The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar Bby J.P. Donleavy
“Donleavy at his best, eloquent, roguish . . . at one with his world and the terrible sadness it contains.” —Newsweek
Balthazar B is the world’s last shy, elegant young man. Born to riches in Paris, and raised by a governess, the beautiful Miss Hortense, Balthazar is shipped away to prep school in England where he is befriended by the noble but naughty Beefy. Together, Balthazar and Beefy matriculate to Trinity College, Dublin, where Balthazar reads Zoology and Beefy prepares for Holy Orders, all the while sharing amorous adventures high and low until their university careers come to an abrupt and decidedly unholy end.
“Revelatory and delightful and sometimes very poignant,” The New York Times said of this novel. “The prep school passages are wonderful, followed by one of the most perfect love affairs in modern literature. This romp of a novel is lush and lovely, bawdy and sad.”
“Donleavy at his best, eloquent, roguish . . . at one with his world and the terrible sadness it contains.” —Newsweek
“A comic writer rivaling Waugh and Wodehouse.” —Life
“Humor that stops just short of poetry.” —The Saturday Review
“If Nancy Mitford and James Joyce had collaborated, the result might have been like the adventures of Balthazar B.” —The Guardian
“Revelatory and delightful and sometimes very poignant. The prep school passages are wonderful, followed by one of the most perfect love affairs in modern literature. This romp of a novel is lush and lovely, bawdy and sad.” —The New York Times
“Donleavy is unsurpassed, marvelously funny and quite moving.” —The New Republic
“Mr. Donleavy has shown again that he is a splendid writer.” —The New York Times Book Review
He was born in Paris in a big white house on a little square off Avenue Foch. Of a mother blond and beautiful and a father quiet and rich.
His nannie wheeled him daily in a high blue pram on pebbled paths under the tall trees. And as May branches were pressing out their green tips of new leaves he was taken on this warm sunny day across the river, through portals, a courtyard and under musty military flags. And there in a godmother’s arms with salt pressed on his lips and a cold dash of water on the skull, he was christened Balthazar.
Made of sudden love this gurgling baby shook tiny tender limbs in ecstasy. Wheeled to the Bois across summer, fists encased in woolly whiteness, skies passed more blue than cloudy beyond the folds of gauze. Under leaves and green, nannie sat near knitting on her folding chair. She waved away the mosquitos and bees and welcomed butterflies. And each day at four, in the thickest hot stillness, we headed home for tea.
Up the cooling steps to winter, her blue cap sat on a bun of brown hair.
In a crib in the sun room off the vestibule I crawled. And reached through wooden bars to tug at plants sitting on their white gleaming pedestals. And touched where a chinaman fished forever in the river, to make him move. And he stayed the same. Like the cuddling kissing rocking arms I knew. Until the sweet nut flavour and milk white beauty of my mother’s breasts were taken away. And I made my first frown.
Winter went away down warming steps to spring. The vestibule plants crushed together against the window. On a June dawn the big black car with the footrests sticking from the fuzzy floor drove west north west from Paris. Through steamy mists rising on the land.
Late afternoon, a western heaven rippled red. Past all the villages between the wide spreading fields shimmering in the sun, lonely steep roofed red tiled cottages and flowering apple trees. And beyond a grey wall and gateway, at the end of a white dirt drive over two little bridges stood a grey and solemn house in the trees. The dusty motor stopped and out stepped nannie and a sailor suited Balthazar. Pierre the chauffeur handed boxes and bags to Heloise and Celeste hurrying from the house. And the little brown and black dog, Spot, jumped and licked and barked.
Under the slate roof and yellowing eaves were rooms and rooms shuttered through winter, leaving a dark summer air stale and cold. A mile away over pastures rose dunes and on the white sandy shore washed the chill waves of the English Channel. And here Balthazar B learned to swim, learned to pray, speak English and to use his potty.
Mornings nannie came up from the dungeon kitchen with an egg basket of baguettes sliced with layers of soft ham in white creamy butter. The primrose pram with its upturned footrest and lacy awning proceeded out the white pebbly drive and down a straight black tarry road to the beach. As Spot raced up and down unseen between furrows under the potato leaves.
Balthazar’s fair skinned body was rubbed with oil and he played the day under the big orange parasol. Cloudy skies he ran up and down the dunes with Spot and dug at the roots of the strange sharp clumps of grass. Until the cool of evening, when returned with a bag of shells and one big one to which nannie said you could listen and hear the sea, they sat by his window with Spot a cozy little ball between their ankles and up over the tops of elms and pines they watched for shooting stars.
All the countryside dark and still across vineyards and turnip fields. A dog barks and a candle glows at a farmhouse. The sleeping sound of waves takes the sand away under the feet and washes ankles white and blue with cold. Nannie leans close with big brown eyes and round smiling cheeks. To seal the day, she said. With a kiss. And not to worry little boy about dreams, no big sea away on the shore will come pounding and foaming down the road. Tomorrow mommie and daddy will come. And like a good little boy we must move our bowels and take our drop of iodine in a glass of water and one day just like nannie you’ll be able to break an apple in half with your thumbs.
This night a storm swept in from sea and raged through the poplar leaves out the window. To lie snug and warm and safe where out there under the wild sky the world is so cold and wet. When big harm is a big shadow waiting for little boys who have no roof nor mommie nor nannie and daddy to save them. Gentle sheets tucked up round and safe now to go to sleep.
Mommie and daddy came. And two days later a long grey car with a black canvas canopy and gleaming brass radiator. And out stepped a man in helmet and goggles and shiny brown leather gaiters. Bald with a beard and monster teeth he slept in the bedroom at the top of the stairs. Nannie said he was a famous balloonist and hunter and had just come back from darkest Africa from many narrow escapes from wounded lions, slithering pythons who wrapped round you and crocodiles. Who could snap off your head. And that Balthazar was a bad little boy to crawl up the stairs and throw lumps of cheese over the banister at this Uncle Edouard as he lay asleep in bed.
A woman came called Fifi. With a flapping wide pink hat and narrow little waist and fluffy lacy frills round her throat. Her skin was smooth and pale. And by early morning Balthazar stole to Uncle Edouard’s door and quietly pushed it open. Retreating behind the banister once more to heave lumps of cheese and fling kitchen knives clattering across the floor. Fifi sat up in bed and her shoulders showed. Uncle Edouard foamed at the mouth and his eyes blazed and he shouted I will kill you you little brat.
Harvest days passed, the grapes and orchards ripened. And on a September full moon night there were voices on the porch below. Suddenly shouting and a face slapped in the still summer air. Balthazar woke from sleep and climbed from his bed in the white pale light. All fear. That somewhere else was far away and home. And the little boy in big pyjamas went down the stairs, past the cracks of light and murmurings under the salon door. Lifting the heavy latch to go down the porch steps and run and run on the wet grass along the drive to the black road. Where his feet felt the warmth and stuck in the softened tar. Then hands jumping out of the vast night grabbed him from behind. The strong arms of Pierre. Who carried the struggling little prisoner back to bed.
Next day through a silent morning house, nannie collected clothes and toys. And out on the white pebbly drive Pierre fastened the long thick straps across the black oily cover of the luggage rack. At noon the big dark car passed along the valley of the Seine towards Paris. Counting barges on the snaking river and the tires humming on the road. Pierre’s flat backed grey head between his reddened ears hunched over the steering. Tears dropped from nannie’s eyes. And Balthazar in white knee stockings and silver buckled shoes clutched his blue stuffed elephant Tillie tightly to his breast. And little dog Spot whined and moaned between his legs.
High in the attic room in the big house in the little Paris square, nannie whispered God love you little boy. His wrists no longer tied to the bed to stop him sucking thumbs. Nor the elastic hat put on his head to keep back his ears. And in strange freedom Balthazar B snuck to watch from the gallery high on the wall down into the dining room. Where candles flickered and incense floated across gleaming plates and crystal glass. His mother in a white flowing gown, leaned elbows on the mantel, a loose long strand of her golden hair fallen on her tan shoulder and her head held in her hand.
Morning wiping sleepy dust from eyes, Balthazar asked nannie why does everyone cry. Because your father has gone away. Where. To where people go. Where do they go. They pass away. Where. To be with God. Why. Because they are dead. What is dead. Dead is when your heart grows cold. Will my heart ever grow cold. Yes God love you little boy.
At this last morning bath, no laugh nor blush as his pecker stood a point in nannie’s face. Hair brushed, a white blouse under a black satin suit. And borrowed long black stockings with the little bumps of suspender garters stretched against his thighs.
“I don’t want to wear these nannie.”
“Don’t make such a fuss.”
“I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.”
“Don’t say don’t.”
“I will I will I will.”
“All right all right all right.”
“Let me do what I want.”
“Yes, I suppose you will.”
“What do you mean nannie.”
“O God, shut up you brat.”
“I am not a brat.”
“I know you’re not, I know you’re not.”
Nannie clutched and squeezed and kissed Balthazar. Leaning her face on his little neck and her cold nose nuzzling up against his silky hair and her lips biting the lobe of his ear.
“Nannie, you cry again.”
“Yes I do.”
“Because you have been beastly horrid to me.”
“You have you know. You should never talk to me like that. Because I don’t like it.”
The downstairs rooms of the house open, the windows closed and shuttered and table lamps lit. Hands reaching out from the shadowy figures and shaking other hands. Uncle Edouard, explorer and balloonist, a tall dark spectre in the hall speaking to passing mourners on their way to the cars. Towards every tiny rosette in a dark lapel he gave a little inclination of the head, a twist of shoulder and smile.
“It is very up to date. Up to date. Very modern. It is as he would like, I am sure. We do not leave a little wine behind in the glass. Ah so, here is this little boy who throws hunks of cheese at his uncle. Is it not so.”
“Do not call me little boy.”
“Ah so what are we.”
“You should not talk with such a loud voice when my father is dead.”
“Ah a son like the father. I am sorry, forgive me.”
Uncle Edouard clicked his heels and bowed. Nannie clutching Balthazar’s hand and nodding her way on tall black stockinged legs across the white tiles of the vestibule. Legs that lived and were all alive and were my nannie’s. Wheeling me from this house under the red berry trees. By the low crochet wire fences, along the criss crossed paths and green dipping swards down Avenue Foch. The iron lamp posts with their frieze of evergreen leaves. All the high black iron fences thick with ivy before the great stone houses. White haired ladies bent watering window plants in their silent scented world. With secretive gardens and rusting shutters. The little iron doors by the pavements that opened into dark cold cellars. Where ghosts and rats and monsters breathed out a chill to passing little boys.
His father’s coffin lay covered with a purple cloth behind the glass of this gleaming black vehicle. The trees in their fullest late summer holding a thick shadowy chestnut greenery over the long line of cars. The red faced man hat in hand, whispering through yellow little teeth, his lips shiny and dry, eyes moist and grey taking mommie’s elbow, as she holds my hand. Nannie following and we sit side by side. The dark men place the last of the white lilies, red and pink and purple wreaths and flowers where the casket lies.
The sun glinting on automobiles slowly creeping out and down the narrow road. Turning left and left again and out past a gendarme standing in blue coat, white gloves and shiny belt in Avenue Foch, holding back traffic with his raised white baton. His stiff salute. On the sandy path the little drinking fountain. Nannie would press the button to make it wee wee. The mountainous stone cold shadow of the Arc de Triomphe. Around the Etoile, amid the stream of bicycles under little trees sprouting over the hard ground. Past the great oak doors and thick walls of Paris. Down the Avenue Kléber and the vista of the Eiffel Tower beyond the thatch of chestnut trees. Blue and red awninged cafes on the Trocadero. Up past the high stone wall and above it the tops of tombs and the tall arbour fence of ivy leaves. A uniformed man at the big open iron gate. Pale, blond pillars. A grey marble waiting room. The cars pull up around a short curving cobble stoned road. And between the slabs of marble, links of chains, the sun in a white heaven blinks and gleams. The dark figures alight. And collect. The voice of Uncle Edouard.
“Ah the eternal regrets.”
The coffin carried along the path on shoulders, down between the narrow shady row of clipped chestnut trees. Approaching the grey rain stained walls and roof of this mausoleum rearing from the hard sandy ground. Its small stained glass window open. Through an iron rusting fence and gate the coffin lowered down the steep winding stairs. Beads of sweat on straining faces and urgent whispers. The red necks bulging from white stiff collars. Uncle Edouard touching his forehead with a red handkerchief taking sudden command.
“Careful, if you please, monsieur holds the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire, and Chevalier de la Tour et l’Épée and Décoré de l’Ordre de St. Stanislas de Russie.”
“What is Uncle Edouard saying, nannie.”
“He is telling the gentlemen not to have an accident.”
“Why does he wave his hand around his head like that.”
“He has just lost his hat and the pall bearer has stepped on it. He is awfully upset.”
Hot and hushed in the random rainbow rays of light on the grey and white checkered floor, the black little group assembling tightly one by one. A kneeling stool in front of an altar covered in dusty brown faded photographs. Of shawled women and homburg hatted men. One smilingly smoking a cigar of whom it was said he was a black sheep who had wandered astray in camel hair to watering places everywhere.
“I am hot nannie.”
“Why does mommie sway.”
“Uncle Edouard is pulling out his.”
The priest murmuring prayers as heads bow in the stale musty air. The coffin pushed gently sideways on the shelf in the wall. Sprinkled with holy juices. Balthazar’s mother’s hair so blond against the black, a white hanky held up under her veil. And as the milky marble slab shut the coffin away. Heads were turning one by one to look at Uncle Edouard as he stood his chin lifted and eyes elevated. His black tie decorated with a balloon and gondola beneath which was written, Bon Voyage.
1. The crime victim whose body Brunetti views in the morgue has an unusually thick neck. What does the shape suggest to the pathologist? Why is the neck Brunetti’s strongest lead in trying to determine the man’s identity?
2. Both Brunetti and Signorina Elettra recognize what she summarizes as the “failures of our political system” but, as Brunetti tells her when he learns the provenance of his computer, “in the presence of a trough, it is difficult not to oink” (p. 36). Do you agree with Brunetti’s assessment? Is it cynical, realistic, or both?
3. Family connections are powerful currency in Venice: The education of Vice-Questore Patta’s son, Dottor Papetti’s position at the slaughterhouse, Brunetti’s relationship with his boss, Paola’s maneuvers at the university, and the future career opportunities of their children are shaped by familial links. Does the strong influence of kinship reflect the weakness of other social institutions? Or is it an inherent characteristic of a small, centuries-old society?
4. How does Brunetti finally procure a suitable image of the murdered man? Where and when was this image captured, and what was the man doing at the time?
5. Brunetti knows there are many reasons why his family and friends have begun to avoid beef, including the destruction of rain forests to clear areas for cattle grazing and outbreaks of fatal diseases such as Mad Cow. Why is he most disturbed after reading an article that describes “animals that were born sick, kept alive only by massive doses of hormones, and who died still sick” (p. 67)?
6. What does Brunetti discover about Andrea Nava when he visits his widow? Why did Nava take a second job? What was his role there, and why was he qualified to perform it?
7. Where had Andrea Nava been living at the time of his death? What surprises Brunetti and Vianello about the apartment? What do they learn about the murder victim?
8. What does Brunetti find odd about Signorina Borelli’s move from a job at a pharmaceutical company to a position at the slaughterhouse? Are the reasons Vianello gives for the job switch believable? Why is Brunetti still doubtful?
9. What kind of bedtime story did Andrea Nava tell his son three weeks before his death? Why does his wife recall it? Why does Brunetti think it’s a significant clue?
10. “The truth’s the last thing a man wants to know about the man his daughter is married to,” Patta tells Brunetti when they are discussing the possibility of Papetti’s involvement in a crime (p. 232). Is he right? Why or why not?
11. Papetti’s powerful father-in-law, Maurizio De Rivera, looms large over Brunetti’s investigation. How does the commissario use De Rivera’s relationship with his son-in-law to gain an advantage during the interrogation?
12. Who is in attendance at Andrea Nava’s funeral? What does the funeral suggest about Nava’s standing in the community?