Reading Honoré de Balzac, I asked myself the same question I asked upon reading George Eliot, “How is it that no one ever recommended this author to me?” Balzac is one of the great 19th century French authors, considered one of the founders of literary realism, and known for his series of over 90 works called The Human Comedy (La Comédie Humaine). The works in this collection (mostly novels) are divided into sequences which focus on a specific sphere of French life, such his “Scenes of private life” or his “Scenes of Parisian life”. The volume I just completed, Eugénie Grandet, falls into his “Scenes of provincial life”. Upon learning this, I was instantly reminded of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which bears the subtitle A Study of Provincial Life.
This novel was a delight from the beginning with descriptions that moved the story forward and characters were either likeable or entertaining. As an example of his descriptive ability, here is an early account of a servant:
As a cooper he was a judge of physical strength, and he foresaw the use that might be made of a female built like Hercules, planted as solidly on her feet a sixty-year-old oak tree on its roots, wide-hipped, broad of back, with a carter’s hands and a sturdy honest as unquestionable as her virtue. Neither the warts which disfigured Nanon’s warrior-like face nor her brick-red complexion, neither her muscular arms nor her rags and tatters, dismayed the cooper, who was then young enough to be still sensitive to misery.
One of the main characters in the book is a miserly cooper, with a wife and daughter. Whereas Silas Marner features a miser who is tired and jaded, the miser in this book is active and cunning, pulling off tricks which are horrible (and effective) but make one smile at the absurdity of his love for money. Balzac uses the most dramatic comparison to illustrate the miser’s horror at learning that his daughter can reckon his wealth and suggest it be used for another:
The astonishment, the wrath, the stupefaction of Belshazzar when he saw the writing Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin on the wall were nothing compared with Grandet’s cold fury when he found the nephew he had forgotten all about occupying a place in the inmost thoughts and calculations of his daughter.
Like George Eliot, there is an attention to the wider community in which the characters dwell, and the effect that the characters (and their wealth) have on their neighbors and relations. Even religion, without taking a central place, plays a realistic role in the lives and motives of the characters. Whereas Eliot’s main characters often have an “intellectual conversion” at some point in her novels, that does not happen here. Instead, Balzac shows how a single encounter out of the ordinary can transform the hopes and desires of a person, changing the unseen meaning of a life that may externally continue as if nothing had ever happened.
All of Balzac’s works are available in English, and often in very inexpensive editions. Has anyone else read him? Any recommendations on which novel to pick up next?