[Media Meandry] El Verdugo, Balzac

Within twenty years, Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) completed 91 works and attempted to write 46 more in a fictional world he called La Comédie humaine. The idea of interlocking short stories and novels where one story’s main character appears as a bit character elsewhere fascinated me almost as much as Balzac’s writing schedule. The short story El Verdugo was my start. It’s fantastic, fast-paced, and more exciting than most action movies. Let’s explore slow burns to explosive conclusions.

Rating: ★★★★★ [5/5]

I’ve always had trouble with description in my fiction.

While writing my first novel, and before that the short stories that all exist in the world of “The Story,” I found myself focusing on the characters more than the world itself. I didn’t start off with drafts of Eville Medical and how everything interlocked, other than my mind’s imagination for how things connect. I still don’t know how Sammohini’s story fits in with John and Trishna’s, but as I write and reflect, I think more about where things fit together, what doesn’t fit, and how everything eventually will turn into a satisfying whole.

I wonder if Balzac and other writers after him experience?

He was known for his constant edits and revisions, along with his frantic work schedule and prolific output. During my novel-writing month, I could grasp at some of that interlocking framework where the more I wrote the more I learned about the characters and the world, so I could see that being the same case for Balzac. Having a frame-world like that means that he could dip his imagination into the waters of that world, explore for a bit, then return. El Verdugo is a self-contained story with characters that fully live or die within it, so it is more independent than other stories that might co-dependently become enriched by reading other stories or novels within the world.

Still, seemingly-inconsequential short stories like this have narrative value.

They can illuminate certain aspects of the world’s values and tragedies. If a town is burned to the ground in your world, how does the government react? How does your main character react? Developing arbitrary prompts like this to ask stories you read or watch or hear can lead to interesting new developments within your own frame-world or if you’re narratively stuck. Balzac had been well-read before he started writing, so he might have asked of his readings these same questions. The more we ask of our favorite works, the more we learn, and the more we ask of our least favorite works, the more we realize what we don’t want to emulate.

El Verdugo starts with a slow burn.

We laze through a peaceful evening with Victor Marchand, a French officer, as he guards a Spanish town. The details may almost bore us into the same sort of meditative state that Marchand feels, which might actually be the point, because literature should help us explore the perspective of a character even if it’s not directly a first-person narrative. If Marchand is at peace, like when we’re at peace, we notice details vividly. When we’re in a hurry, as the story develops as the action picks up, there’s less focus on the minute detail like the color of the sky.

In this way, literature is better study materials than character worksheets or whatever.

When we study what we like and begin to understand the nuances of things that make us happy versus unhappy, we gravitate toward those happy sensations and push ourselves away decisively from those unhappy sensations. I will be turning 34 in six months and if I live to be 100, that’s a third of my life. Why would I spend any more time than that toiling away at things I dislike? If I don’t like a story, drop it. I’m getting better about deciding whether I like something within the first page rather than halfway through, because by that halfway point, you’ve committed yourself to finish it, unless you look back with regret for having never completed it.

Halfway through El Verdugo, I realized I desired no sensations of digital media.

Usually, I’ll get distracted midway through a story that’s only halfway interesting. Nonfiction does this more often because most seem to not be constructed with any urgency. Academic material doesn’t need to constantly convince its readers to keep reading. They are guaranteed audiences after they’ve pitched their pedantic story to a publisher, and until that publisher’s rights are revoked, they’ll keep getting pushed on new audiences, that will slog their way through the material until they complete the class with hatred.

Balzac seemed to do what he wanted with no interest for external variables.

Reading El Verdugo is like watching a tightly-edited action move in 2020 where you don’t notice the time go by and you keep returning to key scenes. It’s that sort of focus on what’s next that keeps it exciting. The details help display the action. Without that, the reader gets too distracted over what certain words mean and how they tie into the greater whole.

Here’s a final thought for now on El Verdugo.

Establishing its introductory paragraphs with minute details and a slower pace allows us to get into a comfortable rhythm. Readers may soak in the nuance of thoughts without feeling rushed, so then when the action picks up, it feels more real. I hadn’t thought about that consciously when I’ve written fiction, but it’s that sort of casual world-building exposition that helps us feel acquainted with the world first before we can see the excitement of where it’s going to take us. Without that introductory splash of near-superfluous detail, we might read it more like a journalistic report of events unfolding, rather than as something that can help teach us about writing, reading, and the ways in which we can still appreciate literature well outside of its target audience. Its plot structure and burns persisted within my mind far longer than many other works I’ve read.

We should strive to achieve such highs in our works.

Quotes: None.
Sources: My reading experiences.
Inspirations: After reading the short story and letting it simmer in my mind, I just went ahead and decided to write why.
Related: Other Media Meandry essays and Book Reviews.
Photo: The book with a mousepad of my avatar because why not?
Written On: 2020 February 18 [6:34pm to “character worksheets or whatever” at 7:06pm] then February 20 [12:16am to 12:33am].
Last Edited: 2020 February 20 [First draft; final draft for the Internet.]
My big goal is writing. My most important goal is writing "The Story." All other goals should work toward that central goal. My proudest moment is the most recent time I overcame some fear, which should have been today. I'm a better zombie than I was yesterday. I'm not better than you and you're not better than me. Let's strive to be better every day.