I am very new to Honoré de Balzac. Last year, without really knowing anything about The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine), I read its most famous instalment, Père Goriot, and loved it. Keen to read more, I naturally hopped on the internet for recommendations and there my enthusiasm died; I hadn’t realised the Comedy was so formidable. Comprising ninety-one completed works (and countless more uncompleted ones), Balzac’s magnum opus runs the gamut from very short stories to very long novels and features more than two-thousand characters, many recurring. Where was I supposed to go next? What I really needed was a good introduction to point me in the right direction. How fortuitous, then, that one has just been published; Peter Brooks’ Balzac’s Lives is the perfect companion for Balzac newcomers.
Brooks begins by saying what the book is not: it is not a biography of Balzac, and those looking for one ought to go elsewhere. Rather, Balzac’s Lives is “an antibiography or maybe more accurately an oblique biography” that tells the novelist’s story through his fictional creations. The titular “lives,” then, are those of the characters, as living and breathing to Brooks as they so obviously were for Balzac. For a reader like me, who is more interested in the work than the life, this format is ideal.
With 2,472 characters available to him, Brooks clearly has to narrow his focus: he chooses nine. A rather meagre sample, you might say, but these nine, who include Eugène de Rastignac, Jean-Esther van Gobseck and Jacques Collin, are among the most important and regularly-occurring in the whole project and their stories intersect with hundreds of others’. So, in reality, we get far more than just nine. These connections are often coded by Brooks in filmic terms (“The last part of Père Goriot plays out on a split screen”), and, call me a millennial, but the scale and scope of the Comedy, as described here, did put me in mind of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given the size of his subject, Brooks deserves credit for making it so comprehensible; I, for one, would not like to have to summarise those labyrinthine plots.
Brooks does far more than just summarise, though. After explaining where each character fits narratively into the Comedy, he then goes on to explain their thematic significance. This is where Brooks’ choice of characters begins to make sense: each somehow embodies one or more of Balzac’s major themes. So Rastignac, that penniless student desperate to enter the upper echelons of society, represents “unbridled and possibly unscrupulous ambition”; the moneylender Gobseck “greed”; and Collin, that criminal mastermind, the role of “the novelist” himself.
If these seem rather broad, then consider the context in which Balzac was writing: France of the 1830s and 40s. Though the monarchy had been restored in 1815, the Revolution had set in motion changes that no monarch could halt. No longer was a good name the only ticket to power; money could get you there, too. Hence the emergence of an upwardly mobile middle class who, with the backing of moneylenders like Gobseck, could end up in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. That is the trajectory Rastignac’s life takes. But now that social roles are no longer fixed, now that lawyers and moneylenders hobnob with aristocrats on equal terms, “how do you know the distinctions between them?” That, according to Brooks, is the question that The Human Comedy seeks to answer, and if Balzac’s characters seem broad, then remember: his subject is nothing less than the whole of society.
Brooks is at his best in these moments: when he’s writing about the conditions of the Comedy’s production. I particularly enjoyed his section on Lost Illusions, in which he considers the changing nature of print culture in post-Revolutionary France and how Balzac shaped, and was shaped by, that. He is less convincing when he makes broad, sweeping statements about his subject’s legacy. For instance, where is the evidence to support his claim that Balzac is “the first writer truly to seize the meaning of the emergent modern world”? He is also a little too insistent on the writer’s proto-Freudianism. These conjectures are few and far between, though, and for the most part Brooks is a servant of the facts. It pays off. Balzac’s Lives did for me what any good introduction should do: make me want to delve deeper.
Balzac’s Lives is published by New York Review of Books and is available here.