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.
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…