Thursday, May 12, 2016

The NYRB collection of Balzac stories - a useful book

A brief repetition of my antique advice about Honoré  de Balzac:

Père Goriot (1835) is the centerpiece of Balzac’s conception of a gigantic, interlinked web of fiction, so I’ll take for granted that you ought to read that one.  It’s the entryway to Lost Illusions (1837-43) and A Harlot High and Low (1838-47), Balzac’s grand opera.  Many shorter works hook onto these.  Plus it is arguably Balzac’s single best novel, all on its own.

I give that honor to Eugénie Grandet (1833), more perfect in structure and detail, what I and a later French tradition think of as artful.  Balzac is rarely interested in perfect.

The vengeful Cousin Bette (1846) and the cheery Ursule Mirouët (1841) are also good slabs of Balzac.

Much of the best or most Balzacish Balzac is in his shorter fiction.  Some of it is essential to understanding pieces of the gigantic Human Comedy apparatus – plot, characters, metaphysics – and some of it is as good as anything Balzac wrote.

The most recent English-language collection, The Human Comedy: Selected Stories (2014) from NYRB Classics is a most helpful book.  The translations are all new, from several translators.  Highlights:

“A Passion in the Desert” (1830), Balzac’s best story.

“The Red Inn” (1831) and “Gobseck” (1830), nearly necessary appendices to Père Goriot.  I mean, there is a chunk of the novel that makes no sense without “Gobseck,” a downside of making everything connected.  The Human Comedy is like DC Comics – it has “continuity” with the accompanying pleasures and aggravations.

“The Red Inn” is available in an older Penguin Classics collection, also useful, but to my knowledge “Gobseck” had not been translated for a hundred years.  Baffling.

Then there is “Sarrasine” (1831), perhaps Balzac’s most-read story since it became the foundation-text for S/Z (1970), a work of structuralist theory by Roland Barthes.  How many graduate students have read this bit of Balzac and nothing else.  It is good to have “Sarrasine” restored to its place among the other stories.

A third of the NYRB collection is a single work, the novella “The Duchess de Langeais” (1834), a risky move since some of it is pretty dull.  Other parts, though, show where Alexander Dumas learned how to write adventure novels.

With this book, I have read 39 pieces of the 91 or 93 or 97 parts of The Human Comedy,  not quite 5,000 pages. Ten novels and twenty-nine shorter things.  It is important to read the shorter pieces in order to run up the count.

Tomorrow I will try to write something about the stories themselves, a bit of a “best of” post, but just as a consumer guide: this book was long overdue.  It fills a gap in a way NYRB’s earlier Balzac volume, The Unknown Masterpiece, did not, although anyone interested in art would not want to miss that title story.  Only two stories overlap with the Penguin Selected Short Stories, which is of comparable quality, but omits “A Passion in the Desert.”  Neither collection includes “The Firm of Nucingen,” another Père Goriot adjunct.  Someone should publish a book titled  Père Goriot Plus, with the novel plus all of the related short fiction.  NYRB Classics should publish a third volume of Balzac stories.


  1. Is Gobseck in the NYRB collection? it's such a vast subject, the canon, i mean, that i'm a bit surprised someone hasn't published a list of all titles with the order in which they should be read. might be a life-time project, though...

    1. There was a Yahoo group a few years ago that embarked on a read through of The Human Comedy. They had a well reasoned set of suggestions for reading order.

  2. In French there are lists. I have copied them into spreadsheets and have my own with the 39 titles I have read, chronological by publication, not by period, which would be interesting.

    I think the issue is that Balzac's fiction is more like a web or a woods. I would not say "start anywhere," not at all, but there are two dozen good ways into the maze.

  3. tx for the comeback. i don't read French and i have a copy of "Pere Goriot", so i guess i'll start with that...

  4. The opening, the description of the boarding house - Balzac at his best. The ending - Balzac at a different kind of best.

  5. You have far greater patience and perseverance than I! Whenever I think of Balzac, I think of that Woody Allen line – “As Balzac said, there goes another novel!”

    I read about a half dozen or so Balzac novels many years ago, and agree that “Le Père Goriot” is the best of them. There is certainly a great vigour in his writing, and I’ve often wondered why it is I haven’t been tempted back for more. It is possibly because (and you will probably disagree with me here) Balzac was fascinated by surfaces, and rarely looked into what may lie under them. With his characters, what you see is what you get: there are no hidden depths.

    Balzac was very good at depicting social structures, the privilege of social status and of wealth, and so on: he knew exactly how much his characters earned, how much they spent, how their houses were furnished, how they dressed, how much all of it cost, etc. But he doesn’t always seem interested in inner lives. When we are taken inside a character’s head, nothing they think surprises us: their internal thoughts are usually no different from what you’d expect from their external appearance. We are carried along by the vigour of the forward movement, and the narrative momentum; we admire Balzac’s understanding of how society is structured, how it all works; but, apart from certain scenes – such as old Goriot’s deathbed scene, which is wonderful – this is not really what satisfies me these days. Then again, I’m not entirely sure myself what *does* satisfy me…

  6. The Flaubertian critique is that Balzac was not worried enough about surfaces. Too many big generalities, too many clichés. Not enough furniture.

  7. I'm very fond of the short story "The Atheist's Mass"-- it's sweet in a way you don't expect from Balzac. Agreed that Pere Goriot is great.

  8. Yes, "The Atheist's Mass" (in the Penguin collection) - hey, that one is all about inner lives and hidden depths.

  9. I haven't read much Balzac but I did read this collection when it came out; I thought The Red Inn and Gobseck were particularly good and I agree with you that The Duchess de Langeais was quite dull—in fact I found it a real chore to get through.

    I intend reading more Balzac but he's not an author I like enough to want to read everything. Cousin Bette will probably be my next one as I have a copy here and it generally gets praised.

  10. I decided to write a bit more about Langeais, and I just hit the dull parts head on. Why deny them.

    Cousin Bette has my favorite line in all of Balzac: "'[S]he costs me a hundred and ninety-two thousand francs a year!' cried Hulot." Such precision.

  11. Where do you stand on Zola? Also wrote too much, but some gems in there. La Bête humaine, T Raquin, Le ventre de Paris (the only one I read in French - struggled with the abstruse foodstuffs vocab)

  12. Am trying out Google as sign in method of commenting; darn WordPress incompatibility issues

  13. I always enjoy Zola when I read him, sometimes enormously, even if he is a bit of a con artist - but I see through the con, which just adds to my enjoyment. He has the advantage over Balzac of writing in the Flaubert Era. If Zola had written a "novel" that was nothing but descriptions of food, it would be my favorite Zola novel.

  14. Having finally read Pere Goriot last year I will try to follow with another this year. I think I have Eugenie Grandet on my shelves and now that it bears your imprimatur ...

  15. The Grandets are also on the Borges and Bioy Casares "lifelikeness" list.

  16. I read a number of Balzac novels many years ago (basically the more famous, shorter ones) and bought this collection hoping to rekindle my love.
    I love the comparison to DC Comics continuity - though as I struggle with that, The Human Comedy may be a step too far.

  17. There is the big advantage that it is one person's continuity, rather than a series of writers correcting and stomping on each other's stories.

    And most Balzac stories have nothing to do with each other, or the only connection is that a recurring character tells a story. Still, there is a significant core where knowing more of the pieces really helps. "Oh, see, that's the Earth-2 Green Lantern, not" etc. etc.

  18. I'm happy to hear you say that much of Balzac's best is to be found in his shorter fiction, Tom. The great Le Colonel Chabert aside, I had this preconceived idea that the longer novels were where it was at for him. Good to know. It is important to read the shorter pieces in order to run up the count is very helpful advice, by the way. This slacker must try and remember that one!

  19. I don't know why Balzac has had this numerical fetish attached to him - that the number of works in The Human Comedy has to be mentioned - but I figure a reader should take advantage of it.