Review of The Wrong Side of Paris by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0812966759 (ISBN13: 9780812966756)

This lesser-known, final finished Balzac novel comprises 2 halves and is the concluding segment of the Parisian Life chapter of the Human Comedy. There are 3 translations into English with alternate titles, this one being the most recent.

As in most of the author’s work, there is a display of bottomless wisdom, an assured, master’s touch, and an incredible condensation of narrative and pathos. It is, from the start, a condemnation of refined tastes, a repudiation of vanity and empty boasts, and a charming character study. Balzac acknowledged influence from Dickens’ contemporaneous “The Cricket and the Hearth,” and it is easy to see that he borrowed a bit of his English rival’s whimsicality.

But Balzac delves deeper with his themes, I think, and challenges the reader in different ways. Dickens was also a master of capturing his time, of putting relevant themes to good use, but in much of his work, he wraps the literary innovation into the form of a fable. Some of his novels lack the immediacy of Balzac’s work. Balzac’s Realism feels more real. At least to me.

Here we have our hero putting on a show for propriety, cultivating an impressive reputation, but also failing at managing his finances. Finances are the great obsession of the human race, and Balzac’s Comedy derives its modus operandi from this principle. Our main character must put on a brave face, as he faces ruin. All he wants is to make a splash on the Paris scene, but he is floundering. The inertia of the mediocre life assaults him with its inevitability.

The ruination of business ventures and disenchantment with hopeful works is also explored in the first part of the book. Dissolute children, wayward sons, prodigal offspring, the onslaught of melancholy, advantageous marriages, impending old age, the social plight of the invalid – these concepts are given their turn throughout. Finding success from the strength and works of others, the morality of wealth, making your own luck, society’s inherent flaws, unbridled disdain for the historical precedents of class hierarchies, established orders and moral strictures – Balzac manages to incorporate far more imperatives than I anticipated.

Along with an analysis of ambition, failure, talent, perception, societal duties, expectations, the privileged versus underprivileged roles in their community, the unfair distribution of ability, wealth, fame and hardship, bitter familial relationships, false modesty, dandyism, and the values of the monastic life, envy and self-important rage, the impotent existence of ambitious youth – what, seemingly, has he left out? Godefroid, the drowning man, finds his saviors in an unexpected form. Not surprising, many of these literary views intercept one another. It would be a jumbled concoction, except Balzac is a consummate weaver of tales, and knows how to subtly introduce tributaries of meaning without drawing attention from center stage.

Yet, as side characters rail against the seductions of ordinary Parisian life and overflow with didactic, preachy critiques, Balzac’s unorthodox Catholicism begins to take shape. Balzac has cherrypicked specific principles for a melange of hypothetical Good Samaritans. They pointed claim in the novel they are not Good Samaritans, but for lack of a better comparison, they could be called that for the sake of shorthand. Balzac crafts a compelling narrative around this secret society of charity. It’s a simple formula: have them go out and put their faith into practice, and one wonders if Balzac would have lived longer, if he would have followed the adventures of these fellows for many more volumes. All we know is that this was a definitive end to the Parisian segment of his Comedy and of the 40 or so unfinished works he left behind, these characters did not return for encores.

The question of decency in the world is present throughout the Human Comedy. So far I have not found a better example in his corpus of backstory revealing the characters’ motivations and relationship with society. The backstories were riveting, and served as a counterpoint to the main character’s decision making.

The inevitable disappointment life has in store for the man of means: That sums up Godefroid. This being a reversal of the traditional harrowing upward struggle of rags-to-riches stories. Could this be an answer to Dickens’ idealism?

Balzac lived in the long age of Chauvinism. But his female characters are well-rounded, thick-souled beings, very influential and heartfelt. Patriotism is omni-present – the point of the Human Comedy after all is to measure up to Dante’s Divine Comedy, but to bring it down to the human level. The devotion to a life of goodwill toward men – Dante was familiar with the concept. But in Balzac’s fabulous appraisal of the lives of selfish and selfless saints and sinners, he seems to understand the full impact one soul can have upon another. The subsuming of the baser instincts in Man is a common literary trope, but through obedience, subservience, meekness, the humble joys of service, industry and heartfelt relationships of Platonic love, we can observe a side of humanity we rarely see. This is an exquisite study of religion, which has wider application for its vague precepts. It is hard to live a life in this modern age without either patently ignoring or pursuing the allure of divinity. The only question that remains unanswered is whether or not it is another ambition born from a fear of death, a vain hope indeed. No matter where you find yourself on the question of faith, this book is a pure expression of humanness, and another notch on Balzac’s amble belt.

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