George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte found Balzac's books distasteful but after my first one I'm impressed, and there's no quick way to impart all this, so if you have the time, be my guest, get the coffee on and settle down for dovegreyreader Bigs Up Balzac.
In fact I have given myself quite an extraordinary surprise by reading Eugenie Grandet, because it was excellent, start to finish. I was expecting a bit of a plod because I had quite thought of Balzac as probably impenetrable and dense because everyone always speaks of him in hushed, reverential tones which have always implied an insurmountable degree of difficulty to me.
Pshaw or words to that effect.
I suspect Eugenie Grandet was a good launching point into Balzac. Just under 200 pages and I was quickly drawn into the realist writing and Family Grandet of Saumur, as mother and daughter Eugenie cope with the tyrannic cruelty of a miserly husband and father who, despite having the wealth of Croesus stashed in his room, purports to have not two sous to rub together,
'Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet had the qualities of both a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He had the art of lying in wait, hidden, studying his prey for a long time, and finally jumping on it; then he would open his purse, gulp down a load of coins, and lie down again quietly to digest, like a serpent, impassive, cold, and methodical.'
Allegations abound of Balzac's insufferable and garrulous attention to detail, all likely to leave a reader feeling on the brink of asphyxiation and rising claustrophobia with no gaps and silences, nothing left to the imagination; well none of it held any quarter here because I just wallowed in this tale of life in rural France. Admittedly I felt a good deal of ambivalence towards the characters, little seemed destined to arouse my sympathies so perhaps I hadn't been encouraged to imagine much in those lives beyond the page as I drank in all the extraneous detail, but I suspect a second read would deal with that.
Kicking off my need-to-know-much-more about Honore de Balzac with the little Hesperus Brief Lives biography by David Carter was probably a good move. Bite-sized digestible chunks of Balzac's life plus handy little snippets such as the anecdote about the women scrabbling on the floor for locks of his hair when he had it cut.
With my interest now waxing obsessive I delved further and spent good money (£3) at Book Barn on an old copy of Balzac by the superlative Stefan Zweig, whilst leaving behind a shelf full of well-thumbed and beautifully pencil-annotated Complete Works.
Let's not run before we can walk etc
Thanks to Stefan I discovered that it was all down to Balzac's attention to women in his writing that gained him such a loyal following,
'Women always have a preference for a writer who is concerned with
their problems, and Balzac's predilection for his women characters whom
he depicted as the unhappy, misunderstood victims of man, the
allowances he made for their failings, his sympathy with abandoned,
outcast or ageing females...'
Plenty of detail from Stefan Zweig about Balzac's legendary writing routine too, the white robe, the stack of special paper with a blue-ish tinge to prevent eye strain, only raven's feather quill pens would do, and the coffee, a special three-bean brew (Bourbon, Martinique and Mocha and why aren't Costa serving up a Balzac Latte?) mixed only by the man himself and an estimated 50,000 cups downed in his lifetime.
Correct me if I'm wrong but I'm also thinking Balzac may have invented the fashion for the obligatory long drawn-out Parisian literary death.
A jolly good Parisian death seems to outdo any other death anywhere ten times over, and Balzac notched up a fine selection of gruesome and messy ailments ,dropsy, peritonitis, blisters and gangrene for which the treatment of choice in 1850 included a hundred leeches on his stomach.
Stefan Zweig gives an incredibly moving account of Balzac's demise following his carefully stage-managed arrival for the first time at his recently completed Parisian dream home, Pavillon Beaujon. The house would be glowing with light and bursting with fresh flowers to impress the mistress who had finally become his wife (perhaps suspecting this wouldn't take long) only to be rapidly faced with a fulminating bout of death from all his complaints combined,
'Balzac died at half-past ten on the evening of August the 17th, 1850. His mother was the only person present, his wife having long since retired. His end was terribly lonely.'
David and Stefan between them certainly equipped me to face the demons and my first foray into the world of Balzac.
As always there is an informative introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition, in this case written by Christopher Prendergast and in which he offers an interesting take on the definition of a classic and the value of multiple readings,
' A better way of construing the 'identity' of the classic would be to see it as that which is porous to multiple reading, hospitable to changing interpretations, in which something can always be found which hasn't been noticed or stressed before. This can apply to the re-readings of individuals over time as well as to shifts of taste and pre-occupations across generations of readers.'
That all set me to thinking about 'my classics', those books which read so differently each time I pick them up and how I wish I'd read Balzac years ago to benefit from all those multiple readings, then I feel a mild sense of panic, does anyone else?
So many good books still to be read.
But take heart because I've managed a Parisian link with tonight's stocking filler prize draw, don't miss it whatever you do.