" Balzac’s most remarkable characteristic is a sort of exultant reveling in every kind of human passion, in every species of desire or greed or ambition or obsession which gives a dignity and a tragic grandeur to otherwise prosaic lives. There is a kind of subterranean torrent of blind primeval energy running through his books which focusses itself in a thick smouldering fuliginous eruption when the moment or the occasion arises. The “will to power,” or whatever else you may call it, has never been more terrifically exposed. I cannot but feel that as a portrayer of such a “will to power” among the obstinate, narrow, savage personages of small provincial towns, no one has approached Balzac. Here, in his country scenes, he is a supreme master; and the tough, resistant fibre of his slow-moving, massively egotistic provincials, with their backgrounds of old houses full of wicked secrets and hoarded wealth, lends itself especially well to his brooding materialistic imagination, ready to kindle under provocation into crackling and licking flames." John Powys
It is hard not to agree with John Powys, who came to view The Comedie Humaine as one gigantic work. He saw Balzac as the greatest of all novelists.
In the quite brief "El Verdugo" we see the near total destruction of a proud small town Spanish family. The story is set during the time of Napolean's occupation of Spain, during the Penisular war of 1807 to 1814 or so with France on one side and England and Spain on the other. I so far have found all of Balzac's refrences to the wars of Napolean to be about senseless violence under commanders more cruel and ego driven than anything remotely like a patriotism based on a love for Napolean. Balzac, as I learned from Stefan Zweig's Balzac, never served in the army but he had close friends who did and it is from them his very acute observations of military life are derived. I see no admiration for Napolean in the 61 works I have so far read.
As the story opens, a French sentry fears he sees an approaching English fleet. We then launch into what we almost always find in a Balzac story, an aristocrat seeing from a distance a beautiful pure looking girl and deciding on first glance he wants to marry her. In this story the girl is the youngest daughter of an important local Spanish family. The family leads an attack on the French in which many French army men are killed. The attackers are ultimately defeated. (Spoiler alert). The leader of the French sentences all the members of the Spanish family to be beheaded, with one exception. The head of the family can pick one of his sons to be the executioner, El Verdugo, and that son will be allowed to survive. There is much drama over this with all sons refusing at first. The scene where the son Beheads his younger sister, whom the French head officer is in love with, is the stuff of heavy melodrama.
We see the surviving son in later years, he wants only to die. He is known the rest of his life as "El Verdugo".
"El Verdugo" is a decent story, OK maybe a bit heavy handed on the overwhelming sadness but for sure worth reading.