Read: A History of the Thirteen, Honore de Balzac.
I’ve had an ongoing thing for Balzac ever since I realized that he was building up a consistent, coherent universe throughout the novels of The Human Comedy. Even back then, I was enchanted by the idea of a persistent narrative universe in which multiple stories can be told. While the novels vary wildly in plot and theme (and quality!!), the same characters reappear, and the plot of one novel might turn out to be important background for another.
Of course, what I forget every time I pick up a new Balzac is how prone he is to rant at truly remarkable length about, well, whatever he happens to be talking about at the time. (My favorite digression from this book involved a long-running metaphor about how France is a young bride who wants to be ravished by her brooding husband the aristocracy. Seriously.) The rants are interesting, but they definitely dilute the plot-to-content ratio of the books. Balzac isn’t afraid of plot, but some of the books tend to be a bit thin on story and heavy on ranting. This was one of them, and most of the rants had to do with class and the aristocracy in Paris at his time. It got me wondering who we’ve got, besides Tom Wolfe, who’s doing the whole broad-modern-sweeping-overview thing of our society. Since we won’t admit to having classes, I think the literary mainstream has largely taken to painting portraits of one man (or one man and all his adulterous relationships, if you’re John Updike) and letting that stand for a larger portion of society. I miss Balzac’s sweep in most of the “mainstream” stuff I read today, and that’s why I’ll always keep coming back to him no matter how ranty he gets.