Friday, November 21, 2008

I want to read more Balzac, but what?

Well, not necessarily right now. But let's say that, at some point, I decide that 30 Balzac storives out of 91 are not enough. What should #31 be?

Over the last couple of years, I've seen a lot of sentences that start "Among Balzac's novels are..." followed by four or five or six titles. I have never seen the same list twice, never. They almost all include Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet. Most include Cousin Bette; otherwise, anything goes.

Penguin Classics publishes, or used to publish, a bunch of Balzac novels I haven't read: The Black Sheep, The Country Doctor, A Murky Business, Cesar Birotteau. What are these like?

A few years ago, Modern Library published a new translation of Balzac's last novel, The Wrong Side of Paris. Someone must think it's good, although it's hard to tell from this A. S. Byatt "review." Hey, look at what she says: "he seems unapproachable and vast - the Comedie Humaine contains 81 novels." See, there it is again! If a 10 page story counts as a novel, then Balzac may have written 81 novels. Otherwise, not even close.

Sorry, I got distracted. Oh right, here's a strange example. Roland Barthes's S/Z is a book of semiotics, and something I have no business reading, but it is apparently based somehow on a Balzac story called Sarrasine, about a castrati singer; the book even includes the text of the story. Did Barthes use it because it's a really good story, or because it serves some other analytical purpose?

Anyway, recommendations are much appreciated. What Balzac have you read, what was it like? Was it good? Was it - dare I hope - Eugénie Grandet good? If you can direct me to some Eugénie Grandet-grade Balzac, I would be in your debt.

One more note on Balzac on Monday, a roundup of the roundup: advice on where to start.


  1. Enjoying the Balzac Blowout, but haven't given it the focus it deserves, and I should probably go back to the "21" under the Balzac tab and get the full wuthering experience.

    Can't help out on any suggestions--my own limited Balzac covers, at best, the big names that you've mentioned. Rastignac trilogy and Cousin Bette--that's probably all I've really got. You're making me want to read Grandet, but can't say when I'll get around to it (struggling mightily with The Bostonians currently, and want to read more SOJewett). There's Pons and Chouans and Ass's Skin (are the last two the same thing? don't remember)--that's 7. I think I have a copy of "History of the Thirteen" somewhere--how about that one? Has never looked very appetizing. And you're doing excellent work on the smaller stuff, obviously, much like you were just doing with Hawthorne. Excellent work!

  2. My problem with The History of the Thirteen
    is that the one piece of it I've read (of three), "The Girl with the Golden Eyes", I really loathe. but there's no reason to think that the other two parts are at all related. So that's a good possibility.

    I haven't mentioned The Wild Ass's Skin at all. It's a strange one - some passages are real duds, but the fable (there are magical wishes involved) accumulates power as Balzac works it out, and by the end it's got some intensity.

    Grandet is short, if that's any encouragement, a breeze compared to The Bostonians!

  3. I inherited from my grandparents a set of the complete works of Balzac. As a teenager, I decided to read one of the "novels" so, not knowing Balzac, I chose one at random. I read "A Marriage Contract", about a guy who marries a beautiful woman he falls in love with who ends up not caring anything about him and only marries for money. It didn't really stick in my mind all that much, except I do remember thinking "Wow, this is pretty cynical".

  4. In one of his modes, Balzac is extremely cynical. A little shokcing sometimes, even knowing his work.

    Père Goriot is actually about that cynicism - the path by which it develops, and the justification for it. It is, among other things, an argument for cynicism.

    So is Lost Illusions, as one might guess from the title.

  5. I have only recently descovered this blog and I have noticed your question about some Balzac novels which Penguin no longer prints. Well I have read a few of these since I bought and read them when they were still in print. The Black Sheep and Cesar Biroteau are both excellent books and well worth reading. The latter is particularly topical since it is about a businessman who goes broke via property speculation with borrowed money. Cesar Biroteau does for the banking industry what Balzac does for publishing in Lost Illusions, with the main character meeting various bankers.

    The Black Sheep is about a disputed inheritance. It is set partly in Paris and partly in Issoudun. It is also about the relationship of two sons to their mother, so it is a variation on the relationships in Pere Goriot, except that there is a good son and a bad son.

    I have also read A Murky Business, which I found dissappointing. It is set during the Revolution so I was really looking forward to it, but it was a let down.

  6. Thanks, Ed, for the notes - maybe Cesar Birotteau or The Black Sheep will be next.