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 some 16,000 pages of text. (Four additional volumes of comparable length, with at least two more on the way, are devoted to his correspondence and a portion of the writing that is not part of the Comédie.) It is hard not to be overwhelmed at the outset by the mere scale of the oeuvre—not merely by its horde of characters but by the intricacy with which their fates are interwoven with every social and political detail of Balzac’s era—and then further overwhelmed by contemplating the prodigy capable of creating within little more than a couple of decades a territory that it can take the better part of a lifetime to explore in depth.
As Brooks notes, the writer’s own creative impetus is implicated in the evocations of madness that abound in his work: “Again and again Balzac makes us privy to a fear that his teeming imagination may lead him over the brink.” Such an outcome is never hard to imagine, since to read Balzac with the kind of attention he solicits is to risk being caught up in his own fiercely concentrated excitement and obsessive omnivorousness. He may finally persuade you that—like his creations the alchemist Balthazar Claës (The Search for the Absolute) or the mystical philosopher Louis Lambert—he is engaged in a task not merely world-embracing but of cosmic import, to be accomplished, if at all, only at the price of madness.
Where to enter such a labyrinth? There are so many potential points of ingress, not all of them advisable. A reader might find himself in some faded suburban byway or deserted hunting lodge wondering how he got there, and how far he is from the city center. Many alternate lifetimes are secreted within La Comédie Humaine and more than a few are dead ends, studies in frustration and defeat (no one caught rueful provincial isolation quite like Balzac). There is no doubt that from a certain angle he can be the most disheartening of writers, with his cautionary tales about how easy it is to be the victim of forces not fully grasped, whether embodied by the neighbors next door or by one’s own insistent cravings. Reading many of his novels can be like watching a train wreck in very slow motion. We perceive long in advance, almost from the outset, that Mme Descoings in La Rabouilleuse will be defrauded of her lottery winnings and that the goodhearted musician Schmucke in Le Cousin Pons will be stripped of the valuable art collection he has inherited, but Balzac insists that we register each incremental stage of the process.
It is not just a question of where you enter, but when. Balzac is not necessarily a writer who speaks to the optimistic energies of youth. I recollect an early encounter in a bar with an old traveler with a rasping voice—himself almost a character out of a Balzac story—who in between more or less convincing accounts of his experiences in the back country of Java exhorted me again and again to read Balzac if I wanted to know what the world was really like. At that point I had already begun in a small way, reading Le Père Goriot in a cheap and brittle 1930s reprint from my father’s bookshelf and deciding I did not much love it. At fourteen I wanted bright colors, expansive melodrama, and feverish self-expression, and found instead airless constricted boarding-house bedrooms, oppressive furniture, a diagram of mean calculation. If other nineteenth-century novels suggested a parallel world one might fantasize living in, Balzac’s world seemed on first glance all too real and uninviting, a place of drab surfaces and meticulously inventoried suffering.
A few years later I was to discover ample color and expansiveness in La Peau de Chagrin, with Balzac as tour guide through an inferno of Parisian orgies and casinos, conjuring up ecstatic fantasies of self-destructive excess. As the 1960s wore on into their own phantasmagoric phase, Louis Lambert seemed to blend indistinguishably into the amphetaminized atmosphere, as Balzac’s genius child and alter ego who remembered every thought he had ever had and through a kind of second sight had the power to extract the reality of things from reading alone, “as if he had really seen them.” In similar fashion over the years a Balzac novel would loom like a signpost over one turning point or another.
As a young poet adrift and clueless, I read with horrified fascination the scene in Lost Illusions that charts with cruelly protracted accuracy the debacle of Lucien de Rubempré’s misguided attempt to read poetry to an audience of indifferent provincial property-holders. On lunch breaks from a tedious mechanical job, I absorbed, as if under protest, César Birotteau’s step-by-step lessons in the terrible and unavoidable power of money. Later on, slightly more settled into the world, I submitted to the fate of Xavier Rabourdin in The Bureaucrats as a depressing demonstration of how nearly impervious large systems are to change.
Yet even after taking so much from those books I felt as if I were reading Balzac against the grain, wanting him to be a different sort of writer than he was, faulting him for long-windedness and digression, tuning out his extended riffs on animal magnetism or Swedenborgian doctrine and his monarchist political editorializing, reacting unhappily to what seemed abrupt or haphazard plot developments. I wanted him to hurry it along, tidy it up, bring it to a neat and emotionally satisfying conclusion; if possible I wanted to mainline the gist of what Balzac knew of the world without having to make my way through the ramifications of his paragraphs.
There were moments when it was not hard to agree with Flaubert’s profoundly ambivalent declaration: “What a man Balzac would have been, had he known how to write! But that was the only thing he lacked. An artist, after all, would not have done as much, would not have had that breadth.”1 By the same token it was not hard to find the exquisitely pared-down Sentimental Education a more aesthetically rapturous experience than any Balzac novel, as if Flaubert had figured out how to write the book that Balzac would have written, had he known how to write.
With Balzac, of course, given that breadth, you can always start over in a different place, on a different corner. One day, quite randomly, I began again by reading the opening pages of “A Double Family” (an early story not included in this collection) and surrendering to the description of an obscure and tortuous Paris street, so narrow that any rainfall floods it and washes up a water dark with household waste against the base of the houses. With the patience of a naturalist Balzac explains how a permanent layer of mud forms because the thin rays of sunlight that penetrate the street are not enough to dry “the permanent humidity that reigned from the ground to the first floor of those black and silent houses.”
Piece by piece he establishes the street, pointing out in passing the vestiges of great iron rings to which in an earlier historical period a chain was attached to seal off the street for reasons of public safety. Ever so gradually he shifts his focus to the window of a particular ground floor apartment through which an old woman can be seen every night heating up a stew while her daughter sits in a chair doing the embroidery on which their livelihood depends.
As if he had clambered through the window, Balzac proceeds to walk through their dwelling, examining its furnishings, and sketching a life of cloistered poverty that, even as he describes it, is already reaching a turning point, as a random encounter precipitates a complex domestic drama that will end in tragedy some sixty pages later. That initial gaze from the street through the window, that propulsive entry into the space glimpsed from outside, the mapping of how the lives lived within it join up with others, and with larger legal and social structures: all this was executed as if it were one protracted gesture. No part of this—that layer of undrying mud, or that remnant of a chained-off street—was less important than any other, and each was to be taken in as patiently and deliberately as necessary.
To read this way was to submit to Balzac’s progression from one sentence to the next, allowing each successively illuminated detail its full sway as it came into view: to read in extreme close-up. Another approach is to go from the outside in, taking the Comédie as a gigantic map, tracing its network of social and genealogical relations, noting the large and small ways in which its characters appear and reappear, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes just passing through a crowded salon. (The intermingling of his characters from book to book, his happiest invention, was like a form of wiring imparting energy to even the most outlying stations of his world.) In such an overview one looks down on the work from above, savoring the design imperceptible from any one point. It is a science in itself, and to gain that perspective there is nothing to be done finally but to read all the novels, all the stories, and once drawn into the scheme it is hard to resist doing just that.
The great value of Brooks’s The Human Comedy is to permit a preliminary reconnoitering of Balzac’s world focused not on the grand plan but on the minute particulars of a given episode or sentence, and to find in doing so that Balzac is an architect on every level, as much in the description of a face or a table setting as in the plotting of dynastic intermarriages or financial takeovers. He can shift effortlessly from the most grandiose overview to the tiniest physical tic. In “The Red Inn”—as the story is just beginning its progression toward considerations of guilt-ridden innocence and unpunished crime—he can spend a paragraph taking inventory of the unconscious mannerisms of diners who have just finished their meal, as they toy with the silverware, pinch a bit of bread between their fingers, or line up fruit pits on their plate, a seemingly innocuous passage that perfectly foreshadows a mood of complacency in the vicinity of evil.
He is an architect so sure of himself that, not untypically, in “Another Study of Womankind,” couched as the account of a Parisian dinner where guests swap stories, he can cobble together a number of quite distinct earlier texts and make them yield richer meanings by juxtaposing their disparateness. Such disparateness is entirely to his purpose, generating a page alive with potentially contradictory meanings—a battlefield of language—in the same way the human world provides a spectacle convulsive with opposing desires and contending wills. The internal contention is palpable. An undertow of digression tugs at the narrative as if to deflect it from its main course—there is no thought that cannot be further subdivided, no image not apt to generate a succession of further variants—but it is matched by a primordial determination to push forward, to see the story played out to its last exhausted measures.
Such pages should be read as a poem, but a poem capable of digesting the discursive style of every kind of text: gothic adventure, libertine novel, satiric caricature, sentimental romance, instruction manual, scientific treatise, mystical tract, gossip column, political editorial, historical or economic or geographic sketch, and (unannounced but pervading everything) confessional memoir. The tone weaves in and out of passionate sincerity and jaded worldliness, philosophical solemnity and sardonic humor. The Balzacian voice is always choral because he is in himself already a multiplicity. He responds to his own assertions, engages in complex dialogues with himself, with his characters, with other writers living and dead. Even the simplest story will be refracted through diverse viewpoints and, as Brooks notes, the story isn’t over even when it’s over: “These stories, which often show us humanity in extreme situations, are also about the power of storytelling—and about the effect of that power on those listening.”
When he ventures a simile to clarify an emotion or a situation, the simile turns out to be in itself another story. One destiny evokes another; alternate lives are scattered promiscuously about in a tangled garden of metaphors. A servant with a secret to hide is compared to “the young infanticide with her child’s last shriek still ringing in her ears.” A man carrying a message from a dead man to a woman who turns out to have already died is reminded of “a scream deep in the desert from a lone traveler set upon by a lion.” A woman intent on safeguarding her inheritance stands guard over her husband’s deathbed “like that insect that carves a spiral pit in soft earth and waits at the bottom for its doomed prey, listening for any falling grain of sand.”
A place can be found for the most indigestible matter, every sort of muck and debris, the contents of every cellar and attic. “There is,” as Henry James observed, “nothing in all imaginative literature that in the least resembles his mighty passion for things—for material objects, for furniture, upholstery, brick and mortar.”2 But Balzac’s is a transfigured materialism; inanimate objects glow with a haunting life in his telling of the world, even if what they communicate is terrifying because it confirms the vanity of human cravings. In “Gobseck”—a tale of the power of money and thus appropriately the most thing-ridden of these stories—we are given a succession of still-life pictures of absence. A countess’s bedroom reveals traces of evanescent pleasure: a bearskin rug “upon which gleamed two white satin slippers flung down carelessly in exhaustion,” stockings twined around an armchair, a half-spread fan, open drawers showing flowers and diamonds and gloves.
A dying man’s room is strewn with “pillboxes empty or full, smeared flasks, scattered undergarments, cracked plates, an open warming pan on the hearth, a bathtub full of old mineral water…. Death had become apparent in objects before it invaded the person.” And then we come to the extraordinary end of the usurer Gobseck himself. Balzac—chronically indebted, often by his own mad spending sprees, and so bedeviled by creditors that he lived half the time on the run—has throughout the story created an almost mystic aura around Gobseck, as a man of peculiar probity and even genius whose insider’s discourses on his trade become a rambling aria rooted in the great theme of money:
You believe in everything; I believe in nothing…. For anyone who’s had to leap into a multitude of social molds, convictions and moral rules become empty words…. Do you think it’s nothing, this power to see into the most secret recesses of the human heart, to engage another person’s life, to see it all stripped naked?…My gaze is like God’s: I can see into their hearts. Nothing is hidden from me. No one refuses the man who ties and unties the purse strings…. Life is a machine fueled by money, is it not?
Yet Gobseck—“a phantasm, the very power of gold made flesh”—ends by succumbing to the madness of greed he had so cunningly exploited, as he in turn lies dying in a house overflowing with stockpiled delicacies, “rotted pâtés and masses of food of all sorts,… fishes sprouting mold…. Worms and insects crawled everywhere.” At moments like this, so carefully prepared by the piling up of small circumstances, Balzac’s realism becomes an apocalyptic poem fully justifying Baudelaire’s encomium: “I have often been amazed that Balzac’s great glory was his reputation as an observer, for it always seemed to me that his principal merit lay in his being a visionary…. All his fictions are as deeply coloured as dreams.”3
Balzac’s writing has always an unfinished or unfinishable quality symbolized by those famous page proofs on which the printed text is almost obscured by his rewritings. We feel we are not reading a final work but merely the latest form of something he would never, but for the constraint of mortal circumstance, have stopped rewriting. La Comédie Humaine trails off into uncompleted novels and a large sheaf of sketches of novels barely begun, while in the stories he completed there are endings (deaths, final defeats, irrecoverable losses) but scarcely anything that could pass for a resolution. The sufferings of Balzac’s characters, the clutchings of avarice, the recriminations of disappointed desire or thwarted ambition, can be imagined as persisting in some eternity of hungry ghosts. If in the story “The Duchesse de Langeais” death did not finally interrupt the “sentimental warfare” of Montriveau and the duchesse—that agonizingly drawn-out struggle of one will against another under the sign of love—it would go on forever, an absurd chess match whose endgame might be infinitely extended.
“The Duchesse de Langeais” makes a fitting final entry in the collection, exhibiting as it does what Balzac could do at greater length and at his most inspired. It is a story conceived in resentment, Balzac’s literary revenge on the Marquise de Castries, who in his not necessarily reliable perception had toyed with him before rejecting his advances, and, through her, revenge on the class of ingrown aristocrats she represented. The duchesse is
a woman artificially educated but in reality ignorant, full of lofty feelings but lacking any thought to coordinate them, ready to brave society but hesitant and in the end artificial in bowing to her scruples.
The man she ill-advisedly selects as her plaything in a game of protracted erotic teasing is the socially awkward Armand de Montriveau, African explorer and survivor of two years of desert captivity, a man whose “speech was concise, like the language of solitary people or savages.” The naive but implacable Montriveau becomes Balzac’s surrogate in a series of scenes whose nuances of emotional parrying and sexual frustration are described with a lushness of language that magnifies the tiniest flickers of response to achieve a kind of masochistic grandiosity. Slow to anger, he is finally driven to threaten an act of physical punishment that, as Brooks notes, “might figure in The Story of O.”
Yet Balzac’s story takes him far beyond any simple motive of revenge; the spiraling attacks and counterattacks take both characters through shifting levels of escalating and warping psychological struggle too extreme for any salon, levels that Balzac renders finally through the figurative language of melodrama while resisting any formulaic emotional coda. The organ music that plays a crucial part in the narrative seems to pervade the whole story, providing an analogy for the way all the harshly contradictory elements of feeling are kept in contrapuntal balance. A body weighted with cannonballs is thrown over the side of a boat, to elicit the response: “This is now nothing but a poem.” When he wanted, no one could be more expressively compressed than this most prolix of writers.