‘Shot of Short’ #33: A Passion in the Desert by Honoré de Balzac

Title: A Passion in the Desert by Honoré de Balzac
Date Read: 17 April 2009
Available Online?: YES (although the version read for this challenge came from The Great Books Foundation’s Short Story Omnibus)

Briefly: Taking the form of a typical ‘frame story’ i.e. a story set within a story, A Passion in the Desert centres around the tale a Napoleonic soldier captured in Egypt, who after escaping his captors and fleeing into the desert, gradually builds up an unlikely friendship with an animal companion.

Afterthoughts: This is a really well constructed tale from De Balzac which if read at face value is incredible, but if probed deeper, reveals itself to be extraordinary. At the more shallow level the premise of man forming a relationship with a wild animal makes for a good story plot. The awkwardness and tension of both species working together to co-exist is tainted with the underlying sense of mistrust between them, and this, as one would imagine, drives the reader forward.

Begin to probe deeper though and so much more is revealed in this story. As an example, De Balzac gets rather allegorical in this story and somewhat disturbing, as the soldier begins to compare and contrast, even substitute his animal friend for his first lover. Powerful stuff and there’s so much more to dig out from it. Highly recommended, especially when one takes the time to read deeper.

I should add that this is the first story I’ve read from the newly released Great Books Foundation’s Short Story Omnibus. I’ve offered my forethoughts on the anthology already, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to read one of the stories in the context of the work; a work from an organisation whose main aim is to promote discussion and learning through literature, primarily in the group setting.

After reading it I’ve got to say that this story is well-considered, definitely one with enough depth and hidden meaning to promote a lot of discussion. Couple that with the thought-provoking group questions that accompany the story, and what one has is an ideal ‘tool’ for group discussion. Even reading alone as I did, the questions really gets one thinking. So early days, only one story down, but the Short Story Omnibus is showing a lot of promise. We’ll see if that keeps up as I read more from the anthology.

Notable Quote: (from online version) “The Provencal threw his arms round the trunk of one of the palm trees, as though it were the body of a friend, and then, in the shelter of
the thin, straight shadow that the palm cast upon the granite, he wept. Then sitting down he remained as he was, contemplating with profound sadness the implacable scene, which was all he had to look
upon. He cried aloud, to measure the solitude. His voice, lost in the hollows of the hill, sounded faintly, and aroused no echo–the echo was in his own heart. The Provencal was twenty-two years old:–he
loaded his carbine.”

Rating: ★★★★☆

*Story read as part of my 100 Shots of Short reading challenge.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. I had my eye on that anthology. I have not read any Balzac but it sounds like I should change that.

  2. Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

    I can’t comment on any other Balzac stories because this is the only one I’ve read so far, but if this one is anything to go by then it’s unmissable reading.

    The Short Story Omnibus is a bit of tasty tome Rebecca, and if I’ve one tiny criticism it’s that fact that it is a tome – large and unwieldy. But if portability isn’t an issue (and the purpose of this anthology certainly doesn’t suggest that it is), then it’s a delightful book to work with. It reminds me of some kind of ‘pulpit bible’ which for short story aficionados is probably a good thing. I can see my copy quickly filling up with index tabs and post-it notes over the coming weeks :o)