Two by Balzac

As I write from the exotic-sounding but none-too-exotic city of Kalamazoo, the memory of the first novels I read this year brings to mind some journeys to more exotic places. They are two novels from Balzac: one obtained from a used bookstore at ground level of a mall in Jerusalem, the other bought brand new at a train station bookstore at Florence. Though I picked them up during quiet moments on planes and trains, I finally finished both of them on the island of Ischia (off the coast of Naples) which itself has a story worth telling.

wild skin

The Wild Ass’s Skin, obtained in the used bookstore, itself starts with a lengthy account of a shop filled with antiquaries. After hitting a low point and seeking to end his life, the protagonist takes one last look at the baubles and decorations in this shop, and Balzac wastes no opportunity to turn his observations into a paragraph of a pages with descriptions of curves and colors and origins, before bringing attention to the eponymous pelt. The man who owns the skin has his every wish granted as the skin shrinks, and thus begins a novel which explores the tension between man’s desire and the limits of his time and resources.

This novel is fantastic (that is, it centers around an element of fantasy) and so does not have the same charm as Eugénie Grandet which is all too real, and yet it is fun to see Balzac show off his powers of description and tragedy in a very different setting than that novel.


The other novel, Colonel Chabert, was purchased primarily because of its brevity which gave me some confidence that I could actually finish it this year! Though it does not have the fantasy of The Wild Ass’s Skin, its premise presses the limits of reality. A man, fallen in battle and buried, is presumed dead as his wife marries another man and carries the fortune of the deceased man into a new family. But wait! A man shows up at a lawyer’s office, claiming to have awoken in darkness and clawed his way up from the grave, and indeed claims to be the very Colonel Chabert who was reported dead. Given my scholastic interest in presumptions and legal fictions at the time, the novel immediately caught my interest by centering around the (often reasonable, though sometimes erroneous) presumption of death and its juridic effects. The novel is quick and a pleasant entry point for someone new to Balzac. A line near the end is worth paraphrasing here: “The only three persons who have no illusions about man are doctors, priests and lawyers. They have all seen men at their lowest, but whereas a priest may see a man experience conversion, a lawyer sees him fall to the bitter end.”

Both of these titles are among the two-thirds of my books that did not make the trans-Atlantic journey to my new personal library. The titles which made the cut were primarily unread novels (that are likely to be read) and resources useful for work (mostly collections of Italian essays on canon law). Among these are two more works of Balzac, Le Père Goriot and Droll Stories, both of which I hope to read soon! More to come as I start to get settled…

[These titles are #28 and #29 on my classics reading challenge.]

5 thoughts on “Two by Balzac

  1. Yay! A post by Maximilian. Perfect for me. I have Pere Gorot but have not read it or anything else by Balzac. Now you gave me choices. I loved the quote.
    Enjoy settling into your new home, organizing the books and your space.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment! I currently have a few stacks of books in the corner waiting eagerly for a bookcase to arrive. If you liked Emilia Pardo Bazán, then I think you will also like Balzac when you arrive at him. I’m looking forward to Galdós after reading your last post, but now the local librarians are making recommendations too!


      • So nice to get that bookcase and find the perfect place for your friends.
        I believe I would like Balzac. They call Bazán a Spanish Balzac or a precursor of naturalism.
        You won’t regret having read Galdós. Nazarin is short. Fortunata and Jacinta has four parts of 200 pages or so. Once you read the first 100 pages you won’t be able to stop. (I couldn’t, LOL)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Isn’t it fun, to associate certain books with the places where you read or acquired them? I have a few like that myself.
    I really enjoyed the review. I’ve read a little Balzac (Cousin Bette & Eugénie Grandet) and enjoyed him but somehow never got around to reading more. Partly, I think, it’s a question of where to start, or what to read next, as he wrote so much. I’ve heard (without knowing much about it) of Colonel Chabert, which sounds really intriguing (it reminds me a bit of The Return of Martin Guerre, an historical account of a famous 16th century imposture). The Colonel might be a good choice for my next Balzac novel (not, alas, any time soon). The Wild Ass’s Skin was quite a surprise, as I wouldn’t normally associate the word “fantasy” with Balzac! It too sounds quite interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review, thank you – I have some Balzac on my classics list, may be next year. I’d like to hear the story of Ischia when you have a moment, I hope you’re settling in to your new surroundings


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