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Wed, Jan. 11th, 2006, 06:01 pm
Balzac: Where To Begin

Gooberfishbowl asked for a suggestion of where to begin with Balzac, and I found myself wanting to rant instead of just suggesting a book or two - so here goes. Hopefully this will be useful to other folks too!

When you’re thinking Balzac, the first thing to realize is that he’s often considered the first great literary realist - but he’s a realist of a very certain sort. If you’re approaching these books expecting a “naturalistic” eye for character, dialogue, or plot, you’ll be quite disappointed. There are few things he loves more than the melodramatic gesture, and many of his stories build on very old archetypes rather than taking the more vignette-oriented modern approach to realism. For example, Pere Goriot is built heavily on the story of King Lear. The Cordelia figure may be male, and a carefully observed social climber, but he’s also developed in certain ways for sentimental and dramatic reasons. This is not a bad thing - but you should go in with your eyes open!
The second thing to realize is that Balzac wrote the ninety books and twenty-odd short stories of La Comedie Humaine in twenty years. That makes his output about four books a year - which means that many of the books are really not very good. None of them are bad, but you do definitely want to be careful about where you begin. Starting with the wrong Balzac book could very well put you off him for good!

That said, I’d suggest you start with a duology which is one of Balzac’s best works: Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low. These two books follow Lucien de Rubempre as he, well, loses his illusions - among other things. He comes to Paris as a poor young man and travels through many different parts of the social sphere, giving Balzac room to do what he does best: illuminate the social world around him with a witty aside or a sharply-drawn character, while taking the poor hero of the story on a roller-coaster ride through the plot. Balzac isn’t afraid to be hard-core, and these books give him ample opportunity to do so.

After that, I’d suggest moving on to Zola for a brief moment rather than continuing with Balzac, and here’s why: Zola takes a rather different approach to realism. Rather than flamboyance, Zola finds interest and humanity in the small, telling detail. Even when he’s melodramatic (for example, the striking miners in Germinal), he’s melodramatic on a smaller and more accessible scale. The books may not be as exciting, but it’s easier to picture real people in the situations he portrays. Also, it may be refreshing for you to get away from Balzac’s consistent adoration of the aristocracy; Zola is an unabashed populist who sometimes gets carried away by his beliefs, but if you don’t mind his constant cynicism about human nature, his ideas are often easier to deal with. I’d suggest beginning with Nana, Zola’s most controversial novel (it’s about - gasp! - a prostitute) which is also a nice contrast to Balzac’s “harlot.”

After that, if you’re looking for more Balzac, I’d suggest the “Cousins” duology, Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons. The two novels take on the theme of family and family responsibilities, but play them out in very different ways. Bette is a grasping schemer, Pons an innocent old man, but both are placed in conflict with their families over the things they care about the most.

Finally, I’d also recommend Eugenie Grandet, the very first Balzac book I ever read and still one of my favorites. It’s a classic story about the conflict between marrying for money and for love - but done with Balzac’s sure touch and his insight into the world of his time. I really enjoyed it, and writing about it is making me want to re-read it!

I do, eventually, plan to read all of La Comedie Humaine - but those are the high points I’ve hit so far. If you need more recommendations, there’s definitely a “tier two” of good-but-not-mindblowing Balzac. Just let me know!

The moral of the story, by the way, is that I can easily be induced to rant about books at great length at fairly short notice.  Whee!