A New York Review Books Original
Characters from every corner of society and all walks of life—lords and ladies, businessmen and military men, poor clerks, unforgiving moneylenders, aspiring politicians, artists, actresses, swindlers, misers, parasites, sexual adventurers, crackpots, and more—move through the pages of The Human Comedy, Balzac’s multivolume magnum opus, an interlinked chronicle of modernity in all its splendor and squalor. The Human Comedy includes the great roomy novels that have exercised such a sway over Balzac’s many literary inheritors, from Dostoyevsky and Henry James to Marcel Proust; it also contains an array of short fictions in which Balzac is at his most concentrated and forceful. Nine of these, all newly translated, appear in this volume, and together they provide an unequaled overview of a great writer’s obsessions and art. Here are “The Duchesse de Langeais,” “A Passion in the Desert,” and “Sarrasine”; tales of madness, illicit passion, ill-gotten gains, and crime. What unifies them, Peter Brooks points out in his introduction, is an incomparable storyteller’s fascination with the power of storytelling, while throughout we also detect what Proust so admired: the “mysterious circulation of blood and desire.”
The Human Comedy is the NYRB Classics Book Club selection for January 2014.
Another Study of Womankind
The Red Inn
A Passion in the Desert
The Duchesse de Langeais
The great thing about work this entertaining is that it’s still exciting nearly 200 years on.
—Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
These tales provide the reader a healthy introduction to Balzac’s famous hyperbole, his melodrama, and his extended descriptions and explanations where nothing goes unsaid. We don’t read Balzac for his refined style; rather, his genius lies in the sheer ambition of his reach, the vastness of his grasp.
The characters and sentences still leap from the page as if they were trapped there just seconds ago. It’s just choosing where to begin….Happily, in The Human Comedy: Selected Stories, Peter Brooks has managed to capture this enormous range and more by plucking a mere nine of the Frenchmen’s best tales. There is a good range on display here, as broad as the Napoleonic Empire. Dandies and duchesses discuss the decline of aristocratic mores at a dinner party in “Another Study of Womankind.” In “A Passion in the Desert,” a soldier lost in the Sahara stumbles upon an oasis, which he discovers is inhabited by a panther. Out of such tales one can see how Balzac was the great-grandfather to writers as diverse as Colette and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
—The Boston Globe
I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists, and statisticians put together.
In Balzac, every living soul is a weapon loaded to the very muzzle with will.
Large as Balzac is, he is all of one piece and he hangs together perfectly.
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.