Monday, November 24, 2008

A Balzac recap - where to start?

So what would be a good starting point for a reader new to Balzac? It depends.

Eugénie Grandet is flawless and short. I really think it's an achievement of a higher level than any other Balzac novel. But it's not exactly typical. It's not a Paris novel, it's has almost nothing about high society, it just barely brushes against the Comedie Humaine system of recurring characters.

For that, Père Goriot is the place to go. This is the one that launches characters who reappear again and again, and this is the one that stands as Balzac's greatest Paris novel, by which I mean, among other things, that this is the one I would read before a trip to Paris. Next time I'm there, I'm going to Balzac's house. (Both Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet have the virtue of being quite short).

Père Goriot, which stands perfectly well on its own, also serves as a sort of vestibule to Lost Illusions and its sequel A Harlot High and Low. These three works together form a grand epic of 1,500 pages or more, and show Balzac at his operatic wildest. Throw in the short story "The Firm of Nucingen", while you're at it.

Cousin Bette or Cousin Pons would work just as well as starting points as Père Goriot, I think, and are both pretty typical. Cousin Bette is longer and crazier. Cousin Pons is sweeter. For art collectors, Cousin Pons is a must, actually; similarly, people who work in journalism or publishing should have a go at Lost Illusions sometime.

Ursule Mirouet is nice, too. Haven't mentioned that one at all.

In a way, I would urge any reader new to Balzac to forego all of the above books (well, not Eugénie Grandet) and start with a good selection of short stories. The Penguin Classics editon is almost perfect, except for the bizarre exclusion of "A Passion in the Desert" (come on, ten more pages!). The variety of Balzac is here - the religious mystery of "An Incident in the Reign of Terror", tales of murder in "The Red Inn" and "A Tragedy by the Sea", the genuinely funny "Pierre Grassou" (also a must for painters and art collectors) "El Verdugo"'s harsh story of honor during wartime. Read this, and in a mere 272 pages you will have read 12 of the 91 "novels" in Balzac's Human Comedy.


  1. I'm glad you listed Cousin Bette here, as that is where I will probably start.

  2. So, what you're saying is that no matter where I start in Balzac I am going to find I need to read--want to read--a whole bunch of his books? :)

  3. The way I think of it is that Balzac, despite his productivity, is not a hack - meaning he is not just repeating a forumla, so you read one book, you've read 'em all. His world is genuinely big.

  4. I read the short stories in college 20 years ago, vowed I was a devotee, and then forgot about Balzac. That says a lot about my brain at 20.

    I'd better go back and re-read the short stories. But I have Père Goriot on my TBR shelf and will likely get to it first.

  5. Twenty years ago and forgotten still gets the "I've read it" check mark, absolutely.

    Père Goriot is a great place to jump into Balzac's Paris.

  6. this is a hugely useful post to someone like me who wants to read say 5 to 7 Balzac novels but is not clear where to start-thanks

  7. Atypically useful! But thanks, I'm glad. The breadth is daunting. Otherwise Balzac's a friendly companion.

  8. Just the advice I need. I am aware that Balzac is one of the classic French authors I have yet to read. Père Goriot it is then and your post is bookmarked for further reference

  9. I'm rarely this helpful! I should try it more often.

  10. sigh. Maybe someday. I am starting to think I'm just not a fan of French literature....Zola, Dumas, and then Balzac were just not so much fun to read.

  11. But French literature, it is so big, it does so many things!

    Still, you may not be so happy with the cynicism, the shocking of the bourgeoisie, the ennui.

    Some non-cynical recommendatons:
    Eugénie Grandet, Balzac
    A Simple Heart, Flaubert
    Notre Dame de Paris, Hugo
    Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos
    Atala, Chateaubriand

    All but the Hugo are very short.

  12. I did like Madame Bovary. And Mauspassant's short stories. And I read Les Mis many years ago because I loved the musical!

    I do have Hunchback of Notre Dame on my TBR for this year, but was thinking I needed a break from France. We'll see... Thanks for the other recommendations!

  13. Ah ha! So you do like French literature!

    I've become skeptical of the meaning of statements like "I love the Russians" or "I love the Victorians" or what have you. Those are big and varied things, heterogeneous. One should like some French books and dislike others. There's so much variety.

  14. I just, following your suggestion, read and posted on Eugenie Grandet. I found it very exciting and totally enjoyed seeing the plot develop. I will read more Balzac in the future than I have in the past. Thanks for your informative guidance.

  15. Mel, I think you'll get a lot out of Balzac pretty much whichever way you go. Come to think of it, I am overdue for more Balzac, Balzac nouvelle #35.