Discovering Honoré de Balzac’s series of novels, The Comedie Humaine, has been perhaps the most satisfying of my reading experiences this year. The first book I read in the series was Père Goriot and in researching that I found that it was only one of 95 finished works. Evidently a life’s task to read them all.
There are many resources on the net to help you navigate this vast panorama and good place to start is the list of links in the Balzac Yahoo Group. Project Gutenburg even has a vast list of the characters in the series available for download. And if you have an Amazon Kindle you can download complete sets of Balzac’s novels for a very small amount of money.
I read Lost Illusions a couple of months ago and found it to be an engrossing read. The book is summarised extremely well on the Old and Sold website here and in many other places and so I won’t repeat the exercise here. I’ll just provide a few thoughts on the reading experience – much of which applies to all classics.
To read Balzac, you need lots and lots of time. This edition of Lost Illusions is over 700 pages of smallish text, and when you start a book like this you have to think in terms of a week or more to be devoted to it. Its no good having short reading sessions – you really have to settle down for an hour if you’re going to make headway and I even found myself setting myself targets of reading a chunk of 50 pages at a time in order to make sure I actually got through it. This is not to say that its not enjoyable (in fact I found it totally engrossing), but its with any classical book by authors like Dickens, Trollope or Zola, you do have to slog through it.
When you read a classic, you become aware of the sheer quality of the writing. It takes time to develop a character and these people really knew how to do it. Rather than a “snapshot” of a main character, you get a substantial part of their lives, showing the changes they go through, the effects of time and chance on their character and the ups and downs of their relationships. Lucien Chardon led a tumultuous few years during the course of Lost Illusions and we see him experiencing everything life can throw at him – from huge social and literary success through to abject failure and penury seeing him at his most proud and also at his most humiliated. Its a roller-coaster ride, if rather a slow one, but the reader is drawn on through page after page in order to find out what happens next.
The leisurely style allows Balzac to meander, to ponder, to draw out every possible aspect of people and situations. This is an in-depth exploration, not a brief impressionistic study. I find as I read books like this, that they make me reflect and think about the processes underlying the story. Balzac offers an insight into life, and although the events described happened two centuries ago, you realise that the book is modern – the impact of city life on those who were not brought up to it, the awakening ambition of someone who begins to attract approval from those in a higher social situation than himself, the desire to form relationships with those who can advance your cause – and the consequent letting go of those who helped you at an earlier stage of your career. Lucien is obnoxious in his treatment of his old friends and readers are led into a wicked sense of schadenfreude as his ascent slowly turns into decline.
I can’t help consider who the Balzac’s of today would be. Obviously my thoughts turn to Jonathan Franzen, the subject of my last review, and I have to say, yes, there are similarities: the large canvas, the passage of years, the rise and fall of the main characters.
I enjoyed reading Lost Illusions and will continue to read more books by this great author – and will take advantage of buying about 60 of them for my new Kindle.