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Balzac has been called "a realist in the observation of material facts," but "a Romanticist in his invention of plot and incident..."

    -ESSAY: Realism in France (Ernest Boyd, March 21, 1923, New Republic)
He had the advantage of living in an age of revolution, which made the passing of the old order starkly perceptible. Born a few months before Napoleon's coup d'état brought a halt to the French Revolution -- while consolidating its liquidation of the ancien régime -- Balzac came of age during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after Waterloo, and wrote most of his fiction during the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philippe, which followed the Revolution of 1830. His novels generally are set during the restoration but were written after its demise -- written with a sense of its impending doom, its inevitable closure and the coming of the age that will ever be characterized by Francois Guizot's words, as Prime Minister, to his fellow citizens: 'Enrichissez-vous.' Make money, get rich.

Balzac was a self-proclaimed reactionary, a monarchist who wanted to restore all the hereditary rights of the aristocracy and a Roman Catholic. Because of his reactionary stance, he was able to perceive all the more sharply the decline of the landed gentry, the coming of the cash nexus and the end of what he nostalgically saw as an ordered, organic society with each person in an assigned role. The new era was one of convulsive egotism, the cult of the individual personality. His fictional philosopher, Louis Lambert, before sinking into sullen madness, formulates a 'law of disorganization' that characterizes the new society. As Pére Goriot raves on his deathbed, nothing matters anymore but money: money will buy you anything, even your unfaithful daughters. No wonder that despite his reactionary views and his fear of the urban proletariat, Balzac has always been a favorite of Marxist critics, starting with Marx and Engels themselves.

The inevitable context of the new was the city -- for Balzac, Paris, where he made his way in 1814, to study law, which he never practiced, preferring to write novels in a garret while he pursued various ill-fated get-rich-quick schemes, including a printing and publishing business that swiftly went bankrupt. Paris doubled in size during the first 30 years of the century, mainly through immigration from the provinces. If some of the new arrivals were ambitious young men like his own creations Eugène de Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempre, drawn to the sphere where talent could prosper and gain recognition, most contributed to the creation of a new sense of a dangerous urban underclass. Paris was becoming a jungle, and Balzac, an avid reader of James Fenimore Cooper, saw himself as its pathfinder.

    -ESSAY: A Monarchist Marxists Could Love (PETER BROOKS, May 23, 1999, NY Times Book Review)
Balzac, for me, is like Trollope: I've enjoyed every one of his books I've read, but am always daunted by the prospect of how small a dent you make in the series by reading just one. Trollope at least contained his Barchester, Palliser, Finn, etc. groupings to a manageable number of books, but Balzac's Human Comedy stretches to over a hundred works if you include unfinished pieces. I particularly enjoyed his most reactionary novel, The Chouans, which I'll have to get around to reviewing eventually, but this one happened to be sitting on my shelf when a typically convoluted string of circumstances brought me to pick it up.

In the first instance, I found an old biography of Balzac at the Thrift Store. Surprisingly, the author is Stefan Zweig, who many of may only know as the inspiration for the great Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Zweig apparently considered this bio to be his masterwork and he portrays Balzac as an artistic hero. I had a copy of Zweig's Beware of Pity that had sat around unread since viewing the movie. It turns out to be phenomenal as well. Reading a Balzac seemed the perfect way to round out this cycle. And this isn't just any old Balzac; it has recently been re-translated--by Jordan Stump--and it draws improbable comparisons to his contemporary, Alexandre Dumas, and Sir Walter Scott, who he in some senses modeled himself after as an author.

As always, the city of Paris is a virtual character in the novel and many of the characters have been irreparably harmed by the idiocies of Revolutionary France. So much, so Balzacian. But the typical element he really leans into here is his religiosity. Our hero, Godefroid, finds himself out of step with the chaotic times and retreats to an odd, hidden boarding house that is run by an austere saintly woman, Madame de La Chanterie. She and her boarders spend their days effecting quiet Christian charity and their nights in cloistered contemplation of Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ. Godefroid seeks entree to the community by studying and then by taking up a charity case of his own. He moves into another boarding house that contains a once-famous retired judge and the paralyzed daughter he hopes to find a cure for. Godefroid's mission is to help them out of poverty and to health.

It is the secret society nature of de La Chanterie's community that makes this as much a thriller as novel of social commentary. Godefroid is practically D'artagnan trying to earn a position with the Musketeers. Meanwhile, the Francophobia of the greatest Parisian makes it a joy for any conservative:
The idea of association, one of the greatest of all social forces, the source of Europe's rise in the Middle Ages, is rooted in sentiments that have withered in France since 1792, when the Individual finally triumphed over the State. Association requires, first, a sense of devotion that is no longer understood in our land; second, an artless faith that runs counter to the new spirit of our nation; and finally, a discipline against which we now inevitably rebel, and which is to be found only in the Catholic faith. We French may well try to form associations, yet no sooner have our countrymen left an assembly marked by an outpouring of the finest sentiments than they begin searching for some way to milk that common cow for their own benefit, making a mockery of that collective devotion, of that union of strengths.
Consider that de Tocqueville had published Democracy in America a few years earlier, extolling American eagerness to band into associations and you get a feel for Balzac's essentially Anglospheric nature.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Honore Balzac (2 books reviewed)
French Literature
Honore Balzac Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Honoré de Balzac
    -BIO: Honore de Balzac (The Literature Network)
    -BIO: Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) - Original name Honoré Balssa (Books & Writers)
    -BIO: Honoré de Balzac French author (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -BIO: Honore de Balzac (Encyclopedia of World Biography)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Honre de Balzac (IMDB)
    -BIO: Honore de Balzac (Blue Pete)
    -VIDEO: How Balzac's Uncensored Novels Defined Post-Napoleonic Life (Perspective)
-BOOK SITE: The Wrong Side of Paris By Honoré de Balzac, Introduction by Adam Gopnik, Translated by Jordan Stump, Part of Modern Library Classics (Penguin Random House)
    -WIKIPEDIA: La Comédie humaine
    -ETEXT: The Human Comedy: Introductions and Appendix By Honore De Balzac (Project Gutenberg)
    -EXCERPT: Assaying a Crowd: Balzac gives an introduction to the world of necessary superfluities. (Lapham's Quarterly)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Atheist's Mass (La Messe de l’athée): A Short Story by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) (Cummings Study Guide)
-ESSAY: Balzac: The Man for My Thirties? (Jeffrey Wald, 3/27/22, University Bookman)
    -ESSAY: This Wild and Crazy Summer, Give in to the Chaos of Balzac: Drew Johnson in Praise of a “Disorderly, Conflicted, Brilliant Clod” (Drew Johnson, April 20, 2021, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: What Is So Special About Balzac’s Thousands of Characters?: Peter Brooks on the Extraordinary Fictional Lives of the French Master (Peter Brooks, September 23, 2020, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: Realism in France (Ernest Boyd, March 21, 1923, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: A Monarchist Marxists Could Love (PETER BROOKS, May 23, 1999, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Honoré de Balzac’s Legendary Love Affair With His Anonymous Critic: Or: How to Marry a Famous Writer Emily Temple, March 14, 2019, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: If de Tocqueville Predicted Twitter, Balzac Knew Trump Would Use It: Liesl Schillinger on Reading Balzac in the Age of Trump (Liesl Schillinger, February 26, 2019, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: Balzac Tried to Buy a Waistcoat for Every Day of the Year (and Other Revelations of Parisian Fashion): On the Absurd and Wonderful Sartorial Habits of a Great Writer (Valerie Steele, September 11, 2017, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: Balzac and the Reassembly of France (Jérôme David, April 10, 2019, Paris Review)
    -ESSAY: Honore de Balzac: A Man of Enormous Appetites (Christopher Guerin, 16 Oct 2008, Pop Matters)
    -ESSAY: “Innocent, gullible, and blinded by illusions”: Honoré de Balzac on the misery of interns in 1841 (Philip Maughan, 29 September 2014, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: Balzac’s Paris: History & Modern Walking Tour (Thierry Picot, Aug 9, 2011, Bonjour Paris)
    -ESSAY: Honore de Balzac and the "Genius" of Walter Scott: Debt and Denial (Edward C. Smith, November 1999, Comparative Literature Studies)
    -ESSAY: Trousers That Are Not Trousers: The Primacy of Materiality in Balzac’s Paris (Michael Breger, 6/9/19, Stanford University)
    -"INTERVIEW": An Interview with Influential French Author Honoré de Balzac (ed Newman, July 26, 2014, Ennyman's Territory)
    -REVIEW: of The Wrong Side of Paris By Honoré de Balzac    -REVIEW: of Wrong Side of Paris (LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Wrong Side of Paris (Stuart Mitchner, Princeton weekly: Town Topics)
    -REVIEW: of Lost Illusions (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Human Comedy: Selected Stories by Honoré de Balzac, edited and with an introduction by Peter Brooks, and translated from the French by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman, and Jordan Stump (Geoffrey O’Brien, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Human Comedy: Selected Stories (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (Richard McCarthy, The Ooh Tray)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Memoirs of Two Young Wives by Honore de Balzac (Morris Dickstein, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Memoirs of Two Young Wives (Ashlee Paxton-Turner, Cleaver)
    -REVIEW: of The Memoirs of Two Young Wives (Polly Dickson, Times Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Treatise on Modern Stimulants by Honoré de Balzac (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Gillette by Honore de Balzac (Christopher Prendergast, LRB)
    -REVIEW: Louloup and minou: An edited review by Mary Duclaux of Ferdinand Brunetière’s edition of Balzac’s Lettres à l’étrangère 1842–44 (first published in the TLS on May 18, 1906)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac by Graham Robb (John Sturrock, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac: A Biography by Graham Robb (PHIL SHANNON, green Left)
    -ESSAY: On the History of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac (Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat, 3/15/11)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac by Stefan Zweig (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (Michael Hoffman, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig (Ruth Franklin, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of OSTEND: STEFAN ZWEIG, JOSEPH ROTH, AND THE SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK by Volker Weidermann (Michelle Fost, Cleaver)

OLD LINKS (2005):

    -Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) - Original name Honoré Balssa (kirjasto)
    -Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) (Wikipedia)
    -ETEXT ARCHIVES: Balzac, Honoré de, 1799-1850 (Project Gutenberg)
    -ETEXT: The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Ellen Marriage (Project Gutenburg)
    -ETEXT: Balzac by Frederick Lawton
    -ESSAY: Labour of love: on the passionate revelations of Honoré de Balzac (Lisa Appignanesi, July 10, 2004, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The History of Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction (William Marling)
    -REVIEW : of Honoré de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece. Translated by Richard Howard (Rhonda Leiberman, Art Forum)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac's Lives by Peter Brooks (Adrian Nathan West, Washington Examiner)
    -REVIEW: of Honoré de Balzac by Peter Brooks (Complete Review)
    - FILM:
-FILMOGRAPHY: Honoré de Balzac (
    -ESSAY: How to Fit Balzac’s Magnificent Universe Onto the Big Screen?: Drew Johnson on Lost Illusions (1843) and Lost Illusions (2021) (Drew Johnson, June 13, 2022, LitHub)
    -REVIEW: of La Fille Aux Yeux D'Or a k a The Girl With the Golden Eyes (1961) (Bosley Crowther, NY Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: Lost Illusions (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:

    -FACULTY PAGE: Jordan Stump Professor of French | French Section Head (University of Nebraska–Lincoln)
    -INTERVIEW: Looking in the Wrong Direction: An Interview with Jordan Stump (Bud Parr, World Without Borders)
    -INTERVIEW: Holding Back Poetic Tendencies: An Interview with Jordan Stump (Graham Oliver, Ploughshares)
    -INTERVIEW: In Search of Marie NDiaye: An Interview with Jordan Stump (Sarah Coolidge, Center for the Art of Translation)
    -ARCHIVES: Jordan Stump (Granta)