Balzac's short story Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) was followed by a bonus even shorter story, La Leçon de Violon (The Violin Lesson) by E T A Hoffman.
I found Le Chef-d'oeuvre innconnu quite heavy going to begin with – it mostly seemed to be a discussion on artistic philosophy disguised as a conversation between Frenhofer, an elderly, gifted artist, and two younger painters, made even denser by the language barrier. Until the last few pages I thought that would be it, but the surprising and touching ending made up for it.
The two young painters are intrigued by their older friend's enthusiastic talk of his masterpiece which has taken him 10 years to complete, but which he won't allow anyone to see. When he finally allows them to view it, it turns out that spending so long on one picture has completely distorted his view, and that what was once a wonderful painting is ruined. When the young friends break this to him, he collapses down in misery. One of them returns the next day to check on him, and it turns out he passed away in the night, after having destroyed his entire works.
Having pushed through and finally finished the story, I could see that the rather dull majority of it was necessary for the effect of the final scene. However, I can't help but feel that a smaller quantity of the philosophical discussion would have been fine for building up the suspense for the final reveal.
La Leçon de Violon was more approachable, if also rather shrouded in artistic philosophy. A promising young violinist is introduced by his tutor, Haak, to Haak's own patron, a baron who was once one of the foremost violinists of the age. After an extended theoretical and philosophical speech (again), the baron allows the narrator to try out his own antique violin. Frustrated with his lack of technique, he shows him how it's done – except that his ability to play has completely disappeared, and only his belief in his own genius remains.
Both stories were interesting studies of human nature, although I can't help feeling they'd be more interesting if I actually cared much about artistic theory.
Next up: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson