I’ve finally finished reading the entire La Comedie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac!
No, you won’t have read much about it here on my blog, because I logged my progress at GoodReads instead. And just as well, because La Comedie Humaine consists of so many stories, that this blog would look more like a FrenchLit blog than an Australian one. If you want to see how many there are, visit the story index at La Comedie Humaine collaborative blog which I helped to set up…
In the early days of online book-groups, I joined far too many and over-committed myself, but I’ve stayed with the Balzac Yahoo group set up by Dagny, of the Vauquer Boarding House blog. Dagny is well-known to anyone who downloads stories from Project Gutenberg, where she and John Bickers from New Zealand personally typed and proof-read literally hundreds of public domain texts so that they could be accessed for free, and by anyone. If it were not for this, it would have ben impossible to read the entire collection, because it was hopeless trying to source these stories locally – and to buy a complete set would have been very expensive, assuming I could find one.
Anyway, with Dagny’s expert guidance, the Yahoo group read its way through La Comedie Humaine – with me always lagging hopelessly behind everyone else but contributing the occasional summary when school holidays permitted. As time went by I began to realise just what a valuable resource these summaries were, so with Dagny as co-conspirator, the La Comedie Humaine blog was born. With the help of other volunteers – Colin, Jim Paris, Josephine, Linnet, Mary, Merrie and Pamela B Thomas – the site now contains summaries, reviews and other miscellanea and is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the La Comedie Humaine.
If it hadn’t been for Dagny and the Yahoo group, I would never have finished this reading project. I started in 2006 with The Chouans, which is second after Father Goriot in the recommended reading order from Balzac as He Should Be Read by William Hobart Royce. I am here to tell you that you might do yourself a favour if you defer The Chouans, until you have come to love Balzac a bit better. This is what I wrote in my reading journal at the time:
Oh dear, I thought I’d try reading Balzac with an e-group but it’s turned out to be a pain. I couldn’t find a copy at the library so I’m reduced to reading it from Project Gutenberg and printing out 248 pages of it. (Journal 11, p. 152, 22/10/2006)
Yes, this was before The Kindle came along and made reading from Project Gutenberg a much more congenial experience!
Not only did my papers get themselves disorganised every time I fell asleep reading them, but I was confused anyway.
It’s set after the French Revolution (always going to be fuzzy in my mind) but the Royalists are still rebelling. I’m not sure who the King in Exile is – this is after the execution of Marie Antoinette and Louis the XIV (??) – but he, the British and his supporters have additional support in the form of some rather rustic Chouans, led by Marche-a-Terre, dressed in furs and almost indistinguishable in the landscape. Although to some extent they are their own men, they are in turn in league with the Gars, an alias for the Marquis de Montauran, who meets up with and falls for Marie de Vermaile who appears to be a Republican. (ibid).
Yes, this was in the days before Google would have sorted out my ignorance in no time! (Google existed, but obviously I didn’t know about it).
Things did improve, which was why I didn’t abandon the project altogether. I read the very moving and completely unforgettable Episode Under the Terror; and The Conscript; Vendetta, and The Country Doctor. But then for reasons I can’t remember I abandoned ship till late in 2009. To make amends I read steadily through 2010 and 2011, but then I was distracted by other things after that and read only one story in 2012 and just two at the beginning of 2013. But I picked the project up again in Oct 2013 and read
steadily obsessively until I was done. It felt like coming to the end of an Enid Blyton Read-a-Thon only much, much better!
Which ones were my favourites? The stories very hugely in length, and I tend to prefer novel length ones though An Episode Under the Terror is very short indeed, and so is A Street in Paris and its Inhabitant (which is not strictly speaking part of LCH but is an excellent story). The ones I rated four stars at GoodReads were the ones with good character development and credible plots – not always a strong point with Balzac. (But no wonder, given the number of characters and plot threads he was juggling, and always writing to impossible deadlines.) I liked Letters of Two Brides; La Grande Breteche; Père Goriot; Maitre Cornelius; A Second Home; Eugenie Grandet; La Duchesse de Langeais; The Illustrious Gaudissart; The Atheist’s Mass; The Collection of Antiquities; Modeste Mignon; Cousin Pons; and The Lesser Bourgeoisie. I did not like his rants about bankers; my feminist hackles rose when he carried on about the nature of women, and I liked even less his sardonic essays about the nature of marriage.
Having said that, the real value of this collection is the wonderful portrait that it paints of a whole society in constant political and social flux. During the chaotic 19th century in France, people made and lost fortunes, gained and lost positions of power, had grand homes and lost them, figured out how to survive the latest change and then got it wrong. Through it all we see human nature at its best and at its worst. There are saints and schemers, the generous and the greedy, the sage and the stupid. By recycling characters from one story to another we see careers and their consequences, families from one generation to another, and Parisian life and its temptations set against the pettiness of provincial life.
To celebrate this completist feat, The Spouse cooked a special French dinner tonight. (Any excuse to drink champagne will do chez Le Spouse et moi!) The recipe – ‘Fricassée of chicken with fennel, capers, artichokes, and tomatoes’ – is scrumptious. It’s from a new (un cadeau Noël pour Le Spouse ) cookbook, The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence by Patricia Wells. He served it with French champagne and a fine French brie to follow and we toasted the Grand Old Man of French Lit. Balzac, we salute you!
If you want to tackle the same project, or just sample a few, visit the story index page our La Comedie Humaine collaborative blog where you can find links to all the stories so that you can download them for free. Most of the translations are by Ellen Marriage a.k.a. James Waring, but Clara Bell, Rachel Scott and Katherine Prescott Wormeley helped to bring this body of work to English readers as well. There is a new abridged collection published by the New York Review of Books but despite the merits of a new translation, it doesn’t have all my favourites, and I must admit that I rather enjoyed the sometimes quaint language and sensibility of the Victorian translators.