Tuesday, October 9, 2007

“pedantry, ponderosity, pretentiousness, bad taste and charmless form”

This is a description of Balzac’s work by Henry James. Many people, I suspect, think that at least three of the five terms apply to any given piece of classic literature. How unfair. James himself, for example, is merely ponderous.

James’s description of Balzac is exactly right in a way. It’s also exactly what I had assumed Balzac was like before I had really read him. We create versions of writers in our head before we read them, picked up from stray remarks and prejudices and book covers. John Crowley recently tried to get his readers to discuss their positive illusions about writers they had not read, but they just wanted to sneer at contemporary best sellers – Crowley himself was thinking of Karl Kraus, who must be savagely witty but untranslatable. But of course!

Maybe Dickens is a more universal example. You do not have to have read him to know that he is at turns funny and sentimental. See any version of The Christmas Carol. That’s not wrong, but the new reader will be surprised at the sophistication of his rhetoric and narrative voice, and the stringency, the moral seriousness of much of his best writing.

Balzac wrote 92 novels and stories* in less than 25 years. Even leaving aside some early hackwork, some of these must be trivial, and many more must be sloppy and hastily-written. Even his better books are affected: Lost Illusions, for example, includes several pages of an encyclopedia-like history of paper and printing. That’s pedantry.

But what about “The Passion in the Desert,” his graceful story about a man who falls in love with a panther? Or the perfect Eugénie Grandet, as flawless a novel as I’ve ever read? I’ll organize my thoughts about Balzac’s best work, and see if I can figure out what he’s doing.

The James lecture on Balzac (“The Lessons of Balzac”), by the way, is actually a rave, an exhortation to read more Balzac, to put him closer to the center of the history of the novel.

* Or, other sources tell me, 92** novels, which is not at all the same thing.

** Or, per Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 91 novels and stories.

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