Well, I’m back with a Tuesday (barely) book review after getting creative with my schedule for two weeks. I finished several books in the interval though, which I’m going to try and get reviews out for. First up, a book I began last October and have been intermittently slogging away at since: A Most Mysterious Case (and other works) by Balzac.
Honor� de Balzac in Twenty-Five Volumes, Vol. 17 of 25: A Most Mysterious Case; An Episode Under the Terror; The Seamy Side of History; Z. Marcas by Honoré de Balzac
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Well, Honoré de Balzac did not become my new favourite author by any means. I will be the first to admit, I came into this book with the wrong expectations. I have no one to blame for that but…
If it hadn’t been for the mention in “The Decay of Lying,” I may never have had any interest in Balzac, never having really heard anything about him or known what he wrote. But Wilde’s dialogist Vivian claims about Balzac that “he was a most remarkable combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit… A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shade. His characters have a kind of fervent, fiery-coloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism.” Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a glowing review if I ever read one. It was enough to make me bookmark his name in my mind as someone to try.
Perhaps I can’t judge Balzac’s writing in general from the small, random sample I read. Perhaps I shouldn’t judge his writing at all, given that he was translated into English from French. But I’m going to anyway.
A Most Mysterious Case:
The first story and the one which gives its name to the book that I have, A Most Mysterious Case is a novella-ish-length work about the Napoleonic era in France and what that meant for the nobles whose properties and wealth weren’t restored to them after the revolution. There is an assassination plot, robbery, collusion, a police investigation, trials and all the attendant paraphernalia: even an unexpected love triangle (quadrangle?) later on. Michu, the groundskeeper for a local aristocratic family, is drawn into a plot against the government when he overhears the local authorities talking about a planned arrest of the family’s two sons who have secretly returned from exile.
There is actually a lot going on in this story, but it took me a really long time to get into/finish because of the writing style. You know that “fervent, fiery-coloured existence” Wilde’s Vivian was talking about? Well, from what I gather, that just means that the characters are described down to their shoe soles upon first appearance… along with a short biographical history of their life, politics, and conduct during the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s subsequent rise to power. And by “short,” I mean that the narrative frequently breaks for up to two pages just to give us a thorough rundown on each character introduced. I guess the concept of sprinkling in description and opinions of the characters as the action takes place wasn’t taught in Balzac’s school of writing. It made for a slow start with very exposition-heavy sections, and things didn’t really seem to get moving until part II.
The one character who did come to life spectacularly for me, besides Michu the groundskeeper, was the cousin of the exiles, Laurence. She has very good, ongoing characterisation that begins with her plotting to kill Napoleon. There’s certainly something “fiery-coloured” about her character, and the continued development as she goes through the stress and release of events in the story really give her a vitality that you have to root for.
An Episode Under the Terror:
This, I think, is where Balzac shines: short stories. This “Episode” chronicles the furtive religious worship carried on by two nuns and a priest who now have to live in hiding and conceal their Roman Catholic faith because traditional religion has been “abolished” by the tenets of the Revolution. Though in constant fear of being betrayed to the authorities, they extend fellowship to a mysterious stranger who claims to share their faith. But then a momentous occurrence reveals the truth of his identity.
This story is intriguing and fast-paced (also short). It considers huge questions of morality, personal responsibility, faith, and humanity in the midst of horrific circumstances. I quite thoroughly enjoyed reading it and pondering the thoughts it provoked.
The Seamy Side of History:
Back to a longer piece, this did grab my interest far sooner than Mysterious Case did. Perhaps because I was more used to Balzac’s writing, or because I was fresh off the high of reading “Episode.” It opens with the main character experiencing the universal feeling of directionless-ness, when he overhears an act of charity and its attendant philosophy in the streets of Paris: “it is God himself who speaks to us when a good thought occurs to us.” This serves an impetus for him to gather himself together, change his way of living, and try to exercise some discipline to souse out a purpose for his existence. He falls in with a group of covert philanthropists who slowly expound their religion of charity and benevolence as he gets drawn further and further into their strange plane of existence.
This is a slower, less eventful narrative that builds in a direction that isn’t predictable from the setup. It is satisfying, though I feel like it would have had an even stronger effect had it been about half or even a quarter of the length. There is a lot of philosophical and religious pondering, as well as whole sections dealing with the backstory of characters that seemed like they could have been curtailed without any detriment to the plot.
Back to another short one, “Z. Marcas” tells about two students who make friends with their reclusive, workaholic fellow-lodger. When the students are strapped for cash and have no money for tobacco, their neighbour Marcas unexpectedly shows up at the door to lend them some. When they repay him, they make his acquaintance and there follows his story of ambition and disillusionment in the sphere of law, politics, and partnerships. Society has taken a dead set against his genius in favour of those who practice flattery, exploitation, and dishonesty. A last unexpected chance at success and possible reparation comes to him, which his young fellow-lodgers urge him to take with unfortunate consequences.
I enjoyed reading this story and was thoroughly depressed by it. It is full of the multicoloured vicissitudes of life and careers, the good and the bad. The two students are entertaining and relatable, and Marcas is a monumental, memorable tragic figure. Unfortunately it speaks to the reality of how human society is set up to benefit unscrupulous behaviour that exploits those with true passion, genius, and inspiration. As Balzac concludes his tale, “We all knew more than one Marcas, more than one victim of his devotion to a party, repaid by betrayal or neglect.”
I probably won’t pick up another Balzac book unless I encounter a good reason to in the future, though I would consider reading more short stories by him. Perhaps I took the seeming recommendation of Balzac, spoken by a character in a work that praises artistic lying, too seriously as a representation of Wilde’s true taste. Or maybe his taste just sucks. In the meantime, I think I’ll stick to Walter Scott when I want wordy descriptions and complex, lengthy political plots in my fiction.
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