Monday, November 10, 2008

The Big Balzac Blowout - no one has any personal interest in a scene of mere routine

A couple of years ago I had read two of the 91 or 93 or 97 components of Honoré de Balzac's Human Comedy. Now I've read 30. So it's time for an extra special Wuthering Expectations Big Balzac Blog Blowout. This is so big it's going to last two weeks.

I've noticed some confusion about the exact size of Balzac's shelf of books. Everyone who writes an introduction to a Balzac book is obliged to mention his "91 novels and stories", or even just "91 novels". Granted, he wrote a tall pile of books, but do those sound like the same thing to you? One novel and ninety short stories is a lot less writing than ninety novels and one short story. Is this some confusion over the word nouvelles?

Of the 30 works I have read, only 8 are novels (over 200 pages). I don't know what the ratio is for the entire 91, but I would be surprised if it's too different. My actual point is that there's as much good writing in Balzac's shorter works as in his novels.

Look at Colonel Chabert (1832), which is maybe 100 pages. Here, near the beginning, is the first meeting between the Colonel and the lawyer Derville:

"Monsieur," said Derville, "to whom have I the honor of speaking?"
"To Colonel Chabert."
"He who was killed at Eylau," replied the old man.

That's a good start. At his best, Balzac knows to set up a plot. Colonel Chabert, a Napoleonic-era hero, was thought killed at the Battle of Eylau; he actually received a severe head injury. He returns to Paris, years later, to find his wife remarried, his pension gone, any hint of his old life destroyed. He is meeting the lawyer to sue his wife, but for what purpose, exactly? That's the story - what does the old soldier really want, what does he regard as justice.

This is early Balzac - he had only been publishing under his own name for three years. There are two descriptive set pieces that are real Balzac classics. One is the description of the lawyer Derville's office, where we start the story:

"The stove-pipe crossed the room diagonally to the chimney of a bricked-up fireplace; on the marble chimney-piece were several chunks of bread, triangles of Brie cheese, pork cutlets, glasses, bottles, and the head clerk's cup of chocolate. The smell of these dainties blended so completely with that of the immoderately overheated stove and the odor peculiar to offices and old papers, that the trail of a fox would not have been perceptible...

The dirty window-panes admitted but little daylight. Indeed, there are very few offices in Paris where it is possible to write without lamplight before ten in the morning in the month of February, for they are all left to very natural neglect; every one comes and no one stays; no one has any personal interest in a scene of mere routine..."

That's just where Balzac disagrees, that's just what he is interested in. This passage suggests a central tension of Balzac's method. He wants to generalize, to tell us what everything is like, but he can only do it by telling us what this specific thing is like.

Chabert finds himself living with one of his soldiers in a disgusting dairy farm. We get to see it when the lawyer visits:

"Though recently built, this house seemed ready to fall into ruins. None of its materials had found a legitimate use; they had been collected from the various demolitions which are going on every day in Paris. On a shutter made of the boards of a shop-sign Derville read the words, 'Fancy Goods'...

The house had been left in charge of three little boys. One, who had climbed to the top of the cart loaded with hay, was pitching stones into the chimney of a neighboring house, in the hope that they might fall into a saucepan; another was trying to get a pig into a cart, to hoist it by making the whole thing tilt. When Derville asked them if M. Chabert lived there, neither of them replied, but all three looked at him with a sort of bright stupidity, if I may combine those two words."

Maybe the joke of the "Fancy Goods" sign in this repulsive place is too obvious? I think it's pretty great, although the boys may be even better. I don't know. Colonel Chabert has a lot to like, anyway.

There is an excellent French movie of Colonel Chabert from 1994. The great fun of the movie is watching Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant go after each other. But the dairy, the Battle of Eylau, the lawyer's office - they're all there, too, right in front of you.

Old collected editions of Balzac typically top 30 volumes, and that usually omits his early hack work. So I don't mean to say that the man didn't drink enough black coffee and write enough pages. For many readers, this abundance becomes a problem. I hope my guide this week is useful to someone other than me.

All quotations are from the Clara Bell and Ellen Marriage version, available at Gutenberg.


  1. I hope my guide this week is useful to someone other than me.

    Always! Seriously, though, I'm looking forward to this—never tackled Balzac myself.

    Funny to me about the misunderstanding about how much he wrote. I can't imagine confusion like that being caused by the word "nouvelles" except among people with no French. But maybe that is the problem.

  2. This will be fun - two weeks of Balzac, what a treat!

  3. It should be fun. There are a lot of highs and a lot of lows in Balzac.

    That "novels and stories" thing is still getting on my nerves. Who would ever say "Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote 120 novels and stories". It's true - something in that range, at least - but only 5 of them are novels.

  4. Hello fellow Amateur:
    I preferred the film version of Colonel Chabert to the novel, and that's rare for me.

  5. The "Colonel Chabert" movie is superb. Faithful to the novel; acting at its highest level; and a few visual representations (the Battle of Eylau, for example) that are unavailable to a prose writer.

  6. I recently have decided to attempt to read the complete Human Comedy. Using the Delphi Edition of the works of Balzac, there are 40 novels, 31 short stories and 20 novellas. A quick look seems that at most ten or so novels are over 500 pages.

  7. It is a very doable project, not at all crazy. The only disadvantage is that Balzac's quality is so uneven. Not that there will be a lot of bad stories - I hope not - but there must be a couple dozen that are pretty trivial.

    You haven't read "Louis Lambert" yet, have you? That's an early one that is not exactly good - well, parts are certainly good - but is very helpful with Balzac's ideas.