As I read on in Balzac's Comedie Humaine I began, I think, not just to see the incredible imaginative power of Balzac but to timidly begin to see weaknesses in his work. I detected in his treatment of the rich that he does not do near the job of Proust or even Zola in creating characters and depicting their worlds. The rich are just stock characters, each could be substituted for the other. There seemed an almost comic but not intended to be somfeel to some of his stories and novels about the trials and often infidelities of the upper elements of society. I am currently reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and her depiction of people like Balzac's rich is much more intricate.
I wanted to see what literary historians of the highest order thought of Balzac, seeking confirmation of my nascent theories or disabuse. I decided to read Eric Auerbach's chapter on Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert in his majestic work Mimesis. Auerbach must, by me at least, be read slowly and carefully, often several times; his sheer cultural depth is overwhelming. As I read his elegantly articulated thoughts on Balzac, I felt vindicated in my opinions on the weak side of Balzac, his treatment of the upper classes often falls into formalistic melodrama unintentionally self-parodying. He sees his rich characters as fully determined by their environments, types not individuals. I don't have a count but I am guessing at least half of the 91 works in The Comedie Humaine are accurately critiqued by Auerbach. In reading the short stories, not the great novels of Stendhal this is even more evident. If you look at the consensus best of Balzac lists, most all deal with the poor or middle class. Balzac wrote very fast and he wrote to sell and he used formulas a lot. The Comedie Humaine is a great, maybe the greatest, large scale literary mountain range, one needs, I think, to read through it to appreciate the really incredible artistry of Balzac at his best and to begin to grasp his great cultural influence. Every work has something wonderful, even if it is just great descriptions of people, houses, and furniture. And "ah the Food"!
I urge all those into and sometimes perplexed by Balzac to ponder slowly what Auerbach says in the remarks I quoted.
"Balzac plunges his heroes far more deeply into time conditioned dependency; he thereby loses the standards and limits which had earlier been felt as tragic, and he does not yet possess the objective seriousness toward modern reality which later developed. He bombastically takes every entanglement as tragic, every urge as a great passion; he is always ready to declare every person in misfortune a hero or a saint; if it is a woman he compares her to an angel or the Madonna....it was in conformity with his emotional, fiery, and uncritical temperment, as well as with the romantic way of life, to sense hidden demonic forces everywhere and to exaggerate to the point of melodrama"
"To him every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities, and fates of man, and at the same time the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelopes all its several milieux. It is worth noting that he did his best and most truthfully for the circle of the middle and lower Parisian bourgeois and for the provinces; while his representation of high society is often melodramatic, false, and even unintentionally comic. He is not free from melodramatic exaggeration elsewhere; but whereas in the middle and lower spheres this only occasionally impairs the truthfulness of the whole, he is unable to create the true atmosphere of the higher spheres--including those of the intellect" from Mimesis by Eric Auerbach.
"The Messenger", a very brief story, is very much a trials and tribulations of the rich story. Two affluent Parisians are on the same stage coach. They fall into conversation and discover they are in love with the same woman. The resolution of the story is kind of vague.
Note on above image. I like this pic a lot, I think it might be for a Japanese webpage or translation of Balzac but I am not sure.
I invite responses to Auerbach's thoughts on Balzac.
41 novels, 25 novellas, 25 short stories.