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Honoré de Balzac

Discussion in 'Literary Fiction' started by Bick, Mar 26, 2015.

  1.  
    Bick

    Bick A Member of the Forum

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    I did say I would post a list of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine stories along with a few comments, so here goes. I don't know know how popular Balzac is among many here, as he clearly isn't SFF, but if you are ever in the mood for a non genre or classic book, I can't recommend him enough. I only started to read Balzac a while ago myself, and I'm certainly no expert, but I think there is a good case for saying he was one of the finest Victorian era novelist, if not the finest in Western Europe. He has been called the French Dickens, with Dickens similarly being referred to as the English Balzac, but I think he exceeds Dickens. He has less tendency for mawkish sentimentality, but rather tells stories with what, to me, seems like a greater verisimilitude. His output was also far in excess of Dickens, and well, of anyone else really. He was a notoriously workaholic writer, and he wrote over 90 stories in his astonishing "Human Comedy" cycle of novels and short stories. What I have done below is list these works below as either Novels or short stories/novellas, and I have taken the liberty of putting the major works in bold; these bold titles are those which are particularly recommended either by me (i.e. I've read them), or by critical reputation (several I haven't read but which I mean to). Balzac grouped his Comédie Humaine stories into particular cycles, such as "scenes from private life" or "scenes from Parisian life", though there is considerable overlap in characters across the cycles, with some characters appearing, or at least getting a mention, is more than a dozen titles. I'm currently reading "Cousin Pons" and so I'll post some feedback on that later, along with thoughts I have on other works I've read. I'd be fascinated to hear any other feedback from forum readers on these works of course.

    1. Novels
    Scenes from private life

    Gobseck (1830)
    A Woman of Thirty (1832)
    Colonel Chabert (1832)
    Old Goriot (1835)

    A Marriage Settlement (1835)
    The Interdiction (1836)
    A Daughter of Eve (1838-39)
    Béatrix (1839)
    Albert Savarus (1842)
    Letters of Two Brides (1842)
    Honorine (1843)
    Modeste Mignon (1844)
    A Start in Life (1845)

    Scenes from provincial life
    Eugénie Grandet (1834)

    The Lily of the Valley (1836)
    The Old Maid (1836)
    The Collection of Antiquities (1839)
    Pierrette (1840)
    Ursule Mirouët (1841)
    The Black Sheep (1842)

    Lost Illusions (1837-1843)
    The Muse of the Department (1843)

    Scenes from Parisian life
    History of the Thirteen (includes: Ferragus, The Duchess of Langeais, The Girl with the Golden Eyes; 1833-1835)
    César Birotteau (1837)

    The Firm of Nucingen (1838)
    The Government Clerks (1838)
    A Harlot High and Low (1838-1847)
    Poor Relations Pt 1: Cousin Bette (1846)
    Poor Relations Pt 2: Cousin Pons (1847)

    The Seamy Side of History (1848)
    The Lesser Bourgeoisie (1854)

    Scenes from political life
    Murky Business (1841)

    Scenes from military life
    The Chouans (1829)


    Scenes from country life
    The Country Doctor (1833)
    The Village Rector (1839)
    The Peasants (1855)

    Philosophical studies
    The Wild Ass's Skin (1831)

    The Hated Son (1831)
    Maître Cornélius (1831)
    Louis Lambert (1832)
    The Quest of the Absolute (1834)
    Juana, or The Maranas (1834)
    Séraphîta (1835)
    Catherine de' Medici (1842)

    2. Short Stories & Novellettes
    Scenes from private life
    At the Sign of the Cat and Racket (1830)
    The Ball at Sceaux (1830)
    The Purse (1832)
    A Second Home (1830)
    Domestic Peace (1830)
    Study of a Woman (1830)

    Madame Firmiani (1832)
    The Message (1832)
    La Grande Bretèche (1832)
    La Grenadière (1832)
    The Deserted Woman (1832)
    The Atheist's Mass (1836)
    Another Study of a Woman (1842)
    The Imaginary Mistress (1842)

    Scenes from provincial life
    The Vicar of Tours (1832)
    The Illustrious Gaudissart (1833)

    Scenes from Parisian life
    Sarrasine (1830)
    Facino Cane (1836)
    The Secrets of the Princesse de Cadignan (1840)
    Pierre Grassou (1840)
    A Prince of Bohemia (1844)
    A Man of Business (1846)
    Gaudissart II (1846)
    The Unwitting Comedians (1846)

    Scenes from political life
    An Incident in the Reign of Terror (1830)
    Z. Marcas (1840)

    Scenes from military life
    A Passion in the Desert (1830)

    Philosophical studies
    Farewell (1830)
    El Verdugo (1830)
    The Conscript (1831)

    Christ in Flanders (1831)
    The Unknown Masterpiece (1831)
    Maître Cornélius (1831)
    The Red Inn (1831)
    The Elixir of Life (1831)
    The Exiles (1831)
    A Tragedy by the Sea (1834)
    Melmoth Reconciled (1835)
    Gambara (1837)
    Massimilla Doni (1839)
     
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  2.  
    GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    Thanks very much for posting that definitive list of Balzac's 'Comedie' Bick. Very helpful.

    I will try to get a copy of Cousin Pons in the not too distant future but I'll pick up Black Sheep over the weekend.

    Balzac's reputation as a heavy set man and prodigious eater and an even greater coffee drinker is well known as was his incredible energy reserves that allowed him to work hour upon hour to produce such an amazing literary output! In fact it has been suggested that he quite literally worked himself to death.

    I have heard from other people who have read Bazac about the verisimilitude in his writing particularly his ability to shine such an insightful light upon the human character. In fact what we now term overall as 'literary realism'. Not that Dickens was lacking in that area either as Balzac was a definite influence on Dickens who style is of course different. I agree that at times Dickens can tend towards the mawkish (although that may be argued in part due to cultural ties of the time) but I think is still a very great writer with his marvelous imagination, atmospheric prose and incredible word play. Both men of genius even if Balzac's novels are seen by several critics as being the more mature. I will need to read a lot more Balzac (and probably Dickens) before drawing my own conclusions though.

    I quite like the quote from Richard Lehan who said that "Balzac was the bridge between the comic realism of Dickens and the naturalism of Zola". The latter is another whose oeuvre is definitely worth seeking out. I have a few of his novels. In fact I would like to try and read at least one of his novels this year (probably Germinal) along with some Dickens I've been delaying for over 2 years now.

    Cheers.
     
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  3.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Bick, would you care to list three of his best as you have found them? And does the translation matter? I would assume I'd go with Penguin Classics unless warned not to.
     
  4.  
    Bick

    Bick A Member of the Forum

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    Okay, there might be scholars who might think otherwise, but I'd suggest a top three as follows:

    Old Goriot
    The Black Sheep
    Eugenie Gandet

    I'm not sure about translations, but I've exclusively read Penguin black classics myself.
     
  5.  
    GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    I've almost always found the Penguin Black classics to be good sources.....(y) Not that I'm biased or anything....:whistle:

    As I understand it Cousin Bette is also regarded among the best few. Interesting that Cousin Pons is a sequel to it, which is another reason I'm keen to get hold of a copy. While it may seem a little unfair to single out a 'greatest work', Old Goriot seems to have received the most kudos. I have a Norton Critical edition of this as well, which may be better than the Black Classic (in terms of bang for your buck) due to the additional essays they provide.
     
  6.  
    Bick

    Bick A Member of the Forum

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    Yes, to stick a little more commentary on my "top 3" choices:

    Old Goriot is considered his finest work by many and it is both (a) terrific, and (b) quintessentially 'Balzac' in its themes. It is therefore probably often recommended as it seems so representative of Balzac. It addresses issues of greed and monetary aspirations and the moral turpitude that so often results from these drives. Its not only tragic, deep and melancholy but it manages to seem very relevant to today, and it has a brightness to the language and plot - it's certainly not dreary. The characters being well fleshed out and "real".

    The Black Sheep is the Balzac book I think I actually enjoyed the most of the few I've read so far. It's a real thriller, and while it delves into many of the same themes Balzac loves, it also has a more exciting plot, and builds very well. The Bridau brothers live long in the memory, and appear in numerous other stories I think. I think its also very representative of the best of Balzac and his hobby horses, so I think one could well recommend this as an introduction.

    Eugenie Grandet is a very simple tale, from a plot perspective, but I doubt a story of a miser hoarding his gold and its effects on everyone around him has been done so well elsewhere. It's so much better than Silas Marner, to my mind. It reads like a classical fable.

    I've read Cousin Bette, and I did certainly enjoy it - its a good book, but it tends toward a French farce to me - just about ever character has about 3 affairs, and it gets rather confusing and less than believable as you go. Its the true representation of lives and motivations that I like in Balzac, and Bette didn't work quite so well for me on these fronts. I have high hopes for 'Pons' though.
     
  7.  
    GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    Thanks for the update, Informative as always.

    Based on your recommendations I might read Black Sheep before Old Goirot.

    Looking forward to your commentary on Cousin Pons.
     
  8.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I have on hand the Penguin edition (in the format I like best) of Grandet.... bought, I see, 5 July 1982 at McCarley's Books in Ashland, Oregon; this would have to have been shortly before that store, which had been something of a "local institution," closed. And I've never yet read it; so reading it soon would be a good opportunity for an entry in Chrons' thread for books that have languished in our backlogs.

    http://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/537022/
     
  9.  
    GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    Just starting Old Goirot.

    I'll try and post some periodic thoughts here as I read this over our upcoming Easter break.

    Has anyone else read this yet?
     
  10.  
    Connavar

    Connavar Well-Known Member

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    Balzac is to me a very interesting writer to read and specially to analyze,talk about in class situations but damn his Humane Comedy cycle is so many stories, so vast its seems daunting to start reading it. Atleast for me who is new to it. There is no need to read them in any order? Some characters that appear in several of the novellas,novels?

    Im interested in going through the shorter stories too and not only in the famous novels like Old Goirot.
     
  11.  
    Bick

    Bick A Member of the Forum

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    But you don't have to read it all! I'd certainly be interested other your thoughts Connavar.

    (The spelling of Goriot as "Goirot" seems to have gained life as a meme ;) )
     
  12.  
    Connavar

    Connavar Well-Known Member

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    I was wondering more where to start because some of the novels are famous on their own like Goriot but i would like to explore the different themes, the short stories. Black Sheep sounded good place to start, classic thriller story,setting is interesting. After that i will just read by theme his famous cycle.

    I have read parts of llusions perdues (Lost Illusions)in the cycle with because Georg Lukacs wrote an very interesting essay,analyze about it. Im a big fan the smart, high level realism writers. I dont care for Dickens for example because there is so many quality 1800s classic authors from France,Russia,Germany etc to waste time, effort on lesser authors of that era.

    I prefer social realism of Balzac type and i was impressed by his literary ability so i feel he is worth exploring and not just reading 2-3 famous novels of his.
     
  13.  
    GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    I would recommend Selected Short Stories available from Penguin. I have a copy and it is good. The blurb is as follows: One of the greatest French novelists, Balzac was also an accomplished writer of shorter fiction. This volume includes twelve of his finest short stories - many of which feature characters from his epic series of novels the Comédie Humaine. Compelling tales of acute social and psychological insight, they fully demonstrate the mastery of suspense and revelation that were the hallmarks of Balzac's genius. In The Atheist's Mass, we learn the true reason for a distinguished atheist surgeon's attendance at religious services; La Grande Breteche describes the horrific truth behind the locked doors of a decaying country mansion, while The Red Inn relates a brutal tale of murder and betrayal. A fascinating counterpoint to the renowned novels, all the stories collected here stand by themselves as mesmerizing works by one of the finest writers of nineteenth-century France.

    On your point regarding Dickens I would not agree that he is not worth reading in amongst the many other great novelists of the 1800s but certainly as per your point you could spend your time with other authors and still gain a great deal of reading pleasure and insight. It is true that Dickens is not classified by most academics as belonging to the main vanguard of 18th Century realist writers (David Copperfield is a possible exception to this) but his brilliant prose and remarkable characters infused with their own 'demonic comic energy' (to quote A.N. Wilson) that readers can yet still relate to in everyday life does I think still make him worth reading.

    Back on topic I am currently reading Balzac's Old Goriot. So far so good.

    Yees...sorry about that.
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2015
  14.  
    Connavar

    Connavar Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for the recommendation Gollum. About Dickens i plan to read a Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House because of historical respect for him, his legacy. I dont care what the academics say about him but i meant he isnt a personal favourite, to my taste enough to read him so fully as i have done with Goethe and plan to do with Balzac,Stevenson,Gogol etc

    Let us know what you think of Old Goriot. By the way have anyone here read Eugénie Grandet? Apparently it was the most literary acclaimed novel of his career.
     
  15.  
    GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    Yes I understood what you were getting at regarding those other authors. I have not yet read Bleak House myself but by all accounts it is supposed to be one of his best. Will be good to read your feedback.

    I have Eugénie Grandet but again I have not read it yet. I have several of his novels but am only now looking to read them due in part to this thread.

    I don't want to go too off topic here but can you briefly list the works by Goethe you have read? I seem to recall you read Young Werther and was going to tackle Faust?

    Good evening.
     
  16.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    You might consider substituting Our Mutual Friend for Tale of Two Cities.

    Bleak House
    is a good choice, especially if you like Mervyn Peake's illustrations for it.

    [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]
     
  17.  
    Allegra

    Allegra Well-Known Member

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    I remember when we were kids, my sister and I used to steal books from my parents' bookcases to read at night in bed (often under cover with a torch) and return them to the shelf in the morning, because at that time we weren't allowed to read 'big books' in order to be able to 'concentrate on study and homework'. My parents probably also thought we were too young to digest them, well we devoured them! Among Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, there were a few Balzac's. Eugénie Grandet and Old Goriot were our favourites. We even nicknamed a stingy classmate Grandet. ;) Also Cousin Pons, Cousin Bette, Colonel Chabert, Black sheep. Most of them I don't remember much. Now this thread makes me want to re discover - this time savour - Balzac.
     
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  18.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Allegra, it would be fun to read an expanded version of your reminiscences!
     
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  19.  
    Allegra

    Allegra Well-Known Member

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    Absolutely! Shame on me I don't even own a single volume myself. Many of the books in Bick's list I haven't heard or read and I don't think I've read any of the short stories. Must make an order list.
     
  20.  
    Bick

    Bick A Member of the Forum

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    I could post this in "book hauls" or in one of Extollager's Penguin Black classics threads, but I figured I could also stick it here: today I received in the mail Ursule Mirouet, which was published in the black classics range back in the 70's and 80's. I got this from a seller on eBay. Balzac apparently considered this 1841 novel to be his masterpiece. I'm not sure the modern conventional opinion agrees with this, but it will be interesting to read it and see how it compares to, say, The Black Sheep, which he wrote the following year.
     
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