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The Human Comedy: Selected Stories
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New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Here is where we will be talking about this month's NYRB Classics Book Club selection: The Human Comedy: Selected Stories, by Honoré de Balzac.


message 2: by Trevor (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1425 comments Mod
I posted this in the "general discussion" thread, but I loved "Facino Cane," the first story in this collection. Has anyone else started yet? I posted about 2500 words on the collection in general and "Facino Cane" in particular on my blog. Rather than move all of them here, I'll just provide a link here.

It kind of all boils down to this:

But the old man’s story is not the most exciting thing about “Facino Cane.” And I don’t think the narrator — and certainly not Balzac — thinks so either. After all, in contrast to the build up, the old man’s story takes up merely a few pages, and for the most part it’s skimmed over, one exciting summary leads to the next. It’s not thoughtful like the young man’s narrative had been before. It talks of love and betrayal in Romantic terms: “I loved as no one loves any longer these days — to the point of closing myself into a chest and taking the risk of being stabbed in it for just the promise of a kiss.” What Balzac means here is that no one speaks of love that way these days. The Romantic period was over, by his clock, and this is a story ushering in his brand of realism.

And it’s all the richer for it, for Balzac is not too concerned with the adventure story (just as the narrator is not too concerned with the old man’s treasure); both Balzac and the narrator are interested in the old man himself, what his life has been, and what has made him share this story in the first place. There’s the suggestion that Old Man Canet is mad. The narrator suspects this from the beginning, and I’m not convinced that his suspicions aren’t confirmed by the end of the old man’s story. Certainly, just going off what the narrator writes to us readers, the narrator is not as interested in telling us of the man’s adventures as he is in telling us about the man’s face, a face marked with troubles, but perhaps not the troubles the old man claims.



Jonathan | 232 comments Trevor wrote: "I posted this in the "general discussion" thread, but I loved "Facino Cane," the first story in this collection. Has anyone else started yet? ..."

Hi Trevor. I started it the other day before the poll had closed as I wanted to get started but I got bogged down with the first two stories, especially 'Another Study of Womankind'. So I left it alone for a day or two, which is easier to do with short stories than a novel, and I have just finished 'The Red Inn' which I really liked. This story was more or less what I was expecting from Balzac.

Now I'm wondering if I just wasn't in the right mood for the first two, so I'm going to re-read 'Facino Cane' over the weekend and hopefully some more as well.

Balzac certainly likes his stories-within-stories. I think it was that that started to annoy me with 'Another Study of Womankind' - I was expecting to read a 50 page story and just got fragments of several stories instead. I may return to that one as well at some point.


message 4: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Dunn | 71 comments Read it. Liked it. It's going to take me awhile to get through this book. I don't like to read one short story after another.


Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments Still working my way through. Just wanted to say that I think Peter Brooks made a very apt point in the introduction when he suggested that some of Balzac's best work was his short fiction—I am so far of the impression that the shorter his fiction, the better it is. I haven't read anything else by him, mind you, but it does seem in this collection that the more room he has, the more time he spends being the "secretary of society" instead of telling the story ("Another Study of Womankind" being a case in point). It will be interesting to see how this impression holds up as I read through more of the stories ...


Jonathan | 232 comments Lois wrote: "Still working my way through. Just wanted to say that I think Peter Brooks made a very apt point in the introduction when he suggested that some of Balzac's best work was his short fiction—I am so ..."

How far into the book are you Lois?

My reading of this book has been a bit intermittent. I'm reading Gobseck at the moment which I'm enjoying. Balzac has an easygoing writing style I feel but I have found the stories-within-stories a bit tedious as it's been used in every story so far. Sometimes it works (e.g. Adieu), but other times it doesn't (Z. Marcas). What often happens is that we get an interesting bit of realism as the framing story and then the more fanciful, romantic story within. IMO 'Z. Marcas' should have continued with the framing story whereas 'A Passion in the Desert' should have ditched the framing story which I felt was superfluous.

I'm looking forward to the longer story 'The Duchess of Langeais'; apparently there's a convoluted plot!


Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments I have only read the first three stories so far, so I'll be happy to revise my impression as I read further. I suppose in general though I tend to be a fan of brevity!

I also think I tend to like the framed, fanciful stories more than the realistic framing stories, although I have to say that "The Red Inn" was a great example of the two working together. If that close relationship between the narratives isn't going on, then the framing one is probably redundant. But perhaps, as a realist at heart, it was the only way he could bring himself to write anything remotely fanciful—he needs it to be told by someone so they are responsible for its veracity (or lack thereof), not him. Who knows. I am enjoying the book in general more than I expected, though.


Jonathan | 232 comments Lois wrote: "I have only read the first three stories so far, so I'll be happy to revise my impression as I read further. I suppose in general though I tend to be a fan of brevity!

I also think I tend to like ..."


Balzac is certainly a great story-teller.

I've just finished Gobseck and really liked it. The framing and framed stories interchanged more naturally than some of the others. I really liked The Red Inn and Sarrasine as well. 'Another Study of Womankind' is the only one I didn't really like and I would question placing it second in the collection.


Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments I agree with you about that—I did like the last internal story (about the Spaniard in Vendôme) as a creepy tale in its own right, but I was not a fan of the rest, as you might imagine. I have enjoyed both of the others, so I am glad to hear that the rest of the collection leans more toward them than "Another Study of Womankind", which definitely should not have been second. Incidentally, do we know why they are in this order? Perhaps it's simply chronological ...


message 10: by Lois (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments Ok, I just finished "Sarrasine" and I felt the need to share ... What a roller coaster! At first I was rolling my eyes at quotes like this:
She was in every way a woman, with her sudden frights, her unreasoning caprices, her instinctive emotions, her abrupt bursts of daring, her bravado, the delicious refinement of her sentiments.
Then I was delighted with the twist—literally laughing out loud, loving the surprise and the way it turned the whole plot on its head. And then, as the consequences of that revelation were played out—(view spoiler)—I was truly disturbed. Also, riddle me this: why is there no note explaining the twist? I figured it out just before the end (somewhere around (view spoiler)), but I feel like it would be easy enough to miss what's actually going on here ... A note here explaining (view spoiler) would definitely not go amiss, so one doesn't have to Google weird search terms to figure it out!

In any case, for me this is definitely the most compelling, interesting, problematic and surprising of the stories so far, making it my favourite for now.


Jonathan | 232 comments Lois wrote: "Ok, I just finished "Sarrasine" and I felt the need to share ... What a roller coaster! At first I was rolling my eyes at quotes like this: She was in every way a woman, with her sudden frights, he..."

I too liked this story. I didn't see the twist coming and I'll try not to reveal anything as the twist is quite entertaining. (view spoiler)

I've also found the notes could be a bit more informative.


Jonathan | 232 comments I liked the following quote from The Red Inn
Man cannot spend all his time doing evil, and even in the company of pirates there must be some sweet moments on their sinister ship when you feel as if you were aboard a pleasure yacht.



message 13: by Lois (last edited Feb 22, 2014 12:25PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments Yes, that is a good one! He comes out with some very nice lines, I have to say ... I've been putting some of my favourites in my progress updates, but here's one I loved that I didn't (from "Sarrasine"):
I would devote my life to God tomorrow, did I not have the gift of standing like an inaccessible rock amid all the tempests of life. If the Christian’s future is only one more illusion, at least it goes on unshattered until we are dead.
Beautiful.


Jonathan | 232 comments I really enjoyed the story Gobseck, especially the eponymous character. He's a miser and a usurer; he doesn't appear to care much for anything except acquiring money and yet he isn't a monster and he is shown to have a human side. I especially liked the quote:
I like to soil the carpets of the rich, not out of spite but to make them feel the claw of necessity.
And then we have the last, and the longest, tale of the collection, The Duchess of Langeais. I really didn't like this story, it's the sort of nineteenth century work that puts me off reading anything from that century ever again. It just contains too many plot clichés that makes it a real drudge to read. So it is a story of unrequited love, passion and revenge...sound good?...well, it's not! The main female character flees to a nunnery, the main male character hunts her down and we learn about the events leading up to this, which is a mixture of melodrama as well as comments on society, etiquette and the state of the French nobility. I nearly lost the will to live reading this story...it's a shame to end the book on a downer.


message 15: by Lois (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments I just finished "Gobseck" last night and I honestly wasn't too sure how I felt about it. I certainly didn't dislike it, but I don't think I particularly liked it. However, you are right about the ambiguity around him, at least until the end. There were a couple of moments in the story that confused me, but all in all, it was enjoyable enough. Now I just have the last and longest to read—which I am a bit apprehensive about given your review of it!


Jonathan | 232 comments Lois wrote: " Now I just have the last and longest to read—which I am a bit apprehensive about given your review of it! "

It might be best to take a breather between each section. You'll have to read it yourself though, to see if agree or disagree. :-) I can certainly see that some people will love it.

It was just 'too 19th Century' for me. Although many 19th century authors are great, I find I can't read too much in one go.


Jonathan | 232 comments Lois wrote: "I just finished "Gobseck" last night and I honestly wasn't too sure how I felt about it. I certainly didn't dislike it, but I don't think I particularly liked it. However, you are right about the a..."

I thought Gobseck was very Dickensian.


message 18: by Lois (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments Ah, OK. Well the 18th and 19th centuries were always my first choice, so perhaps I'll have a different take on it :) Yes, I suppose "Gobseck" is a little reminiscent of Dickens (although it's been a long time since I've read anything by him)—the old man and his hoards of spoiling treasure in particular kind of call to mind Miss Havisham.


message 19: by Lois (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments So I finally finished the last story, and I have to say, I found it very hard to get through, too. A disappointing way to end the collection, in spite of the interest of the plot itself (if only Balzac had reigned in his pen with this one, particularly throughout the courtship phase of the story—so much of it was either sickeningly misogynistic or just, like, who cares?). I hope we can counteract the effect of this with something that has a more balanced take on women with our next selection...


Jonathan | 232 comments Lois wrote: "So I finally finished the last story, and I have to say, I found it very hard to get through, too. A disappointing way to end the collection, in spite of the interest of the plot itself (if only Ba..."

Yeah, it was just too dated for me - in style and morality. I get the feeling it may have been something he churned out for the money, but it's just a hunch. I gave the whole book 3 stars. Without 'Duchess of Langeais' and 'Another Study of Womankind' I would've given it 4.


message 21: by Lois (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments I totally agree with you there—I was going to give it 4 stars before 'The Duchess' too. Oh well...


message 22: by Trevor (last edited Mar 18, 2014 12:21PM) (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1425 comments Mod
By the way, in case some of you are tapped into this thread but don't get notifications of other activity in the group, we've set up a poll for the April 2014 book club pick here.


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