Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, July 3, 2014

At The Sign of the Cat and Racket by Honore de Balzac (1832-The First Work in La Comedie Humaine)

I am very glad to see that a wonderful month long event, Paris In July, is once again being hosted by Thyme for Tea and A Wondering Life.  This is the fifth year for the event, and my third as a participant.  

You can find more about Paris in July, which goes way beyond the incomparable French literary world, on the event webpage.  

I have been reading through Emile Zola's Rougon Macquart Cycle of twenty novels and am currently rereading Proust after a forty year break. As I read these works I saw that behind French, actually European, literature stands a great giant of a writer, Honore de Balzac.  Much of his cycle of literature La Comedie Humaine, 94 works, is set in Paris. I decided as my initial participation in July in Paris to read the very first work in the cycle, a novella  1830 set in a Paris drapery and upholstery shop.  

Honore de Balzac (1799 to 1850, France) stands over  European literature like a great colossus.  In  the Delphi Edition of The Works of Balzac the editors include ninety-four works as constituting the full set of La Humaine Comedie but they acknowledge experts differ by a work or two on the full set.  They also include  Balzac's 1842 introduction to the series.  Unlike Zola, Balzac did not conceive the idea of a huge set of novels fully depicting life in France before he began writing.  He retroactively included works done before 1842, including The Sign of the Cat and the Racket written in 1832 in La Comedie Humaine.  In addition to being an incredibly productive literary genius Balzac was a money driven writing machine and he felt this retroactive inclusion would increase sales of his earlier works.

I have so far read five Balzac novels.  The Cat and the Racket is considered a novella, the estimated reading time is about ninety minutes.  It is very Balzacian. It is set in Paris in a well established drapery and upholstery shop.  Balzac does a great job describing the building. As we would expect Balzac details just how the business is run, including full financial details. The owners, a married couple in late middle age with two needing to be married daughters, have several apprentices.  Balzac lets us see the couple are good people by the decent way they treat their apprentices.  

There is a lot in this work. The father proposes his best apprentice marry one of his daughters.  Of course it is largely a business deal as the daughter is quite homely.  The plot action of the story is driven by his other daughter's marriage to an artist.  There is lots of intrigue in their marriage, including the visit of the wife to an exotic seeming duchess who she thinks has stolen her husband's love.

 Balzac knows how to keep yup hooked and probably pushed his luck with the censors in his descriptions of the decline in sexual passion in marriage. 

I will on and off be reading in La Comedie Humaine, probably for a while just reading shorter works.

This work was translated by Clara Bell.  I have no idea if it is a good translation but it read well.

I hope others will consider participating in Paris in July, 2014.

Who knows maybe by Paris in July 2020 I will have completed La Comedie Humaine!


Brona said...

That's an impressive French backlist you have!

I read my first (though definitely NOT my last) Zola this year during Zoladdiction month & I have Eugenie Grandet on my Paris list for this month.

(PS I thought you might like to know the word verification on your blog is pretty savage. It took me about 8 goes to find a set of words I could actually read.)

Mel u said...

Brona Joy. Thanks for letting me know. I added it due to repeated spam attempts, I removed the verification for comments on posts less than two weeks old.