Livres Lu – Mar 21 (Balzac, Première Partie)

I’d say that in English Balzac is more or less entirely represented by the following books: Pere Goriot, Eugenie Grandet, Cousin Bette, The Chouans, Lost Illusions, Ursule Mirouët, and of course my favourite, The Wild Ass’ Skin. There are a few books of short stories too (though these are rare) and I even have copies of César Birotteau and Cousin Pons, but I’d guess, with the notable exception of The Wild Ass’ Skin, all these books (though I can’t say I’ve read them all) fit very nicely into our view of what makes a realist novel – just as Balzac fits very nicely into our view of what makes a realist novelist. – But what about all the other things he wrote?

Louis Lambert (June-July 1832, pp.102)

Louis Lambert is still realist in a sense, but not exactly the sense we conjure in our minds when we think of a realist novel. Told by a narrator reflecting back on his school-days, when he was friends with a boy called Louis Lambert, who was supposedly a child-genius (at one time sponsored by Madame de Staël), it relates Lambert’s life, as far as our narrator knew it, sometimes through recollection of his own direct observation, sometimes through Lambert’s crazy theories (spoken or written), sometimes through Lambert’s passionate love letters.

I enjoyed the parts about their school-days. If I said they reminded me of anything (aside from my own), it would be something out of Robert Musil: – two boys cut themselves off from their fellows, interested only in themselves and the world of their philosophies. Unfortunately, these philosophies are related at length, and I’m not sure it was just a failure of my French which made me skip quickly over these sections (wouldn’t I have equally skipped over them in English?). Like the Anatole France last month, I struggle with philosophy in books – and only hope to reach again some clearing of story-telling where I can once again see the sun. Those passages however become increasingly sparse during the course of this narrative.

I wonder whether Balzac intends us to take any of this seriously. At first I thought maybe he did (why else go on about it?), but considering how the story turns out, perhaps he intends only to take them for childish fanatic nonsense; for I guess it’s all really part of the story. The last parts of the books are like something out of Schopenhauer or Wittgenstein (Balzac goes on about Swedenborg, so maybe it’s like Swedenborg), and maybe I can’t be faulted for passing over this without much understanding, since even the narrator confesses that some of it’s only comprehensible to “certain spirits habituated to leaning over the edge of the abyss, in the hope of perceiving the bottom” – which has never been my inclination.

I read somewhere that Proust was influenced in his conception of the method of his work by the writings of Balzac, and there are certainly passages in this where one sees the kind of thing that might have been of interest to him, for instance the following sentence:

A qui n’est-il pas, maintes fois, arrivé de penser à une chose futile et d’être entrainé vers une pensée grave par des idées ou par des souvenirs qui s’enroulent?

To whom has it not, many times, arrived of to think to a thing frivolous and of to be dragged towards a thought serious by some ideas or by some memories which roll themselves up? (My translation)

Maître Cornelius (Nov-Dec 1831, pp.72)

Like the above, this appeared in Nouveau Contes Philosophiques, but while it’s clear why you might describe Louis Lambert as “philosophique”, it’s difficult to see how the same term could be applied to Maître Cornelius. In fact, it’s difficult to see why it’s included in La Comédie Humaine in the first place, assuming the purpose of the sequence is Balzac’s analysis of his own time and mores, since it’s entirely set in 1479. (The notes in my edition are a little troubled by this too: they put it down to a vogue for all things medieval inspired by Hugo. Apparently it has much more in common with other non-C-H drolatique stories which Balzac was also writing at the time). Unless of course you take all books, no matter when their subject, to be examples of their own time and mores (in this, Balzac seems to be re-appraising the character of Louis XI). Anyway, it’s a basic love story mixed with a kind of detective plot (with Louis XI as the inspector of police), such as you might indeed find in a medieval romance and all those Italian short stories so beloved of Renaissance playwrights.

La Bourse (May 1832, pp.31)

I thought maybe this would be a satire about the stock exchange, but it was a story about a man who falls first off a ladder, then in love with a girl, who lives with her mother in straitened circumstances. Love takes its usual course in these things. There’s some interest in the interiority of the emotions which are being explored. – In general, I’m finding Balzac has this interest in the experience of being in love; and perhaps his idea of philosophy is simply the contemplation of one’s own emotions and memories.

Madame Firmiani (February 1831,  pp. 94 – so it says, seriously it’s nothing like 94 pages, maybe 20-30)

Another basic love story. A man ruins himself (seemingly) over a beautiful woman, and his uncle investigates. Balzac has great fun at the beginning characterising this woman in the many different ways that the different types and classes of people in Paris see her (i.e. entirely constructed out of rumour and prejudice).

Avant-Propos (1842, pp.)

It’s as well, if I’m going to read through La Comédie Humaine, to understand what Balzac supposed it to be himself. So here’s his preface. – Apparently, in the same ways there are lots of different kinds of animal, so they are lots of different kinds of human-beings; and after all, human-beings are more interesting than animals, because all animals do is chase after other animals, whereas human-beings paint pictures and things like that. Walter Scott already has lots of different kinds of people in his books. What’s missing from the histories of Rome etc is an understanding of their general mores – we just don’t have an idea of their social life. This is something the writer can do, by writing about all kinds of different people and things (about 3,000 should be enough). Not merely this, but the writer can explore the causes of why all these different people are as they are (though Balzac does not claim to have necessarily achieved this).

What’s kind of interesting is that this preface contains what I’d take to be an outright denial of what I’d consider to be realism (realism à la Zola, I suppose). While Balzac explores (and defends his exploration) of humanity’s dark side in his work, he claims that the artist, unlike the historian, is able to be idealistic – things can turn out as he wishes them, and not as they did, according to his plan. (L’histoire n’a pas pour loi, comme le roman, de tendre vers le beau idéal). Balzac’s plan for society is based on two principles: Christianity and Monarchy. (Democracy is never going to work); – the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished, in the end. (Certainly most of the books I’ve read so far have had unsatisfyingly happy endings). – Not things then as they are, a straight depiction of society, but things are they should be in the ideal of the artist. But all the same, while you can base your work on a greater lie, you have to make the details faithful to life. (Mais le roman ne serait rien si, dans cet auguste mensonge, il n’était pas vrai dans les détails). This is what makes Walter Scott tiresome, because all his woman are so virtuous – and this is basically because he’s a protestant, and not a catholic. 

Balzac then recounts all the different sections of his overall scheme: – and indeed, we find the philosophical is intended to look at the motive force behind society.

I suppose then I was wrong, and we should take what Louis Lambert was going on about seriously: – Lambert was mad, but he was mad because he saw the truth.

Le Message (Jan 1832, pp.14)

I was thinking this was a denial of everything Balzac had just been saying: a person who is entirely virtuous had their life destroyed by an entirely random event. But then I realised she was having an affair, so it was entirely right she should pay for it.

La Femme Abandonnée (Sept 1832, pp.39)

Balzac’s view expressed that the only life which a woman who’s committed adultery can enjoy is one of constant penitence and acknowledgement that forever after she must live outside a society which can only shun her and where she can find no pleasure. Any action to the contrary will lead to misery, for her and for others (though possibly they might be years of pleasure to be enjoyed first, which can be conveniently skipped over in a few lines). I can’t help be reminded by this of last month’s La Dame aux Camélias – how different the attitudes of the two authors are: Dumas sees the prejudices of society as the destructive elements in people’s happiness; Balzac sees people’s actions as destructive to their happiness (even though they were miserable in the first place), and the prejudices of society are entirely correct. (More on this in the next part of the month – at least I’m guessing, from the beginning of the next story).

In this half of the month I’ve ended up reading most of what Balzac wrote in 1832 (according to French Wikipedia, though as the dates above will show, some was actually written in 1831): – as far as I can see, I’ve only not read for this year Le Colonel Chabert and another 12 short stories outside La Comédie Humaine. I think 1832 was actually quite a slow year for Balzac.

4 thoughts on “Livres Lu – Mar 21 (Balzac, Première Partie)

  1. My impression is that, in English, Ursule Mirouët has dropped off that list and the so-called Harlot has replaced it, in part because of increased interest in Vautrin.

    Like you, I wondered if Balzac could “mean it” in Louis Lambert, and eventually concluded that he did, that this was a pretty direct statement of belief. And that regardless, the boys’ boarding school parts are the good parts.

    I’ve got to read that Avant-propos.

  2. Yes, maybe I haven’t seen a recent version of Ursule Mirouet; and I’ve certainly seen A Harlot High and Low (not really sure it’s a perfect translation of the French title). I’m interested in reading this latter – I liked it’s Proustian sounding sub-titles.

  3. I remember a critic — whose name escapes me — saying once that ‘Balzac deserves to be seen not only as a novelist, but as a great creator, on par with Shakespeare.’ Actually, I don’t remember the exact quote either. With this sentiment though, that Balzac has the stature of a Shakespeare, would you agree now that you have read so much of ‘La Comédie Humaine’? It’s interesting if true; for there is the trad idea that ‘la littérature française’ lacks the sun-like figure of a Shakespeare, a Goethe or a Pushkin.

    I do hope you start posting again.

  4. Thanks. I’ll post occasionally I suppose, without any particular rhyme or reason.
    I haven’t really read much of Balzac. So far I find 2 differences from Shakespeare: 1) Balzac had much more of a specific view of how people should behave and the consequences of this behaviour, whereas Shakespeare is more naturalistic; 2) Balzac’s range of people seems generally more limited. Perhaps this second point won’t turn out to be true, but I’ve found so far that Balzac’s demi-monde / working-class character are merely there as a foil to his middle/upper-class character. I don’t find he’s interested in them in themselves, only as they impinge on middle/upper-class society, unlike Shakespeare and, say, Zola.

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