One of the difficulties we face in our initial approach to Honore de Balzac (1799 to 1850, France) is in knowing where to start. I recommend as a big help Wuthering Expectations , by Amateur Reader (Tom). It was at his suggestion that I read "An Incident in the Time of Terror", set in Paris in 1793. Like the Balzac short story I read just prior to this "An Atheist's Mass" it centers on a mass sponsored by for mysterious reasons. I found this to be a very interesting exciting story.
In Paris in 1793 former aristocrats were in terror of being renounced. The narrator tells us most aristocrats even in ragged clothes could not change their bearing enough to hide their background. As the story opens an elderly woman, clearly a former aristocrat, is walking alone through Paris, a sinister seeming man is following her, she fears. She has a clandescentent delivery to make at a shop. When she gets there, the owners wife becomes afraid and she makes her husband order the woman out of the shop. Spies were everywhere and it is skillfully made evident that even those with no hatred for ex-aristocrats or even loyalty to the executed King are afraid of informants eager to denounce them.
The main plot line involves the sinister man following her and a quarterly mass he sponsers. He also supports two nuns and a priest, seen by extremists as Royalists. The mystery and very real suspense (and fun, Balzac is not a "duty read") comes with who the man turns out to be.
I read this in The Delphi Classics Edition of The Works of Balzac. They don't claim to have all of Balzac's 300 plus works in the volume but they do have the full 94 components of The Humaine Comedie and a good bit of extra material. The translations, this one was by Clara Bell, are older public domain works but it these translations that brought Balzac to the Anglophone literary world.
I am including this written and set in Paris short story as part of my participation in Paris in July, 2014
I recently read Christopher Isherwood's preface to a new edition of his Berlin Stories. He says only Balzac could have created a master work that would do for Weimer Germany what he lacks the imaginative power to bring to life.
Please share your experience with Balzac with us.