Review of Selected Short Stories by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac, I have found, is one of those authors you can read for your whole like, like Dickens, spreading out the oeuvre as necessary

Balzac’s books, in my opinion, are not to be consumed like snacks or junk food. They are hearty vegetables, often not terribly exciting, but vigorous and nourishing. One can become enamored with his style or one can become distracted, depending on one’s enthusiasm for the everyday lives of 19th century people.

Balzac died at 51, after working 20 years on his Human Comedy, comprising 90 works, and rising to the rank of greatest French author in many critical opinions. For much of his life he was fighting off debt, and 2 months before his untimely death due to overconsumption of coffee, he married a rich Polish countess. He produced 50 short stories, and we have 12 selected here. At first this selection appeared meager and insignificant, but further along in the slim volume the value compounded.

In summation, this is a fabulous depiction of the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie. Balzac drops aphorisms and well-sprinkled witticisms throughout his calm, collected recounting of lives. He is a vastly intelligent writer, on the level of Chekhov, with a subtle wit rarely equalled. He captured the people and key details of his time astutely. Unlike Anatole France, Balzac confined his subject to a set period, wishing to give the fullest picture of a slice of history, concerning almost entirely the French characters he was familiar with, picking and choosing from real life and his imagination as necessary, conjuring perfect examples with precision. He could discern a person’s key attributes from a single glance, seemingly, and could draw out descriptions for pages where a lesser writer would have dashed off a few nondescript lines.

His stories are often simple. 10 sous can mark the border between life and death. Money and ambition take center stage, as does the honest work of the poor. He describes abject poverty like a pro, and the many guises it takes, its resonating affects upon families and great geniuses, for, as has been said, most everyone in Balzac is a genius. He utilizes melodramatic displays of charity and good will worthy of Dickens. There is much sacrifice, injustice and sorrow mingled with the surprisingly uncommon instances of romance.

There is only one decapitation in the whole collection, which is to say that Balzac is no Dumas. Dumas relied on cinematic gestures, grand statements, and a flair akin to the stage plays I imagine he devoured. Balzac rather, reveled in the tiny tragedies, the heartwarming moments, without entirely neglecting the grand episodes of the climaxes of his novels and the occasional “pulp” story. There is to be found the attendant troubles which come from the sudden acquisition of wealth, and much more in several entertaining stories in the second half of the book. The first half is rather droll, though it contains deep irony and brilliant characters. My rating verged on 5 stars after the final story – an amusing satire on the life of a painter. In short, these stories will not satisfy everyone, but if you are an appreciator of delicate sensibilities, prose which moves elegantly and logically through crystalline storytelling, it is hard to do better than Balzac. Take, for instance this quote:

“…creditors being today the most real shape assumed by the ancient Furies. He wore his poverty with a gaiety which is perhaps one of the greatest elements of courage, and like all those who have nothing, he contracted few debts.”

Much meaning in a tight package. Look to Balzac for both distraction and enlightenment.

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