Thursday, August 20, 2009

A return visit to Balzac's Human Comedy

Not quite a year after the Big Balzac Blowout, I have returned to Balzac, to The Wrong Side of Paris (L'Envers de l'histoire contemporaine), a short novel about a young materialist who is drawn to what amounts to a charitable Catholic secret society. In part I (1845), he learns about the society; in Part II (1848), he is assigned to his first case, which turns out to be tied in with the society's history. The youngster presumably finds a spiritual purpose. The novel is sincere, genuinely Catholic.

The translator of this 2003 Modern Library version, Jordan Stump, writes that he pulled the novel from the Balzac slush pile, the dozens of Balzac stories that have not been translated since the era, circa 1900, of the "Complete Balzac" sets that can still sometimes be found in libraries.

The Wrong Side of Paris is by no means first-rate Balzac, but it does something that I don't think I previously detected in Balzac. The author intended this work to be the final piece of the Human Comedy, and it really does work that way.

I mean something different than the use of recurring characters, or the creation of Balzac's personal Paris that can be found throughout his work. The novel has some of that, certainly, but it is not a reunion of Balzac characters. It is a reunion of Balzac themes.

Hints and glimpses of earlier Balzac novels permeate this one. Sometimes the references are direct. Much of the backstory, for example, is drawn from The Chouans (1829), the first novel Balzac published under his own name. More often, though, I found a similarity of character, or situation, or theme. The protagonist is a weak version of the heroes of Père Goriot and Lost Illusions. The leader of the secret charity resembles an older Eugénie Grandet. Hints of The Country Doctor or The Atheist's Mass appear. I've probably missed many more correspondences. The story adds up to a sort of apotheosis of Balzac's idea of a virtuous life, with his cynics and sensualists and schemers in exile.

The Wrong Side of Paris is obviously not the place to start reading Balzac. My post of suggestions does not need amendation. As a somewhat more advanced Balzackian, though, it was worth my time. And it brings my Balzac Human Comedy reading tally to 31 of 91. At this rate of one more per year, I'll just need - uh oh. Maybe I'll have to pick up the pace a bit.


  1. Each time I hear Balzac mentioned by anyone, I have a weird flashback to the scene in THE MUSIC MAN (the movie version) in which the character played by Hermione Gingold turns up her nose and complains that the young generation has taken the reading--"Balzac!"

    As for myself, Balzac is a missing line item on my inventory of reading accomplished. Obviously, given your enthusiasm for the fellow, I'm missing out on something significant and entertaining.

  2. Ah, right, that's it, The Music Man, thanks. I just came across this bit in Owen Parry's Faded Coat of Blue, the first of his Civil War mysteries (p. 213):

    "There were three books by that Balzac fellow, too, in new translation. They were piled up shameless, for all the walking world to see."

    I knew that gag wasn't original to Parry, but the earlier source escaped me. Or maybe I was thinking of The Simpsons:

    Homer: Marge, name one successful person in life who ever lived without air conditioning.
    Marge: Balzac!
    Homer: No need for potty mouth just because you can't think of one.

    Anyway, yes, Balzac was a sloppy stylist enthralled by bad ideas, yet his best books are among the best ever written. I still don't see how that works.

  3. 31/91? Impressive indeed! I can boast a grand total of... 0/91... um. Wait.

  4. 0/91? Then hie thee to "The Passion in the Desert".

    Just 8 to 10 pages or so, and you're at 1/91. Plus, it's a great story.

    Online text here.

  5. I'm saving a small stack of Balzac to get started on in two weeks when my maternity leave starts and into the Fall. For some reason The Human Comedy (and by this I mean only the title) seems appropriate for a few months when I won't be getting much sleep. Otherwise, I love Balzac's writing so I think it will make good up-at-all-hours reading material.
    And a Balzac slush pile?!? How could the translator be so fortunate!

  6. My sister-in-law, with a new baby, has found that the exact size and heft of the book turns out to be crucial. I hope your La Comédie humaine volumes fit the bill.

    It seems extraordinary that so much Balzac is only available in English in that 1901 "Complete" set. Extraordinary until I note that the English Human Comedy fills 49 volumes.

  7. I found this a day or so and was wondering if you agree at all
    "So, you have to imagine Roland Barthes, an important heavy-weight critic but with a tendency to be a little bit cheeky, looking along his bookcase and thinking about the kind of books he most disapproved of. His eye inexorably strays to the chunkster works of Balzac, a great, verbose realist, in the mould of a Tolstoy or a George Eliot or (slightly more arguably) a John Steinbeck. And he realizes what’s been bugging him all these years about this kind of fiction. Balzac’s works are a prime example of literature in which the reader is a passenger on the slow-moving river of an author’s prose. With Balzac, the reader never has to think at all, not beyond the basic mental exertion of making sense. Everything is explained, everything is given. Balzac considered himself as much a social historian as a novelist, and he delighted in lengthy asides in which he explained the role of women in society or the value of art, or what people thought about bankers in those days, so one was never in any doubt as to how to evaluate his characters or what happened to them. Vast descriptions of domestic interiors or dress or city landscape completed the comprehensiveness of his imaginary world, to the extent that the reader barely had to imagine at all. This extreme passivity on the reader’s part was a product of the ‘readerly’ qualities of Balzac’s narrative and Barthes didn’t much care for it. He thought you might as well be in a coma, and dreaming."

  8. I don't know enough about Barthes and have never read him, so I should not comment on him too much. As a fanciful recreation of the thought of Barthes, the passage is probably reasonable, although there is a lot of Barthes I do not understand, particularly why certain very specific forms of complexity are valued so strongly over others that seem just as difficult or productive. But I am an Appreciationist, so of course I would say that.

    As a description of the best works of Balzac, the passage is wildly wrong. Much of what great theorists do seems to be based on creative misreading, so I'm not surprised.

    Eugénie Grandet or "The Passion in the Desert" are not slow moving and do require the reader to think. Readers in comas, or who barely imagine the interior of the Grandet's house, will read these works badly. The extreme passivity of the reader of Balzac is an invention of Barthes.

    And honestly, the idea that someone comes away from the operatic A Harlot High and Low thinking "Ah, realism"! One point of my Big Balzac Blowout was that Balzac is a big writer who does more than one thing.

    Hey, litlove, we're talking about you behind your back.