Balzac

By Stefan Zweig.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. This ‘biography’ has, from Zweig’s pen, Balzac as a wild, wayward  picaresque character. Balzac, himself, wrote to the Duchesse Duchesse d’Abrantès:

“In my five-foot two-inches there is compressed every imaginable contrast and contradiction. If anyone likes to call me vain, extravagant, stubborn, frivolous, inconsistent in my thinking, dandified, careless, indolent, lacking in due reflection and not sufficiently painstaking, without perseverance, loquacious, tactless, ill-bred, rude, subject to odd changes of mood, he will be no less right than anyone else who says that I am thrifty, modest, and courageous, tenacious, energetic, carefree, industrious, steadfast, taciturn, full of refinement and courtesy, and always cheerful. It can be asserted with equal truth that I am a poltroon or a hero, a clever fellow or an ignoramus, extremely talented or stupid. Nothing will surprise me. I myself have finally resolved to believe that I am merely an instrument, the plaything of circumstance.”

The book was published after Zweig’s death and it had to be pieced together from the manuscripts he left behind. A great many years had been spent researching Balzac’s life and it had become an obsession. What we are left with in this biography is still, despite the fragmentation, up there in the rarefied air – it twist and turns and roars – like the genius of Balzac himself.

The following quote in the biography comes from Zweig’s mouth and it seems to encompass the paradigm that shaped both of their creative life.

“The artist possesses a remedy which no physician can prescribe for other patients. He alone can throw off his worries by giving them artistic expression. He can transmute the bitterness of experience into the moving portrayal of human character and fashion the constraint of outward circumstance into creative freedom.”

I imagine I will read this biography again: it is packed full of ideas, characters, vivacious plot lines and surreal anecdotes – just like a good novel by Balzac.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cousin Bette

By Honoré de Balzac.

One of Balzac’s greatest novels, and, an uncomfortable read. There’s so much intrigue here. Balzac is cutting with his perspicaciousness and the subtle and not-so-subtle lampooning of individuals and the aspects of the Human Comedy that they embody. As always – fantastic witticisms:

“Money never misses the slightest occasion to demonstrate its stupidity. Paris would by now contain ten times the treasures of Venice if our retired businessmen had had the instinct for fine things that distinguishes the Italians.”

 

“She struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Crevel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels.”

At novel end, you breathe a sigh of relief. The characters have been through the ringer and the reader feels the same. But, masterfully done. Balzac was fired up and had things to say here. A final quote:

“‘You remind me, Papa Lumignon,’ said Stidmann, ‘of the bookseller who used to say, before the Revolution: “Ah! if I could only keep Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau properly short of cash, in my garret, with their breeches locked up, what good little books they would write for me and I should make my fortune!” If fine works of art could be turned out like nails, commissionaires would be making them…”

 

 

 

 

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A Drama on the Seashore

By Honoré de Balzac.

Quite a strange short tale – two stories in one, really. I’m not sure if this based on something Balzac heard and that the writer in tale who hears the story is in fact him. It could be timely to read a biography of him. It may shed some light on some of his work. Andre Maurois wrote something I believe.

A very tragic novella dealing with extremes of human emotion and relations, and framed perfectly in a walk the writer and his lover take on the seashore. Exquisitely done. Again, another story that stays with you.

 

 

 

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Colonel Chabert

By Honoré de Balzac.

Another wonderful slice of melancholy from Balzac. As always other stories and back-stories are hinted at – making it an even richer tapestry of characters and potentialities. I can see how this could be developed into something much larger. Tolstoy probably could have written an enormous magnum-opus from this short story / novella. A war-hero colonel loses his identity after being left for dead and registered as such. Chabert then convinces a lawyer that he is that war hero and his scheming wife has also remarried and things then get complicated. But, of course, it doesn’t all end up like a Hollywood movie – there are far more subtleties. Quite a brilliant story which you continue to turn over in your mind after finishing.

 

 

 

 

 

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Study of a Woman and The Elixir of Life

By Honoré de Balzac.

Another two brief stories. The Elixir of Life is based on a Hoffman story about Don Juan that Balzac advises never made it into his collected works and so he has no qualms of conscience in borrowing. This omission may have been rectified by now. The story is more magical and fantastic that what Balzac usually writes. It is very intriguing and melancholy though. Study of a Woman contains characters from some of Balzac’s other novels. It is a snapshot of an episode that may occur in one of his full books. In the Elixir of Life Balzac references Rabelais which apparently he does in more than twenty of his novels:

…eyes were growing dull, and drunkenness, in Rabelais’ phrase, had “taken possession of them down to their sandals.”

 

 

 

 

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Adieu and A Passion in the Desert

By Honoré de Balzac.

Two great short tales. A Passion in the Desert quite different from Balzac’s usual stories – but still very entertaining. Some commentators have said that it is Balzac trying his hand at Orientalism. Adieu also involves an army officer but his passion is the wife of one of his superior officers and not a tiger in the desert. Both involve nature and adventure and are a departure from Balzac’s usual way of doing things. It is possible that the shorter tales were a ground for experimentation. Here is one of the final exchanges from A Passion in the Desert:

‘In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.’ ‘Yes, but explain—-‘  ‘Well,’ he said, with an impatient gesture, ‘it is God without mankind.’

 

 

 

 

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A Second Home

 

By Honoré de Balzac.

Another intense study by Balzac into the nature of human relations. It’s very melancholy and keeps you guessing right the way through – though the plot isn’t wholly the point. Things are left unsaid and the characters are ambiguous. Is Granville all he seems – and how about the other characters? The two central women in the novel (Angelique and Caroline) seem to occupy the moral extremes while Granville’s life itself is a balance between the rigour of being a lawyer, while also possessing a poetic soul. If he was completely one or the other then the events in the novel wouldn’t overpower him.  There’s lots to think about here. Balzac is a master.

 

 

 

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Gobseck

By Honoré de Balzac.

On New Year’s Eve after a couple of wines I regaled a friend with the opinion that Balzac has everything, so why bother reading anything modern? It’s all right there – in Balzac’s characters, their intrigues and the truths that come out of their mouths. In the cold light of day, I have to say, this still holds. Although, instead of saying ‘just’ Balzac, I would add a legion of old writers. Modern stuff has no interest – not because it is ‘modern’ but because I don’t think it is very good. In our ‘Late Capitalist Realism‘ all that matters is plot and for something to be written in a snappy way, because units have to be shifted and that’s what the ‘real’ world demands, isn’t it?

In Balzac’s Gobseck there is plot, hinted at back-stories, intrigue, fantastic characterisation and real psychological insights brought about by all these elements. There is a truth in the words – not just craft and a desire to sell books. This truth is sometimes not altogether clear – it is equivocal. But, when something is not stated plainly then you start to consider it and the questions become internalised. I have spent the days after reading Gobseck thinking about Gobseck himself. It is true he had a desire for wealth, but he was also an adventurer and lived against the grain and he had an integrity about him, a purity of purpose. So, why then do we find his actions distasteful at the end? It’s a short novel and in the public domain so it should be read and I won’t give anything else away. I believe Gobseck to have had many positive attributes, as the early relationship between he and Derville shows. But, then, is there one small action that changes his path? Is this moment even in the novel? There are so many quotable lines from this story – here is one:

“I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet; it is not petty spite; I like to make them feel a touch of the claws of necessity.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Vendetta

By Honoré de Balzac.

Balzac really is a superb craftsman – sometimes you forget how good particular writers are. This novel has a historical framework which Balzac then makes personal showing how broad events affect the individual and their their destinies. The main protagonists are of Corsican descent and we view their passions within the Napoleonic context. It all ends badly as it often does with Balzac.

In very general terms, what the novel does is convey a choice: to live reasonably, or live passionately which involves risk. At the end you are left equivocal, wondering whether Ginerva’s decision to opt for passion was worth the tragic end. The other main theme shows the destructive nature of revenge or a vendetta. Balzac is masterful and the story is intriguing and affecting – and stays with you.

Soundtrack: The The – True Happiness this way lies.

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