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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary studies

Honoré de Balzac

Peter Brooks

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To purchase Honoré de Balzac

Title: Honoré de Balzac
Author: Peter Brooks
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 136 pages
Availability: Honoré de Balzac - US
Honoré de Balzac - UK
Honoré de Balzac - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from:
  • A volume in Oxford University Press' 'My Reading'-series

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good and well-presented introductory overview of Balzac's work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Honoré de Balzac is a volume in Oxford University Press' 'My Reading'-series, where writers take a more personal approach to an author and their work, and Peter Brooks admits that when invited to write such a book he was tempted to pick Stendhal as his subject, but:

I love Stendhal still, but I feel called upon to engage someone I perhaps love less but feel to be absolutely crucial to understanding modernity, the way we live now, and the way we read now. And that is Balzac.
       (For what it's worth, he still manages to slip a fair amount on Stendhal in.)
       Brooks also notes that: "Some of my hesitation and delay in writing about Balzac was motivated by the sense that he had no more traction in the U.S. and the U.K.", and Balzac is certainly no longer as prominent a figure in the English-speaking world. (Ah, for the days, around 1900, when: "there were competing English translations of the whole of the Human Comedy on the market".)
       Certainly, Balzac's work is unwieldy -- a massive amount, spread out all over, with many from his huge cast of characters (2472 fictional ones in all, Brooks tallies) repeatedly popping up in various works. As Brooks sums up: "Excess proliferates throughout". That's part of the fun and appeal of Balzac, but can also be off-putting; Brooks examination of how Balzac: "is driven to something like the Rousseauian or Sadean project: the need to say everything" is helpful in making this, if not necessarily more palatable, something that should intrigue readers (as it does Brooks).
       Only near the end of his book does Brooks sum up his personal-history-of-reading-Balzac -- how he: "never set out to read the whole of The Human Comedy", but rather: "I have picked up a novel here and a tale there when the Balzac urge has come upon me". As The Human Comedy isn't a neat collection of works like Zola's Rougon-Macquart-novels, much less, for example, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time-series this piecemeal and even a bit disorderly approach seems indeed the best to take. And Brooks helps also to whet the appetite by, for example, pointing to, and describing in some detail, the more easily overlooked: "shorter works, stories and novellas, where Balzac most seems to unleash his obsessions, and to explore intense states of being".
       Brooks nicely captures Balzac's universe-building (and also its relation to the real world and history), including the amount of revision that went into it, such as in real-life poet Alphonse de Lamartine fading away, "erased by Melchior de Canalis, Balzac's invented poet who can represent the same kind of well-behaved Romantic poetry as Lamartine but also become a person in his own right, carrying out adventures that you couldn't very well attribute to such a well-known figure as Lamartine". Brooks also makes a good case for Balzac's use -- and, especially, re-use -- of characters, and how they appear in many different works, and how that can add to our reading, as: "The changed lighting from one text to the other forces us into a kind of stereoscopic vision". (See also Brooks' recent book devoted specifically to the characters, Balzac's Lives.)
       Dipping in and out of a considerable number of works by Balzac, including a close description of several, Brooks provides a good overview of Balzac's themes -- not least money, sex, and history. Brooks does suggest that aspects of his writing do make Balzac a tough sell in modern times, not least the very detailed physical descriptions -- but then also with a few well-chosen examples shows that we can find a great deal even in some of these. Brooks also acknowledges that Balzac's work is uneven -- but his many examples of much of the richness to be found throughout it convinces that the risk is worthwhile.
       Honoré de Balzac is a good overview-text that does serve well as an introduction to Balzac's work -- not least in not focusing solely or even mainly on the best-known works (though these don't get short shrift either) but really managing a broad look; as such it can certainly also be recommended to those who haven't ventured far (or at all) into Balzac's huge body of work. It is not a purely personal tour of Brooks' own reading, as one might perhaps expect from a volume in a series titled 'My Reading', but he does mention some of that as well, a welcome personal touch. Also worth noting: Honoré de Balzac is very much text-focused, with Brooks not providing much biographical detail at all; as fascinating as the man and his career were, this comes as a considerable relief in a time when author-personality seems to dominate practically anything written about any author or their work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 August 2023

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Honoré de Balzac: Honoré de Balzac: Books by Honoré de Balzac under review: Other books by Peter Brooks under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American scholar Peter Brooks was born in 1938.

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© 2023 the complete review

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