Balzac’s “Letters of Two Brides” and “A Daughter of Eve

An 1898 copy of Balzac’s A Daughter of Eve and Letters of Two Brides

In the introduction to the 1898 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Letters of Two Brides, the critic George Saintsbury assures us it is not the best of Balzac.

It is far, far from his best.  Nonetheless, it has been reissued by NYRB,  in a new translation by Jordan Stump, under the title The Memoirs of Two Young Wives.  After reading a sample online of the new translation, which didn’t seem very different from my 1898 copy (translated by R. S. Scott), I stuck with the old:  and  chips of paper littered the floor as I cut the pages.  And that’s a reason to read the new!

Written in the form of letters between two best friends, this slight epistolary novel explores women’s attitudes toward marriage.  Two women of very different social strata went to convent school together.  Louise, intended by her aristocratic family to be a nun, is rescued from the convent by her Carmelite aunt’s knowledge that Louise is “in a decline.” Once she is home in Paris, her mother dolls her up in splendid clothes, she thrives at social events, and she is a belle. But Louise falls in love with her Spanish tutor, who turns out to be a former duc (exiled) but is still, I think, a count–or maybe the opposite–and let me say this romanticism is completely unlike Balazc.

I find Renee more sympathetic than Louise, because there’s none of this hanging from the balcony/hiding in a tree business–that’s what Louise and her lover (later her husband) go in for.  On the other hand, Renee’s family always intended her to marry. Once home in the country, she agrees to marry a traumatized war veteran, former prisoner-of-war, and landowner.  She doesn’t love him, but she wants a family.  And, though I’m surprised by this, her practicality is much more sympathetic than Louise’s drama.

Eventually, I became intrigued–especially by Renee, who is a philosopher.  And the two brides are so different that they bicker back and forth:  Louise tells Renee her marriage to the tutor is one long passion fest, and she pities Renee for not being in love. (Louise later has a second passionate marriage).  Renee tells Louise that she can’t expect the madly-in-love thing to last forever and needs to think about what will last.  Guess who wins in the end?

This book is very slight, and actually a bit gushy as well as romantic.   I am baffled as to why it was reissued.   Saintsbury, who writes the introduction to the 1898 translation,  doesn’t admire it either:  he thinks French writers don’t know how to write about women.   I simply thought it was a lesser work of Balzac.

If I were to reissue one of Balzac’s out-of-print novels about women, I would choose 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.  It is published in the same edition (1898 Gebbie Publishing Company) as Letters of Two Brides. After panning Letters of two Brides, Saintsbury writes, “There are, however,… considrable condolences and consolations in “Une Fille d’Eve.”   I agree.

A Daughter of Eve is engaging, if slight, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Two virtuous sisters who have led a sheltered life grow up in total innocence and are shocked when it comes time to marry.  Marie Eugenie marries a rich banker, Mr. Nucinigen, and Marie-Angelique marries a count. They thrive for a number of years–it’s better than living alone– until one day, after years of virtuous marriage,  Countess Marie de Vandenesse  takes a lover, the journalist Raoul Nathan.  And this becomes a problem, because soon everybody, especially Nathan, will need money.  Will the rich lose all their money?


I’ve never met a novel I didn’t like in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of  approximately 95 novels and stories.  But Letters of Two Brides/The Memoirs of Two Young Wives is not especially memorable, so I would skip right to A Daughter of Eve.

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.

The Balzac Problem: A Quick Look at The Black Sheep and A Daughter of Eve

Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman In "Julia"

Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in “Julia” can write anywhere, but this beach house looks nice….  And I think I need a cigarette.

Blogging can be boring. Same-o, same-o. Like a journalist, I can bang out a 700-word post anywhere:  at Starbucks, in a bubble bath, or the wilds of the Wisconsin woods.

I often do.

There was the daily diary. Deleted it. There was Frisbee: A Book Journal (still twirling in cyberspace) and  Mirabile Dictu since the end of 2012.

Does anyone really want to read about my daily reading?

More important, do I want to write about it?

Is blogging performance art?

And where are the new book blogs? I swear, every blogroll features the same blogs.  Are we all in some eerie network? Trapped in cyberspace?  And, if so, how did that happen?

And, as a break from these difficult questions,  I am banging out a “postette” on The Balzac Problem instead of a longish book post.



It was going to be the Year of Balzac.  Actually, I said it might be.  His entertaining novels center on the mesmerizing schemes and unpredictable exploits of misers, courtesans, politicians, journalists, spinsters, coquettes, and con men.  His psychological analyses are penetrating and incisive.

In his 95-volume magnum opus, La Comédie humaine, he manically attempted to portray every type of human being  and chart every niche of society.

I love Balzac. My favorites are Cousin Bette, Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Modeste Mignon, and A Harlot High and Low.

But now I’m leaving behind the Penguin classics and have reached the no-man’s-land of what I call DEEP Balzac.  (It’s a little like Deep Throat in All the President’s Men.)   I am perusing the lesser-known books, the ones translated by Clara Bell and Ellen Marriage in the late nineteenth-century.

And when a Victorian translator scribbles too fast and clumsily for quick money (they were paid little), you get to know Balzac’s formulas and tricks almost too well.  There’s the phrenology and physiology,  which so many 19th-century writers took so seriously; the endless exposition (When WILL he start the story?);  then the frenetic unrolling of the plot to make up for lost time; and the blunt narration when he tires of constructing the story.

It’s Balzac’s world.

black-sheep-balzacAnd. much as I wanted to read all 95 novels and stories, I have no desire to write about the entire Human Comedy.  I am behind:  In December I read  The Black Sheep (available in Penguin) and A Daughter of Eve (free at Project Gutenberg), and though both novels are thoroughly enjoyable, they are uneven, with abrupt transitions.    I suggest you read and enjoy these two without thinking too hard.


In The Black Sheep, Balzac creates an Oedipal triangle consisting of a mother and two sons. At the apex is Philippe, a gambler/thief/murderer/spendthrift,  the favorite son of his widowed mother, Agathe.  Her less beloved son, Joseph, is a successful artist who financially supports his mother when, on so many occasions, she is bankrupted by Phillippe.  She underrates his success.

But how can Joseph protect her from Phillipe?

Early on, we learn that the generous aunt who shares their flat gambles on a small scale:  she  buys a lottery ticket with the same number every day for years and years.  So perhaps the gambling is in the family.  Phillippe, too, is addicted to gambling.  He steals from his aunt and horrifyingly deprives her of the winnings when her lottery number finally comes up. The family’s rented rooms shrink with their new poverty,, and Agathe, ironically,  takes a job managing a lottery office.  And finally Philippe robs the till at work, gets involved in a political mess, and goes to prison.

Agathe and Joseph enter a new chapter of their lives then:  they travel to the provinces to try to save a pecarious legacy her brother should have saved for her from their father. Well, it is a struggle, and they fail.   The last part of the novel weirdly veers away from Agathe and Joseph, while  Philippe  attempts to win the  inheritance for himself.  And lets’ just say, there is violence and the usual theft and ruining of live.

countess-illustration-the-daughter-of-eve-013A Daughter of Eve is simple and slight, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It starts out like a fairy tale.  Two virtuous sisters grow up in total innocence and are shocked when it comes time to marry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Marie-Angelique and Marie Eugenie de Granville reached the period of their marriage—the first at eighteen, the second at twenty years of age—without ever leaving the domestic zone where the rigid maternal eye controlled them. Up to that time they had never been to a play; the churches of Paris were their theatre. Their education in their mother’s house had been as rigorous as it would have been in a convent. From infancy they had slept in a room adjoining that of the Comtesse de Granville, the door of which stood always open. The time not occupied by the care of their persons, their religious duties and the studies considered necessary for well-bred young ladies, was spent in needlework done for the poor, or in walks like those an Englishwoman allows herself on Sunday, saying, apparently, “Not so fast, or we shall seem to be amusing ourselves.”

Marie Eugenie marries a rich banker, Mr. Nucinigen,  and Marie-Angelique marries a count. They thrive for a number of years–it’s better than living along– until one day, after years of virtuous marriage,  Countess Marie de Vandenesse  takes a lover, the journalist Raoul Nathan.  And this becomes a problem, because soon everybody, especially Nathan, will need money.

Fun to read!

And now I say Adieux for the weekend, so I can catch up with my TV-watching!

Balzac’s Modeste Mignon & Why We Need the Nineteenth-Century Translators

balzac-modeste-mignon-the-purse-vol2Wouldn’t it have been fun to read Balzac as each volume of The Human Comedy was published in the nineteenth century? We would have read him furtively while cleaning our master’s study (I was a maid in my previous life, which is why I abhor cleaning), or openly if we were impoverished spinster stenographers wearing fingerless gloves in an unheated garret. I first read Pere Goriot in just such a chilly rented room.

I have read many Balzacs in Penguin paperbacks, but a complete set of The Human Comedy, a series of  approximately 95 novels and stories, has not been translated since the nineteenth century.   Have you read Modeste Mignon?  Here we must thank the nineteenth-century translators.  There are no modern translations of  Modeste Mignon.  Clara Bell, who was commissioned along with Ellen Marriage and Rachel Scott by George Saintsbury at the end of the 19th century to translate Balzac’s work, wrote at breakneck pace because she needed money and the pay was low.   Modeste Mignon is very readable and  often enthralling but the long correspondence between the heroine and her lover drags.  Okay, you’re permitted to skim the letters.

It is an amusing novel about love and novel-reading:  what could we readers like better?  The heroine, Modeste, an avid reader, is determined to fall in love, though she  knows no suitable young men. (I was rooting for the smart dwarf who works in the family business, but  he has no chance.)  No, Modeste picks a poet.  If you want to have a doomed love affair, fall in love with a poet. Judging from Balzac’s description, poets were just as opportunistic then as now.

Balzac likes to bend genre.  This is a gentle comedy, and yet his heroine is as sharp as they come. Part traditional narrative, part epistolary novel, part satire, Modeste Mignon traces the fortunes of  an attractive young woman, Modeste, who wills herself to love and  gathers three suitors before the book is done.

My 19th-century edition of Modeste Mignon/

My 19th-century edition of Modeste Mignon/

As the novel opens, her father Charles Mignon is away at sea trying to recover the family’s lost fortunes.  They do not know if or when he will return.  The older Mignon daughter eloped with a man who rejected her; she returned home very ill and died. (You know the trope:  The Sexually Active Woman Must Die.)  Then  Modeste’s mother went blind, and now they live quietly with Monsieur Dumay,  a family friend and the manager of the business while Charles is away,  and his childless wife Madame Dumay, who dotes on Modeste and Mrs. Mignon. The adults conspire to shelter Modeste from relationships with men.

No wonder Modeste turns to books. She needs to live in dreams. Like Madame Bovary and Catherine in Northanger Abbey, she reads novels and romantic poetry and longs for love and excitement.  Balzac explains,

Modeste fed her soul on the modern masterpieces of three literatures, English, French, and German. Lord Byron, Goethe, Schiller, Walter Scott, Hugo, Lamartine, Crabbe, Moore, the great works of the 17th and 18th centuries, history, drama, and fiction, from Astraea to Manon Lescaut, from Montaigne’s Essays to Diderot, from the Fabliaux to the Nouvelle Heloise,—in short, the thought of three lands crowded with confused images that girlish head, august in its cold guilelessness, its native chastity, but from which there sprang full-armed, brilliant, sincere, and strong, an overwhelming admiration for genius. To Modeste a new book was an event; a masterpiece that would have horrified Madame Latournelle made her happy,—equally unhappy if the great work did not play havoc with her heart.

An illustration from Modeste Mignon

An illustration from Modeste Mignon

An intelligent but naive reader, Modeste writes philosophical, mystical,  and hyperbolically emotional tetters to a Parisian poet she has never met, Canalis.  He is not a good poet, but she loves his  verse.  Balzac too had fans who wanted to be his penpals, and he had read the correspondence between Goethe and his fan Bettina Brentano, who was thirty-seven years younger.  Canalis doesn’t want a Bettina:  he bangs our the verse for money and owes his love and loyalty to a middle-aged duchess who is his patron. It is Canalis’s secretary, the aptly named Ernest de La Briere, who replies to Modeste’s letters, under the name of Canalis, and soon the missives  are flying back and forth.  And so the comedy of their correspondence begins.

When Charles comes home a rich man, he is not exactly thrilled about the letters.

“I have read your letters,” said Charles Mignon, with the flicker of a malicious smile on his lips that made Modeste very uneasy, “and I ought to remark that your last epistle was scarcely permissible in any woman, even a Julie d’Etanges. Good God! what harm novels do!”

Modeste is now an heiress. Suddenly Canalis and a glamorous Duc are “in love” with her.  Does poor Ernest have a chance?

There are some infelicities with tone in this translation. I suspect the letters between Modeste and Ernest would be much sillier in a modern translation, because Modeste and Ernest are so naive and earnest..  But this speculation is based partly on a scene in War and Peace, in which Prince Nicholas Andreevich is ironic about his daughter Mary’ s correspondence with her friend Julie.

At the sight of the letter red patches showed themselves on the princess’ face. She took it quickly and bent her head over it. “From Heloise?” asked the prince with a cold smile that showed his still sound, yellowish teeth.

“Yes, it’s from Julie,” replied the princess with a timid glance and a timid smile.

And here’s a footnote on this passage in War and Peace from Aylmer Maude.  “The prince is ironical. He knows the letter is from Julie, but alludes to Rousseau’s novel , Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise, which he, an admirer of Voltaire and of cold reason, heartily despised. A.M.

So you see, both fathers recognize “Julie” in their daughters’ epistolary style.


The Balzac Rolodex & a Few Notes on The Chouans

Where's my Balzac rolodex?

Where’s my Balzac rolodex?

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,, 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.


the-chouans-balzac-9780140442601-usA 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.

The Best of Balzac: Père Goriot

penguin-old-goriotDuring my Balzac phase in 2013, I loved Père Goriot(The title of the Penguin is Old Goriot.)  I experienced the thrill of falling into a  spellbinding story and recognizing a tour de force. Père Goriot is said to be one of the best books in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a cycle of approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories portraying 19th-century French society during the period of Restoration and July Monarchy.

Recently I had to read Père Goriot in two different translations for the usual reason:  my old Modern Library paperback fell apart.  Yes, the tape could no longer hold it together, so I hustled to get a replacement copy.   The Modern Library edition (translated by E. K. Brown,  1946) is out-of-print, so I switched to the Penguin (translated by Marion Ayton Crawford, 1951).

pere-goriot-and-old-goriotObviously there was a call for translations of Old Goriot in the mid-twentieth century, with two translations for two different publishers.

Albert Lynch's illustration of the boarding house.

Albert Lynch’s illustration of the boarding house.

Much of the book is set in a boarding house.  I am fascinated by tales of boarding houses–I did rent a room in college, as did most of my impoverished friends. (We had to feed ourselves in the attic kitchen, though:  no landlady made sloppy meals.) In this stunning classic, Eugene Rastignac, a poor law student who rooms in Madame Vauquer’s shoddy boarding house in the Latin quarter of Paris, becomes obsessed with luxury and women.  After attending a party at his cousin Madame Claire de Beauséant’s house, he wants what the rich have.  He borrows the savings of his mother and sisters so he can attain this ambition. Will he be able to pay them back?  In the glittering upper-class society, he finds incomprehensible social barriers, debts, and infidelity. He plans to use his new connections–but how?  And he goes home at the end of the night to his bare room.

He does not realize that Pere Goriot, one of his more eccentric fellow lodgers, has links to high society.  When Eugene sees Goriot leaving the beautiful married Countess de Restaud’s house by the back stairs, he tells her that Goriot lives at Madame Vauquer’s.   Turns out Pere Goriot is her father and she is ashamed of him. So she bars Eugene from her house, and, as an act of minor revenge, he courts her sister, Baroness Delphine de Nucingen, a banker’s wife who is also ashamed of her father.  They have an affair.

The boarders play a big part in Eugene’s life.  A strange man named Monsieur Vautrin advises Eugene to claw his way up through society by marrying a fellow boarder named Victorine, a disinherited heiress who he promises will soon be rich.  Vautrin has an evil plot…I He tells Eugene he will never rise unless he is ruthless.  Eugene is terrified.

On the other hand, Goriot is delighted with Eugene’s dallying with his daughter Delphine. He wants any news of his daughters, and Eugene can tell him about their clothes and parties.  Goriot used to be rich, but has given his daughters almost all his money.

Even in translation, the power of Balzac’s writing comes through.  And both translations are powerful, though I slightly prefer the lushly written translation by E. K. Brown in the Modern Library edition.  Here’s a sample paragraph of the Brown near the beginning.

The chariot of civilization, like Juggernaut’s, is barely delayed by  some heart which does not break as easily as others, and holds back its wheels; soon the heart is shattered, and the chariot continues its glorious march.  And you will do the same you who hold this volume in a white hand, and, sinking back in a soft armchair, say to yourself:  “Perhaps this book is going to entertain me.”  After you have read of the hidden sorrows of Pere Goriot, you will dine with a keen appetite and blame the author for your insensibility, accusing him of poetic exaggeration.  Oh, you may be sure that this drama is no work of fiction, no mere novel!  It is all true, so true that everyone may recognize its element within himself, perhaps in his very heart.

Here is Crawford’s translation.

The chariot of civilization, like the chariot of Juggernaut, is scarcely halted by a heart less easily crushed than the others in its path.  It soon breaks this hindrance to its wheel and continues its triumphant course.

And you will show the same insensibility, as you hold this book in your white hand, lying back in a softly cushioned armchair, and saying to yourself, “Perhaps this one is amusing.”  When you have read of the secret sorrows of old Goriot you will dine with unimpaired appetite, blaming the author for your callousness, taxing him with exaggeration, accusing him of having given wings to his imagination.  But you may be certain this drama is neither fiction nor romance.  All is true, so true that everyone can recognize the elements of the tragedy in his own household, in his own heart perhaps.

They are very close, aren’t they? But Brown is more vivid and elegant.  At first Crawford seemed awkward to me, but I didn’t notice after a while.

Translation, translation, translation!  I depend entirely on translations for French. Which is better? The Brown reads better.  The Crawford is what I have now.

The same few Balzacs are translated again and again, and I do wish there were new translations of the others.

What are your favorite Balzacs?   The original 19th-century translations are available free online, if you want to try them.

Six Series to Lose Yourself in Over the Holidays: Balzac, Durrell, Ferrante, Burgess, Gabaldon, & Le Guin

"Marley's Ghost"

           “Marley’s Ghost”

I do not like Christmas books.

One year at a posh friend’s, we listened to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on public radio. Luv ya, public radio, but the reader’s enunciation was excessive!  Everybody looked glazed and drank a lot of wine. I don’t drink.  And I have never cared for A Christmas Carol.

So what do I do to escape the holiday madness?  I dive into trilogies, quartets, quintets, long series…and come up for air next spring.

Here are Six Series You Can Lose Yourself in over the Holidays.

1 Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of approximately 90 novels, short stories, and novellas in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy. The plots are racy and the characters memorable.   Several are available from Penguin and Modern Library, and  most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg.  Personally, I prefer the newer translations, but Lost Illusions  and Cousin Pons are good in any form.   And here is a link to an excellent Balzac blog.

Lost Illusions Modern Library2 Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet.   This year I devoured Durrell’s modernist masterpiece,  The Alexandria Quartet, and Prospero’s Cell, a  travel memoir.  And now I’m reading his odd metafictional  Avignot Quintet, consisting of Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastion, and Quinx.   This labyrinthine series questions the nature of reality and love, authors and their characters. Not until the end of the first novel,  Monsieur,  do we discover the characters are characters in a novel written by  the bitter character Blanford.  And then in the next books Blanford weaves together his stories with those of his  fictional characters.  He even has telephone conversations with Rob Sutcliffe, the novelist in his own novel.  Intriguing but weird.

durrell avignon quintet 51GoOSphbOL._AC_UL320_SR204,320_3 Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.   These pop literary pageturners are about two difficult women who are friends from childhood to old ag,.  They are entertaining, beautifully-written, and  I swear  as popular as Gone with the Wind.   I have read the first two, and they are very good indeed, though, honestly?   The hype about them is too much.

ferrante neapolitan series quartet lctpnk325gzcumijtsdc4 Anthony Burgess’s The Complete EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s End.  The hero, Enderby,  is a Kingsley Amis-ish character who writes poetry while sitting on the toilet, farts a lot, and is shocked to receive a literary award.  Winning the award is his downfall, though he is up and down throughout the books.  Inside Enderby  is hilarious, but there are actually some startling serious bits that I didn’t remember.   An excellent reread of the first book, and hope to get to the others.

the complete enderby anthony burgess 51Y8C7CHQNL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_5 Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I hope to lose myself in this popular series of time travel romances someday, because friends love them and assure me that they are entertaining and erotic.  There is also an Outlander coloring book, DVDS of the Outlander TV series (which I’ve heard is good), and totebags.  Do you think Outlander is Game of Thrones for women?

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6 Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindNow that I’ve read David Mitchell’s the introduction to the new Folio Society edition of A Wizard of Earthsea in The Guardian, I would like to go back and reread the series.  Plus there were only  four books when I read it:  it has grown!

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Off to read one of my series books!

Mirabile Considers the Reading Life, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, & Nook Discrimination at “Web Proof!”

Woman Reading by Gyula Bencz

“Woman Reading” by Gyula Bencz

I have a very odd reading life.

I usually have six books on the go. This eclectic style of reading seems to go with blogging.

I call it  “reading like a bookseller.” The best booksellers have the “multiple reading” habit so they can chat to customers about the latest books.

My most cherished ambition is to own a bookstore and sit around and chat like the charming Linda in  Nancy Mitford’s  The Pursuit of Love.  When she takes over the Communist bookstore every weekend so the Comrade who runs it can get drunk,

An extraordinary transformation would then occur.  The books and tracts which mouldered there month after month, getting damper and dustier until at last they had to be thrown away, were hurried into the background, and their place taken by Linda’s own few but well-loved favorites.  Thus for Whither British Airways? was substituted Round the World in Eighty Days, Karl Marx, the Formative Years was replaced by The Making of a Marchioness, and The Giant of the Kremlin by Diary of a Nobody, while A Challenge to Coal -Owners made way for King Solomon’s Mines.

I can imagine a similar transformation if, say, Leonard Riggio became my best friend and I worked at Barnes and Noble.  My charming, humorous, eclectic favorites would sit on a shelf labeled “Charming, Humorous, Eclectic favorites”:  Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred, H. G. Wells’ Kipps, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Julie Hecht’s Do the Window Open?, Nora Johnson’s Coast to Coast:  A Family Memoir, and Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year.

A former student was the most personable bookseller at Borders and was also a “multiple reader.”  The Borders culture, he explained, was based on staff interactions with the customers:  he recommended George R. R. Martin’s novels, though I never got into them, and quoted the opening sentence of The Shadow of the Wind to persuade customers they ought to read it.  (“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”). When I bought the new translation of Kristin Lavransdatter, he said he’d always intended to read it.  (I told him he might prefer The Master of Hestviken.)

My fellow bloggers sometimes complain about the strain of multiple reads (i.e., reading like a bookseller). I ask myself, Where is the pressure coming from? Why are we reading so many books?  Are we reading to blog?  Are we blogging to read?  Are we reading for our readers?

It occurs to me we are readers of the 21st century:  we have grown used to interruptions and juggling many tasks at a time. And so we organize our multiple readings in our online writings.  Mirabile Dictu is the equivalent of the journal I used to keep.   I write a few bookish posts every week, but I positively discourage readers from expecting me to “review” books every day.

Ursule Mirouet by BalzacDespite the fact that I am plugged into the internet, despite the fact that my Nook now interrupts me when I have a new email, despite the fact that I have read hundreds of book reviews this year, I go through long periods when I ignore modern life and contemporary books altogether.  I have read many books by Balzac this year, though I have blogged about only a few of them.  Ursule Mirouet is the oddest of his novels I’ve read to date, and definitely the worst.  It begins, as is typical with Balzac’s novels, with a long, rambling exposition of the town, Nemours, and the many branches of an anxious family who worry that the wealthy agnostic Dr. Minoret will leave all his money to his goddaughter Ursule.  At the beginning of the novel, when the non-believer Minoret accompanies Ursule to Mass, the incident triggers malicious gossip about her power over his money.   But  we learn that Minoret converted to Catholicism after a friend challenges him to open his mind to mesmerism: a medium in a trance was able to describe exactly what Ursule was doing back in the village, and when he checked with her, every detail of was correct.

Balzac was a believer in spiritualism and mesmerism, and this very odd novel combines the typical inheritance and thwarted love themes with elements of supernatural communications and interventions.  Donald Adamson says in the introduction to the 1976 Penguin:

To those who poke fun at Balzac’s belief in animal magnetism it should equally be stressed that Mesmer’s theories produced a sensation toward the end of the eighteenth century and commanded the support of many intelligent men.  Balzac merely echoes the opinion of his many contemporaries when claiming in Ursule Mirouet that Mesmer’s findings would revolutionize therapeutic medicine and that ‘rationalist’ methods of healing were ill-founded.

Ursule is fascinating as an example of Balzac’s belief in the supernatural, but it is not a very good novel.

This summer I reread Cicero’s beautifully-written philosophical treatise on the immortality of souls, Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream) .  Honestly, despite the rhetorical beauty of the language and the utter simplicity of the doctrine, it is trite:  the New Age ’70s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets Plato’s Republic.

But even if you read it in English–I read it in Latin, but have copied a few English paragraph from the Fordham University site below–a little of the power of Cicero’s graceful, deftly balanced prose comes through.  Scipio Aemilianus, military tribune of the fourth legion, spends an evening with King Masinissa, an old family friend, in Africa, who reminisces about his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War.  This dialogue inspires a dream of a conversation with Scipio Africanus.

 And during all this time the old man spoke of nothing but Africanus, all whose actions, and even remarkable sayings, he remembered distinctly. At last, when we retired to bed, I fell in a more profound sleep than usual, both because I was fatigued with my journey, and because I had sat up the greatest part of the night.

Here I had the following dream, occasioned, as I verily believe, by our preceding conversation—for it frequently happens that the thoughts and discourses which have employed us in the daytime, produce in our sleep an effect somewhat similar to that which Ennius writes happened to him about Homer, of whom, in his waking hours, he used frequently to think and speak.

Simple and down-to-earth, but you really need the Latin.

I promise to catch up with “bookish writing” soon.  Summer is winding down.

And now for my experience with contemporary books.

There is a certain  website where you can sign up and request digital advance copies of new books from publishers.  I will refer to this site as “Web Proofs!”(its real name is something similar, and many of you bloggers probably know it).

This summer the Web Proofs! publicist sent me a catalogue.  Before I knew it, I had requested seven books to review at Mirabile Dictu, figuring I would be okayed for one.  I was astonished when I was okayed for all except for the one I wanted, Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming novel.

But do you think it was easy to download these free books on my Nook?  No, it was impossible!

If you have a Kindle, you can download the books directly from Web Proofs!  If you don’t you have to download Adobe Digital Editions.  Fine.  Then you have to plug in your Nook and download from Adobe Digital Editions.

Transatlantic colum mccannIt didn’t work.  Both my husband and I tried repeatedly.  A message appeared saying that I was not approved to copy the contents.

I tried to read Colum McCann’s beauitfully-written novel  Transatlantic on Adobe Digital editions on my computer, but it gave me a headache.

I went out and bought the book.

All the books I was approved for expired on their expiration dates.  Sorry, publicists, I’ve failed you again!

Balzac’s Lost Illusions

Lost Illusions Modern LibraryIf you spend all your leisure in bookstores, you probably are too fond of books.

If you spend your time hunting for the lesser-known novels of Balzac, you are probably obsessive.

There are approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.

And though most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg,  you’re lucky if you find hard copies of Pere Goriot or Eugenie Grandet in bookstores.

Perhaps Balzac is out of fashion.

Balzac was a mercilessly observant novelist whose exuberant prose, riveting plots,  and outrageous characters enthrall readers, but who also instructs  in the how-tos and perils of social climbing and commerce.

Need to know something about the business world?  Try Balzac.

Lost Illusions, one of his masterpieces, is in many ways a diatribe against publishing.

Balzac knew the printing, publishing, and writing world inside-out. In 1825, he started his own printing business and published volumes by Moliere and La Fontaine.  In 1828, the business smashed, and he was in massive debt to his family.  As a journalist and novelist, he had already learned the art of writing for money.   His friend, Auguste Lepoitevin, a hard-boiled, satirical journalist, had helped him get his start:  Balzac agreed to write several stories, which Lepoitevein would polish and sell to publishers.  (Balzac wrote three novels with Leopoitevin.)

Leopoitevin boasted that he’d given many writers their start.

Take little old Balzac–he’s one of mine!  He and I made loads of plans together!  I wrote a fair few novels with him–his worst novels, I’ll grant him that….He was like a little cannonball…”

Lost Illusions is largely inspired by Balzac’s experiences with Leopoitevin (and others like him).  The hero, Lucien Chardon, a writer, grows up in Angoulême.  He is adored by his best friend, David Séchard, a printer, who marries Lucien’s sister Eve.  The couple take out enormous loans to support Lucien, thinking he is a genius.

Lucien moves to Paris when his married girlfriend, Mme de Bargeton (Louise), a bored, romantic, wealthy woman, insists that he accompany her. But in Paris Louise drops her young lover as soon as she sees that he is  ill-dressed and too immature to flourish in high society.

Another well-read paperback.

Another well-read paperback.

Lucien, handsome, witty, and proud, also considers Louise countrified.  Abandoned and poor, Lucien becomes zealously industrious, writing a historical novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott.  His friends are other serious writers and artists, and they have brilliant, lively discussions in their garrets.

Then Lucien meets a journalist, Lousteau, who teaches him how to make a living by glib, gossipy satires and reviews.  He learns to write hyperbolic praise or witty condemnations of books and plays, according to the payment of the  publisher or theater managers.  He also receives books and theater tickets, which he sells for extra money. And he is very excited by the double-dealing, which doesn’t seem to him unethical, though he is warned by his artist friends that it will boomerang and hurt him.

By the way, there apparently were some good newspapers in Paris, but Balzac concentrates on the small journals that trafficked in satire, gossip, and scandal.  He may have had a bone to pick:  some of the journals published bad reviews of his novels.

In one of Balzac’s polemics against journalism in Lost Illusions, a group of movers and shakers in publishing and the theater discuss the corruption of journalism.  One exclaims,

Instead of being a priestly function, the newspaper…is becoming merely a trade; and like all trades it has neither faith nor principles.  Every newspaper is, as Blondet says, a shop which sells to the public whatever shades of opinion it wants.  If there were a journal for hunchbacks, it would prove night and morning how handsome, how good-natured, how necessary hunchbacks are.  A journal is no longer concerned to enlighten, but to flatter public opinion.  Consequently, in due course, all journals will be treacherous, hypocritical, infamous, mendacious, murderous; they’ll kill systems, ideas and men, and thrive on it.”

Wouldn't you sort of like the Folio edition?

Wouldn’t you sort of like the Folio edition?

Lucien falls in love with an  actress, Coralie, and they are happy  until he gambles away their money. His cruel, witty journalism has alienated so many that there is much schadenfreude among his competitors and adversaries.  The aristocrats, particularly Louise, who has been skewered in the press by friends of Lucien, are out to get him and destroy his reputation.

The last part of the novel is set in Angoulême, where Lucien finally returns.  Brilliant David, hopelessly in debt because of loans to Lucien, is a blundering businessman who spends most of his time trying to invent a new kind of paper while Eve struggles to keep the printing shop open.  Another printing shop is trying put them out of business.

Lost Illusions details the avarice and business practices that destroy poetry, novels, reportage, and reviews.  In the story of the fall of Lucien (whose fall is not unlike that of Lucifer, though Lucien is the tempted, not the tempter), Balzac records the fall of the publishing industry (as he sees it).  But money isn’t everything, and a few characters, like David and Eve, manage to escape the papery world.

Balzac, William Cooper, Howard Jacobson and the Rest of Us on Publishing

"Lost Illusions' illustration by Francis Mosley

“Lost Illusions’ illustration by Francis Mosley

Let’s allow the publishers their fatuous make-believe:  they never do read any books, otherwise they wouldn’t publish so many!”–Balzac’s Lost Illusions

Balzac, William Cooper, and Howard Jacobson have written satirically in their fiction about the publishing business.

Lucien, the up-and-coming hero of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, abandons his literary talent for the instant gratification of journalism:  publishers in nineteenth-century Paris pay newspaper editors for good reviews, and if they don’t pay up, the reviews are negative. This journalistic power seems normal to Lucien, who can grind out 30 articles in a day under pseudonyms to support his gambling habit and high-society incursions.

Joe Lunn, the novelist narrator of William Cooper’s charming 1983 novel, Scenes from Later Life, explains that the success of a book, and especially his new book, “was more likely than not decided long before it was actually published,” because advertising is as necessary as reviews and his publisher won’t advertise.

Zoo TimeGuy Ableman, the novelist narrator of Howard Jacobson’s boisterous publishing satire, Zoo Time, blames book groups, three-for-twos, and the internet for the death of reading.  His books aren’t available in bookstores, and he is arrested for shoplifting one of his own books from Oxfam.  His publisher commits suicide, depressed by the new dependence of success on “blags” and “twits.”

Over the centuries, thousands of writers have inveighed against the publishing industry.  Of the three I mention, Balzac’s accusations are the most outrageous, but the even-tempered Cooper is also cynical about the future of literature, and witty Jacobson blames the gullibility of readers as much as he blames publishers and editors for trying to market books to readers on the net.

We feel like insiders when we read novels about writers and publishers.  Aha!  So that’s how it is.

Edouard Monet Woman writingNewspapers are folding, publishers merge, e-books outsell books, writers have to tweet to sell books, and desperate literary writers invest in a “Freedom” app to keep them from surfing the internet when they should be writing.

Books are our most precious artifacts. Have they gotten worse? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

I don’t have the faintest idea what goes on in New York and have no ax to grind, but I have struck out with a couple of new short story collections this spring, cannot imagine what my friend sees in the latest “literary masterpiece” by X, and think of permanently reverting to science fiction, a genre which “is what it is,” and which I say I like but read remarkably little of.

On the other hand, there are still Michael Chabon, Margaret Drabble, Hilary Mantel, A. M. Homes, Amitav Ghosh, and countless other great writers.  So, as Dorothy Parker put it, and this is out of context: “You might as well live.”

It is much easier in the Back of Beyond to understand the decline of journalism than to understand book publishing.  We are all witnesses to the death of the American newspaper.  And for a number of years I freelanced, so I was an insider-outsider.

It happened accidentally.

After attending a writers’ conference where the acclaimed teacher/writer forbade the use of adjectives, adverbs, participles, relative pronouns, flashbacks, and exposition in fiction, my short stories read like action-packed telegraph messages but my style was well-suited for journalism.

I began to write what I call “bubble-gum journalism.”

There was no pressure, because it was not immortal prose.

In the course of many pleasant years, I wrote charming articles about poetry slams, frozen custard, winter camping, bike messengers, birdwatching, bookstores, book-touring writers, gentrification, sculpture gardens, and farmers’ markets.

The editors were kind, if gloomy to a Dickensian degree.  Generally they were sensible, but you had to watch your back.   If they forgot to change the jokey title of your article on edgy fashions from “Courtesan Couture:  Lay Lamé Lay” to a more acceptable headline, you would find yourself apologizing to the hysterical mother of the 40-year-old woman who had worn the gold lamé tube top and hot pants to the Elton John concert.

With so many newspaper writers fired and early-retired, approximately four people now write the entire paper here.  It is said to be like the House of Borgia, without Borgias.

I love books, newspapers, and magazines and don’t think about them in terms of the publishing business.

But we will all regret it if the business kills the publications.

Let’s hope it won’t.