PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
The book is a celebration of the seven deadly vices and shows no counterbalancing interest in the seven cardinal virtues. Even more, it is a celebration of pride, the pride of the ancient aristocracy of evil. Those who have the style to carry off their vices have also the right to do so.
'All the tales involve variants on the established framed oral tale, in which a speaker recounts some personal experienced but exceptional occurrences; traditional expectations are, however, not fulfilled. Barbey's narrators reverse conventional proportions between introduction and events, indulging in a proliferation of apparent digressions and allusions before the action is engaged. Motivation of characters often remain enigmatic: why should an apparently modest young woman, fresh from convent school, cross her parents' bedroom to initiate a passionate affair with their officer lodger, only to die abruptly in his arms? Hidden secrets abound: climaxes are only half-seen. The reader may share the frustration of one of Barbey's listeners who exclaimed "What is the man driving at?".
Climaxes may be, as Robert Irwin notes in a brief but informative introduction, "outrageously impossible", but are prepared by hints and clues in the scene-setting: doors, confined spaces, candles, the shape of a sword-scar across the face of a listener, all combine in the moment when the narrator, Captain Mesnilgrand, hiding in a cup-board, burst out to run through Major Ydow who, in a jealous rage, is using the pommel of his sabre to seal the vulva of his mistress La Pudica with the wax of of her letter to a lover. Throughout the volume female characters, typified by their pride and energy, and untroubled by guilt, disrupt worlds of conformity - stagnant Norman backwaters, aristocratic Parisian salons - with transgressive passion and violence, bot literal and figurative: a Spanish aristocrat tears out the heart of his wife's platonic lover to throw it to his dogs; his wife's revenge is to live a sordid life of a common prostitute in a seedy quarter of Paris, debasing his name and forcing him in her imagination, via his portrait, to watch her as she makes love.'