I knew going in that Balzac’s The Human Comedy was not a single book, but I had to do a little research to better understand what it is.
Balzac was an extraordinarily prolific fellow. Fairly early in his writing career he developed the ambition to write a huge number of works that would all come under the same umbrella as sort of one giant work—The Human Comedy. They reference each other here and there, and include some recurring characters, though some have minimal if any clear connection with other works in the series.
Ultimately, he came up with well over a hundred pieces out of which to construct The Human Comedy. He even retroactively included writings he had published before he ever had the idea for this massive project. Ninety-one pieces were completed during his lifetime, from short stories to pieces long enough to count as full-length novels on their own. Some of the others were partially written by the time he died, while some were no more than a title or a brief sketch of what he intended.
Other than a few Balzac scholars, I don’t know that many people read the entire The Human Comedy. That would be quite the ambitious undertaking, though not quite as much as writing it.
What I’m writing about here is not, of course, the entire work in all its dozens of volumes, but one particular set of “selected stories” from it, a New York Review Books edition from 2014 consisting of nine of the shorter pieces from The Human Comedy, ranging from 14 pages to 134 pages.
The opening story is one of the shortest: Facino Cane. A young man—the narrator—who loves people watching and learning about people’s lives becomes fascinated with a blind old musician. He becomes friendly with him, and encourages the old man to tell him his life story, which turns out to be an unlikely tale of nobility, tragic love, gold and unimaginable riches, a dungeon, betrayal, living in hiding in multiple countries, and more.
It’s unclear how much of it is true, or whether the narrator really believes it or is just playing along to make the old man feel better, but he allows the old man to recruit him in his scheme to travel to Venice to claim a hidden treasure.
Perhaps as notable as anything in the story is the narrator’s self-description, which presumably functions as Balzac’s own self-description:
There was only one activity that could draw me away from my studious routine…I would walk about observing the customs of the neighborhood, its inhabitants and their character. As poorly dressed as the workmen myself, careless about decorum, I never put them on their guard—I could mingle in their groups, watch them closing deals and arguing as they ended the day. In my own work, observation had already become an intuitive habit; it could penetrate into the soul without neglecting the body, or rather, so thoroughly did it grasp the external details that it moved immediately beyond: It allowed me to live a person’s life, let me put myself in his place, the way a dervish in The Thousand and One Nights would take over a person’s body and soul by pronouncing certain words over him.
The second selection in this collection is Another Study of Womankind.
In The Human Comedy, Balzac seeks to provide a thorough description of French life during the historical period in which he is writing, which is post-Revolution, post-Napoleon, post-Restoration—basically the time of the reign of Louis Philippe, who took power as king after one of France’s mini-revolutions in 1830, and was tumbled in the next one in 1848.
Louis Philippe was related to the Bourbon royal family that had ruled France for centuries aside from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, but he also allied with many Bonapartists, plus this was a time in France when the bourgeois wealthy were gaining in prominence compared to the hereditary monarchy. So the folks at the top were a mélange of contrasting and competing ideologies, agendas, and styles.
Another Study of Womankind takes place at a fancy schmancy dinner party wherein the high class guests tell stories and exchange Oscar Wildean bon mots. There’s little in the way of action in the story, as it’s really just an opportunity for Balzac, through his characters’ dialogue, to describe the lifestyle of the upper classes and to compare it—mostly unfavorably—with the “good old days,” which frankly I found to be mostly tedious. It’s page after page after page about how the useless, gossiping, preening, arrogant society women of yesterday who are judged solely by looks, youth, and how their comportment conforms to what is required of their social class were so obviously superior to the useless, gossiping, preening, arrogant society women of today who are judged solely by looks, youth, and how their comportment conforms to what is required of their social class.
I mean, if you’re an anthropologist interested in this social class of this society in this era, I’m sure this is of value (though the stereotypes strike me as unrealistically detailed), but otherwise it can be a bit of a slog.
The only significant action in Another Study of Womankind, then, is in the stories within the story. (Which can get a little convoluted narratively, by the way, where you have to pay close attention not to get lost. In some cases, a guest is recounting a story someone else told him, where sometimes that someone else is in turn quoting one or more other people.)
Most of these stories within the story have to do with rich people courtship and infidelity and such, so are still mostly just opportunities to describe a certain social class’s mores and habits. The last one, though, is clearly the most interesting, and chilling. It’s a story of immurement, kind of like Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado (and numerous other such stories; I recall, for instance, at least one on TV from maybe Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.)
Next up is The Red Inn. The bulk of this story again takes place at a social gathering of big shots, where a story within the story is told. (This time it’s just one main story within the story, rather than a series of different ones like in Another Study of Womankind.)
It’s a fairly interesting tale of the murder of a hotel guest. One of his fellow guests seriously contemplates murdering him for his money, but eventually pulls back at the last moment. In the morning he wakes to discover that the man has been murdered after all, and that he is the prime suspect.
He is wracked with guilt on the grounds that even though he didn’t commit the crime, he wanted to and almost did, and intent to commit that grave a sin is as much a mark on your character as actually committing it. Plus he can’t be a hundred percent sure he didn’t somehow sleepwalk and carry out his intention after all.
Sarrasine is, again, a story told at a social gathering of high society folks. A mysterious old gentleman is so feeble and decrepit as to be freaking out some of the guests, who almost think he must be a ghost or Death or something. But one of the guests—the narrator—knows the old man’s intriguing life story, and shares it with the young lady who accompanied him to the affair.
It’s a pretty entertaining tale about tragic love based on a colossal misperception between a passionate young artist and a singer in Rome.
A Passion in the Desert opens with a couple watching a “menagerie” performance where a man enters a cage with wild animals. The woman is amazed, but the man tells her it’s really not that remarkable, relative to a story told to him by a veteran of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. He then relates this story to her. (So this time we have a story within a story within a story.)
The soldier had been captured in Egypt, but then escaped and fled. He finds himself alone in the desert, with no idea where to go or how he’ll survive long enough to get there. He finds an oasis and rests there to ponder his fate.
He soon discovers, to his terror, that he shares this little space with a female spotted leopard. However, she is surprisingly friendly, acting with him very much the way a domestic cat would—wanting to play, to be scratched behind the ears, to be rubbed on the belly, etc.
He marvels at the affectionate relationship she allows, while also being constantly on edge about the fact that at any moment she could choose to kill him. More than once he tries to slip away, but she always leaps up and rushes over to him. He contemplates trying to kill her with his gun or knife, but fears that he’ll have too brief a time to pull it off before she retaliates and slaughters him.
There’s such a romantic, nearly sexual, connection between the man and the panther that presumably it’s intended to symbolize how falling for a woman can be mesmerizing and euphoric and all that while also putting one at extreme (emotional) risk. But really, given the way the soldier’s situation is a literal life and death one, it put me more in mind of physically risky situations with unstable, unpredictable people, like if you are in a prison cell with a much larger, more brutish, potentially violent inmate that you’ve somehow sort of made friends with and sort of get along fine with, but you know at any moment that could change and you’ll be doomed. Or maybe you’re confronted by some street gang in some isolated area, and you’re fast thinking and fast talking enough to establish some sort of rapport with the leader, but you don’t know if that will last long enough for you to find some way to escape to safety.
The story, to me, is more effective in evoking the heart-racing emotions connected with that kind of delicate tightrope walk of having a surprisingly positive but very, very tenuous relationship with someone who could literally kill you at any moment than with the ups and downs of affairs of the heart. Being wronged by an unpredictable and impulsive lover and having your heart broken is rough for sure, but it’s not quite on the level of having your throat ripped open by a panther.
Next up is Adieu. Two buddies go off on a hunting trip. They encounter a crazy woman. One of the hunters recognizes her and collapses in shock and almost dies.
It turns out he was in love with her years ago, but hasn’t seen her since 1812, when he was separated from her at the Battle of Berezina.
This was during the Napoleonic Army’s horrific retreat across Russia. In 1812, Napoleon and his forces had advanced into Russia, all the way to Moscow, which they captured. There had been few big battles with the Russians, as the Russians preferred to let Napoleon’s troops be gradually weakened by the enormous distance they traveled, the lack of provisions in the scorched earth they crossed, and the extreme weather. Though in a normal war, Napoleon would have “won” by capturing Moscow, in fact he sat there for an extended time waiting for a surrender or some kind of negotiations that never came. Running out of supplies, he was forced to retreat enough with his forces to shorten supply lines, but however far he went was never far enough, and as the weather turned bitterly cold the limited pullback turned into pell mell flight. The Russian army harassed them along the way, but still rarely attacked them full force.
When Napoleon’s troops reached the Berezina River, however, there was a realistic chance not just that they’d continue to weaken as their retreat continued, but that they’d be captured before any of them could cross the river. They actually had to fight unusually intelligently and courageously just to “only” suffer significant casualties when the Russians attacked, and to get a fraction of the army across the river to continue on to France.
Anyway, the experience was hugely traumatizing to all who survived it, and it drove this particular woman insane.
She is now under the care of her uncle. The uncle and her former lover, once he recovers, do whatever they can think of to try to restore her to sanity.
The seventh of the nine selections is Z. Marcas, one of the least eventful.
Two students in Paris become curious about an odd and secretive neighbor of theirs. First they spy on him, but eventually they get to know him and in fact become friends with him.
They find out that he has off and on been something of a political big shot, but always behind the scenes. He has helped make the careers of other high officials, each time being promised that his assistance will be reciprocated so that he too can rise politically, and then each time being betrayed.
He explains to them that the biggest weakness of the present regime in France (in the 1830s), and the reason it is destined to be swept away in another revolution, is that the positions at the top are dominated by old fogeys, and that the talented and ambitious young people who should provide vitality to a state are being largely shut out of political success.
In Gobseck, the second longest story in the book, a lawyer relates his experiences with Parisian Jewish usurer Jean-Esther Van Gobseck.
Of all the stories so far, this may be the least successful as a “standalone.” As the endnotes partly explain, the characters and events of Gobseck relate to multiple other stories in The Human Comedy. Part of the purpose of Gobseck apparently is to provide the background for what happens in other stories to these characters and those connected to them.
To some extent Gobseck is the stereotype of the greedy, miserly moneylender you might expect—as the lawyer comments, “In all my career in the law never have I seen such a spectacle of greed and eccentricity”—but he does have a human side and seems, for example, to have a genuine fondness for the lawyer.
The main action of the story involves a young noblewoman who goes deeply into debt to Gobseck as a result of her irresponsible spending, including on a lover. All the financial wheeling and dealing get a little hard to follow, but ultimately her husband actually allies himself with Gobseck in some sort of scheme to keep her from inheriting—and blowing—his whole fortune when he dies.
The Duchesse de Langeais, really a novella rather than a short story, is the last and by far the longest selection in the book.
A general who has distinguished himself on the battlefield and survived unlikely adventures overseas but who is quite naïve and inexperienced when it comes to women, love, and Parisian society, falls hard for a young and beautiful duchess (technically married, but living apart from her husband) who in contrast knows all about the style and manners of Parisian society and all the rituals of flirtation, seduction, courtship, etc., but little else. They go back and forth, with the duchess mostly toying with him but sometimes losing control of her own emotions, and the general mostly determined to win her over but sometimes rethinking that in response to her game-playing. Throughout their relationship, whenever one declares that they now are hopelessly, madly in love and belong forever to the other, the other decides they’re really not that into them after all. For example, the duchess is most impressed with him and utterly swept off her feet (I’m enough of a feminist to have winced at this) when he kidnaps her and gallantly announces to his captive that he is not going to rape her even though he easily could, because he is now indifferent to her.
Ultimately she renounces her life as a noblewoman and enters the most severe of convents. The general spends five years searching every convent in every country until he finally finds her.
I won’t say how it ends so as not to spoil it, but I’m not at all sure how to interpret the ending. I even spent some time online researching it, but found no discussions of the ending.
The story is somewhat engaging in its depiction of the psychology of the mating ritual between these two. To a small degree I got caught up in the romance of it, but to no more than that small degree given that their courtship involves so much deception, coercion, and sexism as to make them and their social world not very likable.
And it is indeed another story whose purpose is, in part, to provide an opportunity for Balzac to make grand pronouncements on how the Parisian social elite live and what’s wrong with it, how it compares to the elite in various other recent historical periods, etc.
That stuff still strikes me as mostly oversimplified generalizations and stereotypes, though I know Balzac is greatly praised for his sociological observations. But I don’t feel all that confident of what he says about the French—or at least the subgroups of the French that he focuses on—than I do, for instance, about his passing remark that the Chinese are “a people essentially given to imitation.”
Considering The Human Comedy: Selected Stories as a whole, I can’t honestly say I was greatly impressed by my first exposure to Balzac. I mean, some of the stories were engaging to a degree, there are passages that are intelligent and insightful, and I certainly didn’t hate the book or have to force myself to read it, but he’s not one of the “classic” novelists, one of the “dead white male” literary giants, that most spoke to me and made me eager to read more.