Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Balzac's prose - the vegetable fate throws us today

Balzac, the prose writer. The Good, a description of Sanson, the executioner, a real person:

"Aged, at the time of our story, about sixty, this awful functionary was noted for his excellent attire, his quiet and composed manners, and for the contempt he displayed towards Bibi-Lupin and his acolytes, the machine's provision merchants. The only indication, in this man, which betrayed the fact that in his veins flowed the blood of medieval torturers, was a certain breadth and formidable thickness in his hands. Sufficiently well educated, much concerned with his duties as a citizen and a voter, very fond, it was said, of gardening, this tall, broad-built man, who spoke in a low voice, always calm and of few words, his forehead broad, rather bald, far more closely resembled a member of the British aristocracy than a public executioner." (p. 473)

Balzac the Bad:

No quotation for this one. It's too easy; there's too much. His longer novels are full of pedestrian passages. This is a symptom of the Comédie Humaine, Balzac's grand project to somehow write about all of life in his novels, to stuff everything in. In the last quarter of A Harlot High and Low, in particular, much concerned with prisons, police, and legal procedures, Balzac continually interrupts himself to fill us in on some essential piece of information about thieves' cant or the role of the magistrate or the architecture of the Conciergerie.*

It's not all bad - the passage about the executioner, a character never mentioned after the above description, is part of this stuffing process. But most of this sort of writing is far from deathless. If Balzac had not been a great novelist, he would have been a mediocre social scientist.

Balzac the Baffling:

"well! it will take more than talent to clean the vegetable fate throws us today". (p. 90)

* On the other hand, I had never been much interested in the tour of the Conciergerie (you can see Marie Antoinette's cell and I don't know what else). Balzac has made me reconsider.

1 comment:

  1. The conciergerie is not stupendous except they often use some of the empty building space for wonderful art exhibits. I went last year to see a retrospective of Paris photos - just stunning. Marie Antoinette's cell was so-so. There were some interesting letters and paperwork all about.

    Balzac the prose writer makes me very keen to try one of his books soon.