Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fortnightly Book, January 26

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a prolific author; he could often write for sixteen hours a day with no more than minor breaks (and a lot of coffee). At some point amidst all his novels and plays and short stories, he began to see that much of what he was doing somehow was tied together, and in 1830 he began to formulate this tie by grouping works together in a sort of super-opus, which he eventually called La Comédie humaine, The Human Comedy. In a sense it kept outgrowing itself. He originally just grouped some of his works under the label Scènes de la vie privée, Scenes of Private Life, which naturally suggested the possibility of something more expensive; he then conceived of the idea of a sister series, Scènes de la vie de province, Scenes of Provincial Life. As this series progressed he began using occasionally recurring characters from work to work.

By 1834, he recognized that a different organization could include a handful of his other works, and that there might be a better way to group the works already there. Thus he came up with the idea of a three-category classification for this super-group: Etudes de Moeurs au XIXe siècle, Studies of Nineteenth-Century Manners, which was largely built around his original conception and natural extensions of it, and was concerned with the effects of society; Etudes philosophiques, Philosophical Studies, which were more fantastic, building on ideas that were spiritualistic or quasi-counterfactual, which he took to shed light on social causes; and Etudes analytiques, Analytical Studies, which was taken up by one of the works Balzac had wanted to add in, The Physiology of Marriage, and which, being more abstract and removed from narrative, he took to explore the principles connecting cause and effect in society. The first category, however, kept growing, until it contained not only the first two Scènes but also Scènes de la vie parisienne, Scenes of Parisian Life; Scènes de la vie politique, Scenes of Political Life; Scènes de la vie militaire, Scenes of Military Life; and Scènes de la vie de campagne, Scenes of Country Life. By the end of his life at age fifty-one, La Comédie humaine consisted of about 91 complete works and forty-six incomplete or projected works. In the works as we have them characters number in the thousands. And it is worth keeping in mind that he had a short life: the entire super-opus as we have it was written in the space of about twenty years. We talk about world-building today, but authors who can really be said to do it in a serious way are few; Balzac is one of them. Incidentally, not all of Balzac's work are in La Comédie humaine; he has several plays that are not, and one of his most famous (and most banned) works, Droll Stories, is also separate.

Being a remarkably prolific author should have set Balzac up for life, but he had a tendency to spend money as quickly as he got it. He lived and ate well, spent money on mistresses, and engaged in reckless-to-the-point-of-crazy business ventures at every turn. At one point he had to flee his creditors and he died more or less penniless. It's hard to think of the author of the Human Comedy as a human tragedy, though; perhaps he was more of a human farce.

The fortnightly book is Eugénie Grandet. It was the first of the Scènes de la vie de province, published in 1834 when only the first bare outlines of the super-opus were in view, and is usually regarded as one of Balzac's greatest novels, and the first of his novels to be not merely good but great. It is said to be one of his more serious and restrained novels, looking at the interaction of life and money. This will be my first time reading it. I haven't really read any of Balzac's novels before, although I've read quite a few of his short stories, including all of the very-much-not-for-children-and-sometimes-not-for-adults Droll Stories, which is the other Balzac book I have on my shelf.

I'll be reading it in a nice Heritage Press (New York) edition with reproduced wash-and-line drawings by René de Sussan. It uses 14-point Bembo type on nice paper. The binding is especially nice; I quote from the Sandglass:

The three-piece cloth binding, assembled into one piece by the Russell-Rutter company in New York, follows the style devised by Meynell for our great French Romances series. The backstrap is a forest-green buckram of the highest, most expensive grade, with the script title stamped in genuine gold leaf, and the linen sides are printed in dark green with an overall pattern reproducing the classic French fleur-de-lis. As with our Great French Romances, this design has deliberately been handled to give the tapestry a faded effect.

Nothing like reading a Heritage Press edition, with its perfect balance of practicality, inexpensiveness, and artistry; these things really do affect how one reads.

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