The Human Comedy, a selection by Peter Brooks of nine short works by Honoré de Balzac, might well serve as a point of entry into a body of work that, however central to literary studies, seems increasingly neglected by English-language readers. Brooks’s selection is artfully chosen to give a sense of Balzac’s dominant preoccupations and the stylistic range he brought to bear on them. Mostly written in the early 1830s, as happily fecund a period as Balzac was to know, they include—as Brooks notes in a sharp and extremely helpful introduction—some of his most extreme forays into the delineation of sexuality, obsession, and madness.
A sculptor falls in love with a castrato opera singer whom he mistakes for a woman; an erotic bond forms between a panther and a French soldier lost in the Sahara; a man tries to cure a woman’s madness by recreating the battlefield where she was traumatized; a duchesse and a military officer execute a prolonged dance of desire and withholding that culminates in irrevocable mutual suffering. A good number of them—“Sarrasine,” “A Passion in the Desert,” “Facino Cane,” “The Red Inn”—are outliers in the grand scheme of La Comédie Humaine, but they radiate a particularly concentrated and unsettling light.
To read these nine stories in juxtaposition with one another is to gauge both the insistent force and the resonant recurring themes of Balzac’s storytelling. When he is not the Ancient Mariner of fiction, balefully buttonholing you until his tale is told, then he is another Scheherezade, dangling a string of glittering details as he glides out of one story and into another. Stories within stories within stories are the norm here, stories that carry with them their own internal commentaries, and commentaries on the commentaries.
The book has the further great merit of presenting the stories in new versions by three gifted translators, Linda Asher, Carol Cosman, and Jordan Stump. Balzac has been revisited only sporadically by American translators; much of his work, in fact, is to be found only in translations, both antiquated and inadequate, dating from the nineteenth century. Many of the widely available Penguin and Oxford editions of some of his better-known novels have themselves been around for a while, and sometimes create the effect of reading Balzac through a scrim of Britishisms. With his prolixity, his grandiose flights and seemingly pedantic digressions, his fantastic accumulation of descriptive bric-à-brac, Balzac is not the easiest writer to bring across, and each of these translators has found subtle and effective ways to convey his shifts of tone and rhythm and rhetorical stance.
The Balzacian canon can appear forbidding simply by reason of its vast extent. In the current Pléiade edition, the interlocking novels, stories, treatises, and unfinished sketches that make up La Comédie Humaine are published in twelve volumes adding up to…
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