| the ledge files
the ledge - nl - uk
Honoré de Balzac
publisher: , 1830-1850
'La Comédie Humaine'
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam,
refered to by:
Three Novels: Soft Soap, The Leg, Will-O’-the Wisp (Het dwaallicht)
Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Children of the Alley
|Balzac's greatest work is a cycle of novels called La Comédie humaine, in which he attempts to capture the vastness and variety of life in Paris in the middle of the 19th century. Each novel and story is different, and meant to stand alone, but many characters recur in different capacities. The result is a dense fictional kaleidoscope of materialism, envy, spite, worldliness, and occasional virtue - characters of all ages and types and social positions encounter one another, act in one another's dramas, and then go on, in many cases, to something completely different. Two important novels in the larger project are Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons, which were written as a pair on the theme of "poor relations".
Balzac was a great materialist. His novels always discuss money, and most of his characters are motivated largely by greed, though occasionally by lust. How much income each has, the expenses of each, what each wants to earn by gaining some sort of position, how much it costs to live in Paris or to marry a daughter to a desirable husband are all central concerns in Balzac's world. In this sense he is the quintessential realistic novelist, since nothing drives sentimentality out of a novel like exact sums of money, and monetary anxiety is a common feature of novel plots, both because the opposing temptations of greed and true feeling offer efficient moral choices for characters and because authors themselves are often writing for a living and pressed for money, and so monetary questions are interesting to them.
For Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons, considerations of poverty and dependence on wealthy relatives are central to their characters. Bette is the plain cousin; her pretty benefactor has been married long ago to a dedicated libertine whom she loves very much. This woman, Baroness Hulot, who is exceptionally religious, has tried to help Bette, but Bette has secretly cultivated her resentments. She attempts to harm the family in every way possible while all the time pretending to be grateful and affectionate.
Cousin Pons is a small-time musician and big-time collector of objets d'art. Because he is devoted to and jealous of his collection, he lives in poverty - his only pleasure is gastronomy. He is in the habit of dining with his wealthy friends and benefactors, but over the years he gets less and less welcome at their tables, and eventually he is insulted and dismissed by his cousins, who have no idea he owns an enviable treasure. He has one friend, Schmücke, who is, indeed, a schmuck - an utter innocent who loves Pons but can hardly help him against the vultures who gather once the news of his wealth emerges. Most of the novel describes Pons's decline toward death as everyone but Schmücke and a couple of people from the theatre where he works scheme to steal, defraud, and murder.
Both novels have several gruesome fascinations. In Cousin Bette, Bette's protégée, a young woman she sponsors as a seductress, contracts a fatal and disfiguring venereal disease, which Balzac describes in some detail. In Cousin Pons, Pons is tormented by his concierge, whose attempts to bully him to death by haranguing and contradicting him are portrayed at length. In both novels the sordid habitations of the poor or low characters are described with relish. It is also true, though, that Pons's cherished collection is carefully depicted - Balzac himself was a knowledgeable and ambitious collector who perhaps awarded to
| Pons pieces he himself might have wished to own.
Many novelists of the mid-19th century had social theories, and Balzac's narratives are regularly interspersed with expository asides on such things as the course of Pons's illness or the reasons certain dying people have visions and others don't. Balzac was not as careful of his authorial voice and narrative position as certain more artful authors such as George Eliot and Henry James were later, but he was writing very quickly - the cycle of novels (projected to be 115 volumes, with 85 completed) was organised and written in about 10 years (some of the volumes were already written when Balzac decided how he was going to shape his larger project). The author had to devise a natural and eloquent storytelling method that enabled him to deliver both information and drama easily and quickly. His stories are suspenseful and his intrusions seem automatic, as if the conversational voice is right there beside the composing voice, ready to offer additional insights at any time. Balzac seems almost uniquely unselfconscious as an author, as if, in the rush of events and analysis, he simply doesn't have time to ponder and cultivate his narrative presentation.
Nor does Balzac seem to have a larger political theory. Many of his characters are vile - inhumanly greedy, callous, cruel and almost too cold even to be called sadistic. Bette is one of these - on her deathbed "quite wretched at the good fortune that was shining on her family", her only comfort is that they have no idea how she hates them and are, therefore, "mourning her as the good angel of the family". Her cousin-in-law, Baron Hulot, who seems in the last chapters to have been redeemed by the suffering of his wife and family, ends up in the bed of the kitchen maid; his saintly and devoted wife overhears him say to the girl, "My wife hasn't long to live, and if you like you can be a baroness."
Balzac accounts for their natures by depicting Paris, France and Frenchness in ever more detail, leaving the reader to conclude that the characters are horrible because they are French, and perhaps even more horrible because they live in Paris (although the narrow-minded greed of some of the provincial characters, such as Bette, and the father in the opening chapters of Lost Illusions, is perhaps more brutishly automatic than that of socially calculating Parisians). In Cousin Pons, innocence is reserved for Schmücke, who is German, and kindliness is reserved for some of the hardworking theatre people, who seem to have fun from time to time, but at any rate to be relatively free of the status anxiety that motivates the others. In Cousin Bette Madame Hulot plays the same role, though her innocence is a result of faith rather than nationality.
These characters do not figure in the plots as models to be emulated, though. Rather they end up as consenting dupes for the others, simply because they do not have the energy or the perspicacity to counteract the plots against them.
Balzac, therefore, expresses a version of novelistic conservatism - humans are unredeemed and apparently unredeemable; France is a Boschian landscape of iniquity, Paris its sewer. Even so, Balzac's novels have a comic liveliness, as if the author's fascination with the social scene were unbounded and its very energy compensated for its repellent inhabitants.
- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 6 May 2006
|BOOKS BY HONORé DE BALZAC:|
One of the the earliest and most famous novels in Balzac's Comedie Humaine. Eugénie's emotional awakening brings her into direct conflict with her father, whose cunning and financial success are matched against her determination to rebel.
|'La Comédie Humaine'|
Multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories (nearly 100!) depicting French society in the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy 1815-1848.
Monsieur Goriot is one of a select group of lodgers at Madame Vanquer's Parisian boarding house. At first his wealth inspires respect, but as his circumstances are reduced he becomes shunned and soon his only remaining visitors are two beautiful, mysterious young women.
The story of the Hulot family. Risen to eminence under Napoleon 1, their aristocratic values leave them bewildered and vulnerable in the money-ridden burgeois Paris of the 1840s. It is also the story of Bette herself, the poor relation whose patient malice finally leads to their demise.
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn
Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.