large heart who feeds his clientele with the food of their homeland at half the price the food is worth. Andrea is invited to attend a New Year’s dinner at which the Gambaras and many of their expatriate Italian friends are present. (One of them warns Andrea to avoid Giardini’s main course, as the chef was supposedly run out of Rome for “poisoning” the College of Cardinals with a bizarre entree.)

At the dinner, the young Count attempts to get to the wife by way of the husband. He discusses his love of Beethoven and is dismissive of Rossini. Gambara sees in him someone who is serious about music and opens himself up to him. Much is said about music and mathematics that is every bit as abstruse as the philosophical tidbits of Louis Lambert. The Count offers to give Gambara enough money to move out of his hovel into a place more fitting for a genius such as himself. Gambara tells Andrea to discuss the matter with his wife, who acts as his business manager.

As the composer goes back to his hovel, Marianna does not know quite what to make of the Count. He casually offers to tell the young woman her own story, based on what he has been able to piece together from talking to her husband. Marianna is pleasantly surprised by his summary and is beginning to be impressed with him.

The Count replies to her: “I accept your praise … but don’t go too far, don’t force me to deceive you. I love you Marianna, as we love in that beautiful country where we were both born; I love you with all my soul and all my power, but before offering you this love, I must show myself worthy of yours. I shall make one last effort to restore to you the man you’ve loved since childhood, the man you’ll always love. Until success or defeat, accept without embarrassment the comfort I want to give you both; tomorrow you and I will find suitable lodgings for him.”

The day after the dinner given by Giardini, Count Andrea Marcosini goes up to the composer’s room. There is a surreal touch in Balzac’s description of most of the furniture being designed by the chef Giardini from discarded pieces of Gambara’s invented musical instruments.

Gambara describes an opera he has written on the life of Mohammad and goes through many pages of a musically annotated summary of the libretto that is impossible to follow closely without specialized musical knowledge. Andrea is a little disturbed that, in the course of this long scene, the composer becomes inarticulate and actually appears to foam at the mouth.

He recovers when he actually plays a piece on a multi-keyboard musical instrument invention of his that mimics an entire orchestra. It is called a panharmonicon and foreshadows the music boxes that would become a commonplace toward the end of the century, such as those produced by Wurlitzer and other companies.

Where Gambara’s verbal description of the opera dismayed Andrea, he is surprised to find Gambara’s playing of the panharmonicon angelic and brilliant.

In the end, Andrea is as good as his word. He sets up Gambara in a new place and sees what he could do … while he casually waltzes back to Italy with the composer’s wife, Marianna.

The next thing we hear, the situation has changed in the next six years:

“A musical instrument which he had counted on to make his fortune, and which he called the panharmonicon, had been sold by the bailiffs at public auction on the Place de Chatelet, together with great quantities of ruled paper covered with musical notations. The day after the sale these scores had been used in Les Halles to wrap butter, fish, and fruit. In this way three grand operas, of which this poor man used to speak but which a former Neapolitan cook (now a huckster of questionable groceries) declared to be a heap of rubbish, had been scattered throughout Paris and used to line the wicker baskets of secondhand peddlers.”

One day, Giardini and a local prostitute discuss what may have happened to Marianna, whom they guess is living la dolce vita in Italy.

Far from it, Giardini espies Marianna, looking the worse for wear, her beauty gone except for an intense look in her eyes. Apparently, the Count had married a dancing girl and let Marianna go; and she had just returned to Paris from Italy – on foot.

Gambara is one of Balzac’s wry comedies, of which there are a very few. Like The Unknown Masterpiece, it shows how close sheer genius can come to utter fatuity. Paolo Gambara, like Frenhofer, is indeed a genius; but not one who could ever share that genius effectively with the Parisian public. Hence, total failure.

Read it here

Summarized by Jim, October 2010


2 comments on “Gambara by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I’m glad I read Lisa’s review over at Goodreads because she tells us Balzac did a fine job describing the musical art in this book. Although I have SOME musical background, I don’t have the depth of education to have followed the pages and pages that Balzac wrote on music theory and composition. I’m glad to know Balzac wasn’t blowing smoke but actually did a credible job with the musical aspects of this story. This makes me more interested in reading more biographical material on Balzac, who seems to have more depth than I early thought he had.

    As for the story itself, I found the first part engaging – the Italian restaurant with its awful but benevolent cook, the nobleman Andrea financing Gambara’s musical prodigy status, etc. But in the end he used Gambara’s wife and then discarded her. I wonder why she went with Andrea – was it lust, boredom, wanting to finance her husband’s future, just what? At any rate, Balzac tells us this is never a good move for a woman.


  2. Benny has written an interesting post, “Balzac in Venice- Massimilla Doni” on one of his blogs. Although it is titled Massimilla Doni, Gambara is also mentioned.


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