Maybe your experiences will prove to have been different, and if so, fair enough, but in our travels through the book trade, it seems that when people decide to take a break from contemporary fiction so as to explore the great 19th century authors, they tend to go for the works of Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, often to the exclusion of other worthies, notably our man Honoré de Balzac, who found a way to pen some luxuriously worldly novels while perennially on the brink of financial catastrophe. In fact, in a twenty year span between the ages of thirty and fifty, he produced about ninety novels and short stories. You have to admire his wherewithal and initiative, especially when you consider that it’s not necessarily a cinch to maintain your concentration if you happen to know that selected usurers are contriving to close down your Twitter App and heave you in the hoosegow. (Balzac was brilliant on Twitter—though he argued on behalf of more characters.)
Oddly enough, we thought of good old Honoré the other morning, when we were running behind and in need of caffeine. In years gone by, it would have been too late to make coffee, but the newly purchased Keurig poured a road-ready cup in sixty seconds or less, and we were out the door.
The coffee triggered a recollection that Balzac was something of a world heavyweight champion consumer of the beverage, using the drink to fuel his attempt to achieve greatness and/or keep from getting his furniture confiscated. Would the novelist have invested in a Keurig? This newsletter is all about the book business, not coffeemakers, but odds are reasonably favorable that Balzac—who was determined and talented enough to be in Penguin Classics with or without a Keurig—would have watched a demonstration of the machine and said, “I’ll take it.”
In honor of the author of The Human Comedy, then, here’s how.
A Somewhat Balzacian Scheme to Sell Balzac
It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that customers are not as plugged into Balzac for the same reason that they might decline to get going on a new crime novel series: they don’t know where to begin. Balzac was not philosophically opposed to putting some of his more compelling characters into more than one book, and the reader benefits from knowing how the narratives play out. Where should a newcomer to Balzac make a start?
In The Rough Guide to Classic Novels, Simon Mason properly includes his Balzac recommendation in the chapter entitled, Making It. This is a recurring theme for Balzac, as he sometimes focuses on characters in their late teens or early twenties who leave the south of France to “make it” in Paris. Mason, in The Rough Guide to Classic Novels, constructs a strong case for starting with Cousin Bette (Penguin Classics, 9780140441604) and while we definitely plan to read that novel next, here’s what we can recommend in a three novel trajectory:
- Old Man Goriot, which is available from Penguin Classics (9780140449723), with a new, 2011 translation by Olivia McCannon and an introduction by the stellar biographer Graham Robb. This work gets the reader rolling on Balzac’s aforementioned theme of “making it.” The new arrival to Paris, Eugene de Rastignac, grows impatient with the study of law when it becomes apparent that he lacks the means to dazzle various women. Rastignac stays in a boarding-house that roils with intrigue and that is inhabited by one of Balzac’s all-time great recurring characters: the cynical con man Vautrin. This book is loaded with memorable scenes and the kind of profound dialogue that contemporary novelists should be mining for epigraphs. And when Vautrin seizes the opportunity to fully propound his brand of untruth, the reader will forget that Hard Times was on back order. Next…
- Lost Illusions (Penguin Classics, 9780140442519). Continues the theme of “making it” in Paris, only this time with Lucien Chardon, a young poet who finds out that associates in and out of the publishing trade are not altogether committed to giving a writer a fair shake. Next…
- A Harlot High and Low (Penguin Classics, 9780140442328). Continues the narratives of Lucien and Vautrin, with the latter character at the heart of a web of underworld intrigue.
The Novel as Experience
To be sure, not all coffee drinkers will be in the mood for taking a carriage ride to 19th century Paris with Balzac as a guide. Unlike Dostoevsky, good old Honoré never learned to get the action moving in the opening line, thereby splicing backstory as and when. Balzac always gives you the background, every last detail of it, in the first couple of chapters. It’s worth remembering, though, that when your creditors are gathering to revoke your various online privileges, you understand the importance of selling books: Balzac goes out of his way to keep you entertained with a satirical prose style. It’s a matter of being willing to relax and “try on” the literary experience. Make no mistake: for a capable reader who is open to entering the world, Balzac creates a richly vivid one.