Balzac, Blond Love, & Book Clubs

An 1898 copy of a Balzac

I have read the the Penguin translations of Balzac, and a couple by Modern Library, but where are the translations of the other novels, novellas, and short stories in La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy)? I own a few tattered 19th-century editions with translations by Ellen Marriage and R. S. Scott, but the pages flake and the paper is yellow.

I am delighted that NYRB has published a new translation of Balzac’s The Memoirs of Two Young Wives. Morris Dickstein writes at The NYR Daily:  “While complete sets of Balzac’s work in English translation were once common, few contemporary readers have sought out many of his lesser-known books. Graham Robb concludes his prodigious 1994 biography of Balzac with the terse suggestion that “unknown masterpieces are waiting to be rediscovered.” The Memoirs of Two Young Wives, first published in 1842, is not exactly a masterpiece, but it’s a singular work, one of Balzac’s Scenes of Private Life, full of arresting detail yet cutting against the grain of his received image as a social realist. James himself wrote a long preface to a 1902 translation, but the novel soon dropped without a trace from the English-speaking world. It’s a gem of a book, occasionally florid and schematic yet engrossing, and this new translation by Jordan Stump makes for precisely the kind of rediscovery that Robb invited.”

I had a feeling I might have an 1898 copy published by the Gebbie Publishing Company. Sure enough, it was published as Letters of Two Brides in a volume with A Daughter of Eve (which I wrote about here). Since I have it, I will try the R. S. Scott first.  But I will probably end up buying the NYRB.

An illustration for Letters of Two Brides (Gebbie Publishing Compay)


Long ago, when I was young, I was in the evil thrall of Love. As the Greek poet Anacreon put it,

Love struck me like a smith with a big hammer,
then washed me in an icy stream.

Not a very poetic translation, but that’s the gist.  (It is my literal translation.)

In Anacreon’s poetry, Love is blond.  Why?  I often reflected about incongruous images.  I was reading Anacreon at the kitchen table,  no doubt munching Royal Lunch crackers, when I came across the phrase “Golden-haired Love.” Why wasn’t love brunette?  In the first stanza of this poem, Blond Love hits the poet with a purple ball to call him to play with a girl wearing “multi-colored slippers.” Balls and slippers–the Greeks are strange.  In the second stanza, we learn that the girl with the slippers rejects him because of his white hair, and simultaneously she ogles a woman across the room. An odd poem.  Is Love spitefully twitting the poet for being too old for love? Why is Love blond?  I was blond then.

When I told my students that literature affected me more than reality, I wasn’t exaggerating.  Reality wasn’t great after I’d broken up with my boyfriend.  I  had taken a job at the “Wodehouse School” because I had no idea what else to do. My life was now devoted to teaching Latin to brats who were more rich than gifted. (There were exceptions.)  I  missed my boyfriend so much. The present meant grading papers.  Many, many papers.

Why was I obsessed with my boyfriend?  I wondered if Blond Love had struck me with a hammer, or hit me with a purple ball, or what the deal was.  The hammer was the more apt metaphor, I would say.

Anacreon is very, very strange.  And thank God those days are over.

(You can read Anacreon in Richmond Lattimore’s superb translation, Greek Lyrics.)

The DAVID BOWIE BOOK CLUB & “NOW READ THIS” CLUB.   Several articles at The Guardian and New York Times have recently profiled the David Bowie Book Club.  This month the selection is Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. which does not sound like my kind of thing.  Can you believe a Penguin is going for $899 at Amazon?

I am more interested in the “Now Read This” book club offered by the PBS NewsHour and The New York Times. This month they are reading Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward.  Here is a link to the “Now Read This” video at PBS.

6 thoughts on “Balzac, Blond Love, & Book Clubs

  1. Having had Madame Bovary destroyed for me by a dreadful translation I am now very wary about reading novels in translation so have never tackled Balzac. Where would you suggest I start and can you recommend a translation?


    • Yes, it is available in the UK. It is out of print here, and apparently David Bowie can sell books. Some at the website were talking about listening to the audiobook, which was all they could afford.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I came to “Hawksmoor” circuitously by way of Iain Sinclair’s “Lud Heat”, a book of poetry that takes up the whole occult/architecture/Hawksmoor think in poetry. Evidently Ackroyd took this, turned it into prose, and Bob’s your uncle. Of course I found the Iain Sinclair through Alan Moore’s “From Hell” which I was reading serially at the time. Had nightmares for days.

        I thought all three of these works were deeply affecting examples of the power of structure and place to become characters in the plot and not just characterized. In some ways, I think the city of London itself is the main character.

        I’m reminded of a book whose title and author escape me at the moment but the plot was set in SF and involved a Hawksmoor-esque mixture of evil, incarnation, place and architecture/mad architects. (I sometimes wonder if this novel didn’t provide the backstory for the penthouse in “Ghostbusters”.) It also gave me the serious creeps. There’s one scene where the protagonist has climbed a hill and is looking back towards his own apartment and sees someone in his apartment looking back at him in a very strange Paul Auster kind of way. I still don’t pile books on my bed…

        …and with all due respect, how is David Bowie making book suggestions from beyond the grave?


        • Well, you certainly make me want to read it–when the price comes down!

          David Bowie is selling books from beyond. Apparently some list of his 100 favorite books was published, and Bowie’s son and others have formed a book club. It takes place on Twitter, but there is a website.


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