There are a number of strange details in Balzac’s A Passion in the Desert, not least of which is the profusion of dates in the land beyond the Nile’s cataracts, as well as the ability of a soldier to steal a sword from a sleeping captor with his teeth—unusual and sensual, since teeth are so often applied toward darker purposes, and would be put to different ends were the main character of this short story accompanied by a loose woman (rather than a leopard) to keep him company among the desert’s quivering dunes.
Both character and author alike seem unable to extricate themselves from that very dead place—these lands don’t quite ripple to life like they do beneath the eyes of T.E Lawrence, who for me will always be the best “desert writer”—and when reading paragraphs like the following I have the impression that Balzac, scribbling frantically with the creditors breaking down his door, doesn’t quite know where to take me—
The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity, immensity, closed in upon the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the sky, not a breath in the air, not a flaw on the bosom of the sand, ever moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a clear day, with one line of light, definite as the cut of a sword.
It’s fun to read, and answers perfectly the question of the proverbial toddler who asks her father, “Daddy, how do I write like Balzac?”, but in a way the author seems to be stalling, though even at his most stagnant he outshines lesser artists like a red volcano glowing in the night. Such a setting would break the willpower of other storyteller’s, but Balzac’s was implacable; with force of imagination alone he could have pushed a full passenger train from Paris to Rouen in ten hours flat, huffing and puffing steam from his nose and mouth and ears, from the furnace boiling in his heart.