Review of The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0940322749 (ISBN13: 9780940322745)

Easily the best entry point into Balzac’s impressive oeuvre, these two short novellas display the key features of this literary master’s ability.

The first feature is astounding, complex description, and the second is dramatic, intelligent dialogue. The latter is worthy of a grandiose stage play and the former is often as striking as a prose poem. Combining these approaches, Balzac allows the characters take on intense life during the simple dramatic context he constructs.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” provides the perfect setup for Balzac to discus (or show off) what he knows about artistic form and composition. At the same time, he displays these very architecturally sound qualities in his own writing. The characters are vivid in the extreme and the descriptions are superb. Balzac casually casts aphorisms and pithy pronouncements into intricate tapestries of sentences until it takes effort and concentration to grasp the far-reaching concepts he’s simultaneously lassoing in amid the interplay of ideas. Though he argues there is often an unbridgeable gap between conception and execution, he proves the exception to the rule by expressing with utter perfection lucid concepts and splendid thematic irony. Many artists have few affinity with the historical figures from the 17th century depicted in this story including Picasso and Cézanne.

This edition includes an excellent, if not essential, introduction providing additional historical context.

“Gambara” is the second, longer novella. Its focus pertains to music, though many of the pronouncements made by the eccentric characters echo those of the first piece. Taken together, they are both complementary and contrasting. With playful humor, the author contrives basic scenes to give his disproportionately ingenious characters a soapbox, and it is a joy to read their sinuous arguments and philosophical rants. Balzac is a consummate stylist, who with grand gestures and crystal clarity deepens verisimilitude. In this quick read, the expression of intelligence is everywhere in evidence.

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.

Review of Séraphita [And Louis Lambert & The Exiles] by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 1873982410 (ISBN13: 9781873982419)

Rarely have I seen such wise arguments, such logical rhetoric, such splendid lyricism, such sincerity – even within the pages of Balzac

Seraphitaseraphitus is one of the author’s personal favorites, or so he said, and it is clear he had a fascination with the hermaphrodite figure in history. Apply this to a Shakespearean love triangle and you get a very interesting work of fiction. Unfortunately, the plot is of secondary importance. This is more of a philosophic text than anything else.

We are at first presented with a majestic landscape in Norway. Some of the most luscious descriptions in Balzac’s oeuvre. Then the characters come into the scene, displaying as much wit and intelligence as any of his stock geniuses. “Human granite hems in the sea of intellect.” They start sermonizing, and simply following the train of logic from one point to the next makes for a rewarding journey.

Have people really changed at all since the beginning of time? Balzac doubts. This short novel, and the other novella and short story in the collection, cast light on the mystery of sentience, and serve as a contemplation of the Creator’s methodology in man and nature. They are starkly grounded in earlier centuries than our own, but radiate the charm of antiquated argument.

Fantastical though it is, Seraphita proved the exception in Balzac. Strict realism proved the rule, but this delightful tale makes one wonder how much fame he would have attained had he confined himself to supernatural subjects. Balzac was well-informed and well-read in every subject of life, it seems, and brings his knowledge to his characters, who never show but superficial ignorance.
Balzac the historian. Balzac the scientist and mystic. He put on every hat as he struggled to exhaust the forms of life he perceived in the human animal. The dialogue partakes of the same grandiosity as the detailed descriptions. The personalities swell to encompass their times. As is clear within fifty pages, Balzac expressed great confidence in Swedenborg’s theories and proceeds with an extended essay, Swedenborgian in inclination, inspired by that philosopher’s superhuman literary accomplishment. Even if this slide away from his original subject was unwarranted, it offers much historical and lyrical interest to the uninitiated.

Louis Lambert, the second novella, is an enchanting chronicle of a precocious boy of uncommon intelligence in a militaristic, monastic boy’s school, which, we are led to believe, mirrors what we know of Balzac’s strained childhood with a level of detail nothing short of astounding.

Childhood complaints become allegories as manhood’s struggles. It is a comedy fraught with pathos and much memorable Dickensian satire, which further reinforces Balzac’s tendency toward mysticism in its later pages, succumbing to philosophical eccentricities, as Louis Lambert, in a disturbing analog to Balzac’s own questionable beliefs, derails his own genius.

I can see why Balzac’s connection of Mesmer’s theories to the spiritual realm led to critical controversy. Though many of Balzac’s theories appear harebrained from a modern viewpoint – (“perfumes are ideas”) – you can’t fault his logic. Taking up phenomenology and religion, in the loosest sense, his breadth of learning and powers of articulation easily qualify him as a genius. It’s easy for us to scoff at the geniuses who believed the world was flat, but where would we be without them? From our high tower of contemporaneity, we can look down on Isaac Newton if we choose. Balzac’s theories of “Suspense” (potential energy) and electrical impulses in the brain seem old fashioned, absurd and comical – but he took them seriously, he culled them from immense troves of reading, and adapted them for his fiction. Much of the time, he made what he found kosher for his ecclesiastical purposes.

“By trying to create gold the alchemist’s created chemistry.” – By misstepping in many of his theories, he crafted eloquent fiction. In the end, this book reads almost like apologetics and is not a representative work or the best starting point in his corpus. You will still find very glossy prose, of course, but this is a side-story to the Human Comedy.

The germ of inspiration for some of Strindberg’s ideas is evident. That author was just as obsessed by Balzac as he was by Swedenborg. Balzac discusses the separation of the material from the spiritual world at length, as well as the problems of considering eternity in conjunction with man’s mind and co-eternity and anterior eternity and much else which requires deeper familiarity with Swedenborg’s religion.

Balzac posits that in human love there is something of the divine, and that which cannot be understood must be interpreted as witchcraft by men. Sometimes there is poison in the interpretation. Pure love, such as Seraphita engenders, is angelic, but Wilfred’s interpretations, his involuntary participation, lowers it to the human realm. The mystical impressions Balzac depicts are representative of the soul’s flights and descents in response to otherworldly impetuses. He held Seraphita in greater esteem than Goriot, as a character, and sweated over the novel far more than the several other books he wrote simultaneously. Somewhat dated in a few offhand racist and misogynist remarks, the plot and characterization fall by the wayside as 100 pages of philosophical debate ensue. But I still recognized the literary merit.

It also insinuates part of the underlying motive of the Human Comedy: that is, reconciling Spiritualism with Materialism. One finds throughout his work characters wrestling with these 2 forces.

Like his mouthpiece, Louis Lambert, Balzac deviates greatly from religious doctrine and partakes of playful speculation. This is all to say he undertakes serious moral arguments. He is a sound adjudicator and a convincing rebel.

Through his characters, one detects underlying doubt. There would be no need to expound at such length if he were merely novelizing. Moralizing is closer to what he is doing. He is spouting off his bottled up unreconciled anxiety in the guise of artistic experimentation.

His critics said: “His was an untutored, unrestrained intellect, deeply curious about the occult sciences, about mesmerism, astrology, animal magnetism, mysticism, and alchemy, but uncontaminated by science and commonsense.”

The dig about commonsense is false, and he obviously knew his science and mathematics. But that does not mean he did not twist what he read. Just for the inherent romance of wild landscapes, Balzac is a painter with words worthy of esteem.

He pinpoints some excellent juxtapositions: inertia versus motion, granite and the sea, within his lengthy, majestic descriptions which prefigured Naturalism, there are enough verbose and grandiose moments to justify his wild eccentricities. His is always concerned with the fascinating phenomena of human nature, depicting the feeling and intellect of his characters, their earthly pursuits and those of the hereafter. Mingled with the melodrama are universal truths, allegorized with exquisite precision. The tangibility of man’s ideas, our dichotomous natures, the mingling of unlike substances, bring out Balzac’s powers in excess.

In Louis Lambert, the speechifying is reminiscent of Hamlet’s. Man’s constituent propensity to contemplate god more than he contemplates himself echoes throughout literature, and the inspired Lambert internalizes the literary ideals of Balzac. Balzac’s brand of escapism, involves life and imagination proceeding from the power of the word. We draw out its meaning and expand upon it with our interpretations, and through this the evolution of modern languages and symbols took shape, from hieroglyphs to rhetoric. This is the heart of Lambert’s early argument. The imaginations of children in the ability to transport the senses was recognized and exploited by the author as his characters live out the axiom: “Our spirit loves the abyss.”

The abyss of death, the void of the hereafter, the religious ideals and the earthly restraints we feel in our daily existence all contributed to Balzac’s lifelong pursuits.

Review of A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0140442324 (ISBN13: 9780140442328)

There is a singular “textual pleasure” in reading Balzac, once you’ve acquired the taste. It’s decadent.

In this unofficial sequel to Lost Illusions, Balzac exercises his capacity to depict psychological tortures. Though I have not read the first novel in this sequence, the four parts of Harlot High and Low vary in quality. There are 43 characters in this volume, many of whom appear elsewhere in the Comedy under other aliases or simply the same name. It is a crucial work in the body of Balzac’s writings, but probably not as important as Lost Illusions, which is his longest single book.

Has there ever been a time when the justice system was not in need of reform? Reading this got me thinking back to other books. People have a habit of writing about all the harm the prison system does to a person, rather than any good it might have ever accomplished. This has been true, seemingly to a greater degree, since Balzac’s France.

How dismaying it is to see everyone, time after time, looking out for themselves in exclusion to everyone else. The author has cast light on the ugly bits of the human psyche before, but in this iteration, human vice is the modus operandi of the novel.

The ins and outs of financial corruption are also reminiscent of our own time. Have our human flaws remained consistent since 4000 BC? Balzac posits it is so. Every form of bribe, fudging the accounts, graft, and other financial trickery is represented here in spades.

The common subjects to be found in Balzac include: finance, business, history, fashion, drama, religion, ideal love, familial relations, and social hierarchies.

As usual, he is waxing poetic on every other page. His languorous prose, deep in pathos, gravitas, and dependably deep themes, is rapturous. Can a person be purified? We have been asking this question for millennia. Harlot High and Low explores the reasons why people fall into sin, despair, depravity, or how in turn they might ascend to the ideal, the divine, attain man’s higher nature, the angelic, and what part, if any, money plays in the equation. Man’s material obsession is inescapable, his lust for power and satiation, mingled with the chimerical forms of love correspond to our darkest discontents and our holiest dreams. The methodology of the devil, in human form, is expounded in the well-rounded characters, each of whom have their own stakes and motives for seeking to control others.

The very clear references and connections to Romeo and Juliet may seem trite nowadays, but there is also the oft-used archetype of Mephistopheles and Faust. This book is not simple enough to be summed up as a retelling of anything. It is in fact, quite convoluted. The structure of Balzac’s human labyrinth fits in well with the style of what he calls the “severe luxury” of the aristocrats he satirizes.

The flitting play of vanity is occasionally amusing to watch, but after a while, the joke grows stale. Various incarnations of greed in endless forms, make their appearance throughout literature, and they must be expressed through interesting characters in order to be relevant. Most of the time, this book accomplishes that. These scandalous characters cultivate scandal like some people raise tomatoes.

Part of the author’s method is contrast and juxtaposition: Sin and baptism, prostitution and marriage, crime and charity, often mingling virtue with vice in the same character. There is a prevalent double-standard, wicked dames and masters of disguise, to add intrigue and Dumas-ian grandiosity.

The male characters have a very serious weakness for women. No surprise there. And most of the women have a weakness for Lucien. This felt odd to me. Probably because I have not yet read Lost Illusions. Anyone who is human has a weakness for money, except for the Baron, for whom money is a defining character trait, a strength, mere bird seed to be distributed liberally to the flocking hordes.

The book also contains rich interpretation of Rabelais, mentions of Moliere, Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. In these we can detect some of Balzac’s literary idols. Then there is the satire on police, politicians, aristocrats, prostitutes, priests, and bankers.

Subtlety, where warranted, and ever-present humor of the dry, witty variety. The powerful men are in thrall to the women whose only source of power is their beauty. They wield it with the same ruthlessness as the men wield their inherited powers. It was nice to see the character of Asia play a major part. Her manipulations resulted in much of the novel’s powerful interactions.

In Balzac’s time, social status came with proscribed behavior. Etiquette was paramount. Class, wealth, position: these were the pursuits of men and “great” ladies, and so often led to a lack of virtue, sympathy, a dearth of wisdom and inflexible greed.

The obsession with money and beauty can only go so far in a novel. Luckily, there is charm and tension to spare. I won’t lie and claim that parts of it did not bore me. It is a long book, and requires analysis to best be appreciated. One of the challenges is the fact that the 4 parts do not sync up perfectly. Balzac did not write them all at once, and their focus, where they do not intersect, can swerve far afield.

There are plenty of fancy dress balls and snooty operas if that’s what you were hoping for. I preferred Part 3. It was both morbid and mundane.

Part 4 went on an interesting tangent about argot and its uses. This part either inspired a little of Les Miserables, or borrowed from the same sources. Mesmerism makes another appearance. Aliases come into play heavily in the latter part of the book. It was nice to finally leave the character of the Baron behind. His excessive display of groveling was unbearable. I greatly disliked this character and and hold him solely responsible for what might be considered the flaws in this near masterpiece.

Some police procedural segments occupy the second half as well. It relies more on Lucien and Herrera than our titular harlot. I plan to read Lost Illusions, to get a glimpse of some of these characters at earlier stages in their tragic careers.

The trope of the great police inspector was just emerging. Les Miserables made use of the same real life examples as did Balzac, as the translator claims. I would however, recommend Hugo’s book over this one.

The unintelligible accent of the Baron, which the translator assures us, is just as execrable in French was the defining unpleasantness of my reading experience. It was the bird poop in the soup, the anchovies on the pizza. I consider it a flaw in translation. Even if Balzac made a mess of the Alsatian accent, the same accent can be approximated with verisimilitude and still be readable. It is not necessary to switch around the letters of every word to give the sense of an accent. Dickens offers many examples of how to switch a couple words in a sentence to convey just the right amount of accent.

As another examination of the animal in man, of the concept of the clothes make the man, there are few examples which shine as brightly as Balzac’s. However, I would by no means consider this a must-read, even within the Human Comedy. I think he touches on most of these themes elsewhere more succinctly. Chivalry is not exactly thriving in Paris at this time. I felt the same sickness of boredom as his characters on occasion, but it was nonetheless pleasant to luxuriate in the atmosphere he flawlessly conjures in his fiction. The Torpedo is an entertaining character and her rippling affect on the men around her is highly amusing. This is, at bottom, an unconventional portrayal of prostitution for its time, which has been superseded by other novels which trade classical tropes for accuracy.

Men of action incline toward Fatalism, Balzac warns us. Watching Nucingen being bled dry was disheartening, considering how many of the upper-class elderly are so often preyed upon by the younger generation. But how much of his situation was his own fault, resulting from his petty animal instincts? “Prettiness conceals horror.” This line stands out as representative of his plight, which he chooses over his own security.

“A bit of morality does nobody any harm. It’s the salt of life to people like me, just as vice is to the pious.” Lines like this make up the bulk of Balzac’s dialogue. As impossible as it is to imagine real people speaking so eloquently, the conciseness adds to the rhythm. You can easily see the havoc a properly worded letter can wreak on a person’s life in this book. It makes it easier to reflect on our own time, having perused the accounts from previous centuries. With our faces glued to our phones and screens, sending thousands of messages per day, receiving information from all sources like living computers, yet preserving many of our basic functions, our changing family structures, the differences in lifestyle, art and how we distribute our wealth. These comparisons keep Balzac relevant.

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.