“Sarrasine,” by Honoré de Balzac
13,137 words in translation, not counting a footnote that appears to be the translators’
Most famous for its analysis by Barthes. I haven’t read S/Z because I am too cheap to buy a copy and Barthes mostly confuses me anyway.
The frame story is one of the great failed pick-ups of literature. Narrator, why oh why did you think talking about some guy’s unrequited passion for a castrato would get you anywhere? I love his lady friend’s reaction: seeing that all earthly love is doomed to disillusionment, she resolves to be “pure” all her life. Extreme, perhaps, but I think she understands the story better than he does. There’s a certain pleasure in seeing him hoist by his own petard that way.
There’s also a pleasure in seeing Sarrasine suffer for his selfish “love.” Did Balzac intend that? The readers of his time must have sympathized with Sarrasine’s fury at being duped. And yet Balzac is careful to show us that Zambinella is never cruel, merely foolish. The singer even asks, “Suppose I were not a woman?”—hoping for acceptance, empathy, love. Like many trans women today, he (?) is nearly murdered for daring to exist.