Honoré de Balzac: Massimilla Doni.
Translated by Clara Bell
This story of about 30,000 words is set in Venice in 1820. It is capable of several interpretations.
On one level it is a heady brew of opera, politics and unusual sexual shenanigans.
Massimilla Doni, the Duchess Cataneo, has a husband who won’t do his conjugal duty and has encouraged her to find a replacement. So she has grown to love the young Emilio Memmi, Prince of Varese. Unfortunately, he idealises her so much that he is unable to consummate the relationship (although he has no trouble making love to Clara Tinti, a low-born opera singer).
Meanwhile, the Duke Cataneo can only achieve the ultimate pleasure when he hears two voices (or a voice and violin) singing high Cs in unison. When this occurs he ‘can embrace the infinite’ and rolls about on the carpet. So he has trained Clara Tinti to sing.
At the opera house, the tenor, Genovese, can sing beautifully on his own, but brays like an ass when Clara Tinti is on stage. This is because he loves her.
Fortunately, the Duchess’s friend Vendremini and a visiting French doctor find unorthodox cures for these remarkably dysfunctional people.
On a more serious level, it is possible to read the story as an exploration of the nature of captivity. Venice is under Austrian occupation. The Duchess draws parallels with the political situation and the opera being performed: Rossini’s Mosè (Moses), where the Israelites are held captive by Pharaoh. She is bound by her marriage vows and cannot marry Emilio. Emilio is captivated by an unreal ideal image of the Duchess. Their friend, Vendremini is under the thrall of an opium addiction. And everyone else seems to be in thrall to various inappropriate carnal passions. So, not just a load of salacious melodramatic hokum.
I have taken the text from PG and corrected several errors against my paper copy. I have also restored accents and italics, reformatted and added a couple of brief notes. There's also a picture of the Grand Canal at Venice by Canaletto.
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