I need a Balzac rolodex.
Yes, I am a Balzacian. I went through a Balzac phase in 2013, and now I’m in another.
I need a rolodex to keep track of the hundreds of characters in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, a cycle of approximately 95 novels, stories, and novellas.
Recently I have inhaled three of the books: Pere Goriot (a masterpiece: I wrote about it here), The Chouans (a sentimental historical novel), and A Daughter of Eve (an entertaining novella in which a megalomaniac journalist exploits the infatuation of a countess and his mistress-actress to found a newspaper).
The same characters often pop up in more than one novel. Rastignan, whom we first meet in Pere Goriot as a poor law student intent on clawing his way up the ladder of high society through a love affair and connections, has a cameo role in A Daughter of Eve as the friend of the obnoxious journalist, Raoul Nathan. And Hulot, the smart Republican commander of The Chouans, also appears in Cousin Bette (my favorite Balzac). (N.B. Both Rastignac and Hulot appear in other novels, too.)
There is a very helpful Balzac site, https://balzacbooks.wordpress.com/author/madamevauquer/, created by Dagny (Madame Vauquer), to support the reading of the complete works by a Balzac group at Yahoo. She has posted an excellent list of recurring characters, but one has to scroll down and down and down. A rolodex would be easier and quicker: one major character per card and the titles of the books in which he/she appears. So like graduate school, no?
Am I reading the books in order? No. Some of the books are masterpieces, others are very slight (at least in translation.) Start with one of the classics, like Pere Goriot, Cousin Bette, or Lost Illusions.
A FEW NOTES ON THE CHOUANS, THE FIRST IN THE HUMAN COMEDY.
A few years ago I found a 50-cent Penguin copy of The Chouans at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale. I finally knuckled under and read this novel of the French Revolution, set in 1799.
Marion Ayton Crawford translated several volumes of Balzac for Penguin, including my favorite, Cousin Bette. But her translation of this 1829 historical novel is very awkward. Perhaps Balzac’s prose is rough in this early novel–I don’t read French. And the influence of the romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott may or may not be a plus for you. (It was not for me.)
Balzac can be brilliant and polished, or lose himself in exposition. That is the case in the opening of The Chouans, where he devotes two and a half pages to descriptions of the costumes of the peasant royalists who have risen up in Brittany against the Republicans.
Here is an excerpt:
Some of the peasants, the majority indeed, went barefoot and were clad each only in a great goatskin, which reached from neck to knees, and breeches of very coarse white cloth, whose rough badly-trimmed yarn was evidence of the region’s lack of interest in industrial skills. Their long lank locks seemed part and parcel of the hair of their goatskins and hid their downcast faces so completely that at a first glance it was easy to imagine the goatskins to be their own pelt, and confuse these wretches with the animals that clothed them.
It’s not Vogue!
Balzac explains the peasants are nicknamed the Chouans because they copy the hoots of barn-owls (Chuins) as warnings of ambush. They are led by a French aristocrat, the Marquis de Montauran. He is a bit of dandy, but the men love him.
I find Napoleon’s Republicans more sympathetic than the Chuans–because of their clothes! (No, I made that up.) I adore Hulot, the commander of the Republicans. He is a smart, savvy soldier with a deep knowledge and experience of military strategies. He immediately figures out that something is wrong when a peasant named Marche-a-Terre shows up and dawdles in the middle of nowhere.
But most of the novel is devoted to a romance. Marie de Vermeuill comes from Paris with a letter giving her command over Hulot, who temporarily resigns. She is on a special mission to… Well, I won’t give it away. But at an inn she meets Marquis de Montauran (in disguise) and his companion Madame du Gua (who poses as his mother). Marie and Maontauran fall in love… and the rest of the book is SO silly.
Moderately entertaining, but so badly written/translated!
Don’t start with this. You will be very disappointed. And yet so much of Balzac is so very, very good.
I will write soon on A Daughter of Eve, which I much preferred.
Balzac is great escape reading. If you’re depressed after the election, do read him.
I’ve never read The Chouans. I bought an old copy when we were reading Trollope’s La Vendee on the Trollope & his contemporaries yahoo list I run. They make good books in conversation with one another. Ellen
Yes, I can see that would make a good discussion!
You and Camille have spurred my interest in Balzac. I previously replied to you that I had an old incomplete set of Balzac. Yesterday, I took another look at them, searching for Pere Goriot, which, of course, is one of the missing books. Cousin Bette, Les Chouans, and Lost Illusions. But I realized that the first two, or maybe three, volumes are devoted to a listing and explanation of characters. I think you’re going to need a really big rolodex!
Oh, you’re lucky to have a reference book in your set!:) Well, you can read the ones we don’t know and say which are good. Just look up the Penguin Balzacs and you’re bound to find you have some of the “major works” in your set. “Major” in that they’re in print! I’m sure they’re all good in their way.
Kat, you know my love for Balzac, one of the first Realists after a phase of romantic and/or mystery and/or sensation novels written under aliases such as Horace de Saint-Aubin !
Les Chouants is a transition novel and a masterpiece after some other books better forgotten (unless you are a real devotee a little crazy – my case – or you are writing a PhD. There are similarities between Les Chouants and La Vendée and differences because one is written by a Frenchman and the other by an Englishman. There is a world of knowledge, lived history, culture … and time between them.
I have plenty of documentation about Balzac in French that I would be glad to lend you. Even postage would not deter me!
But, please, never, never say to someone French that Balzac is great escape reading. What he has created is a parallel world to the one that was going on, and the time during which the last volumes occur is the time he is living. History becomes politics and policy. No way to escape and for escape…
Oh, Camille, I love Balzac! I’ve been reading him since before you were born.:) I really mean escape reading in the best possible way. Since this election I can only read the classics. Tolstoy and Dickens are escape reading.
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Then I accept “escape reading” 😉 . In fact this is what Diane calls “inner resistance”.
Some authors are like that – how did we keep track of the characters before the Internet? I own some Balzac but I haven’t read it yet – like so many of my books….. :s
So much work went into this site! It’s wonderful. You’ll love Balzac!
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