We think of Honoré de Balzac as the author of long and fully upholstered novels, stitched together into the magnificent visionary document called The Human Comedy. Yet along with the full-length fiction within The Human Comedy stand many shorter works, among the most brilliant and forceful of his fictions. Drawn always to the tradition of oral storytelling—to the human voice telling of experience—and to the kinds of reactions produced in the listeners to stories, Balzac repeatedly dramatizes both telling and listening, and the interactions of men and women around the story told. It’s in the short fiction that we get some of his most daring explorations of crime, sexuality, and artistic creation. As Marcel Proust noted, it is in these tales that we detect, under the surface, the mysterious circulation of blood and desire.
Included here are tales of artists, of the moneylender who controls the lives of others, of passion in the desert sands and in the drawing rooms of Parisian duchesses, episodes of madness and psychotherapy, the uncovering of fortunes derived from crime and from castration. And stories about the creation of story, the need to transmit experience. All are newly translated by three outstanding translators who restore the freshness of Balzac’s vivid and highly colored prose.
Large as Balzac is, he is all of one piece and he hangs together perfectly.
I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists, and statisticians put together.
Balzac was both a greedy child and an indefatigable observer of a greedy age, at once a fantastic and a genius, yet possessing a simple core of common sense.
—V. S. Pritchett
Balzac was by turns a saint, a criminal, an honest judge, a corrupt judge, a minister, a fob, a harlot, a duchess, and always a genius.
All Balzac’s characters are endowed with the zest for life with which he himself was animated. All his fabrications are as intensely colored as dreams. From the highest ranks of the aristocracy to the lowest dregs of society, all the actors in his Comedié are more eager for life, more energetic and cunning in their struggles, more patient in misfortune, more greedy in pleasure, more angelic in devotion than they are in the comedy of the real world. In a word, everyone in Balzac has genius…. Every living soul is a weapon loaded to the very muzzle with will.