Monday, November 17, 2008

My least favorite Balzac - the angel will slowly perish by the materialization of both natures

The Big Balzac Blog Blowout continues this week with my Balzac Top Two list. But first, as a palate cleanser, I'll briefly look at some Balzac works that I don't like.

Balzac's first novel under his own name was The Chouans (1829), a novel that is directly derivative of Walter Scott. It's set in southeast Brittany under the Revolutionary government, and deals with Monarchist guerillas, backed by England, fighting the Revolutionary army. The subject could hardly be more interesting, but I'm afraid it's just a botch, with a lot of implausible nonsense and a ludicrous romance that turns out to be the point of the thing. A shame. There is one chapter, where the guerillas execute a collaborator, which is intense and excellent, a harbinger of the better Balzac to come. Heck, a harbinger of Tolstoy.

I have almost no interests in Balzac's Big Ideas, his philosophy, and am irritated whenever he inserts them into his novels at greater length than a sentence or two. It all has something to do with Swedenborg and "essences." If you think you might be interested, the place to start is the novella Louis Lambert, in which the young, mad genius of the title is a vehicle for pure philosophizing:

"According to Swedenborg, the angel is an individual in whom the inner being conquers the external being. If a man desires to earn his call to be an angel, as soon as his mind reveals to him his twofold existence, he must strive to foster the delicate angelic essence that exists within him. If, for lack of a lucid appreciation of his destiny, he allows bodily action to predominate, instead of confirming his intellectual being, all his powers will be absorbed in the use of his external senses, and the angel will slowly perish by the materialization of both natures. In the contrary case, if he nourishes his inner being with the aliment needful to it, the soul triumphs over matter and strives to get free."

Hope ya didn't actually read all of that - yuck!

Louis Lambert is the earliest example I know of the "boys at boarding school" genre. Those parts are pretty interesting.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1834), one of three stories in The History of the Thirteen, is the only Balzac I have read that I dislike with intensity. I think it's supposed to be a sort of Marquis de Sade-like Romantic shocker, a deliberately decadent, immoral story. It's finely written in places, but also quite cruel and sickening. I don't even like thinking about it. Thank goodness it was just an experiment.

There are two points to this. First, although I don't like any of these three stories, and actually despise The Girl with the Golden Eyes, they are worth reading for various reasons, The Chouans, for example, as history, or Louis Lambert for, if you like that sort of thing, Balzac's ideas. And they all have portions, at least, that are well written.

Second, this should give some idea about the variety in Balzac's works. He's the great writer of Paris, or of society, or of money - yes, all of those things, sometimes. But he really was a writer of large scope, of subject and form.

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