WRITING ABOUT AN AUTHOR who is widely read has its place, but there is a particular pleasure and satisfaction in writing about an author — even one whose name, like Balzac’s, is hardly obscure — who is not read enough. (Although the line is barely perceptible, if it exists at all, between virtue and smugness in trying to get one’s readers to pay attention to one’s own favorite writer.) This essay, in short, is a plaidoyer for the value of reading Balzac’s novels. It is also a review, in the broad sense, of the eminent literary critic Peter Brooks’s new book, Balzac’s Lives. Brooks’s aim, too, is to inculcate an excitement about the work of the enormously prolific writer whom Friedrich Engels called “Old Balzac.” He does so by showing how much sheer pleasure there is in these texts. It takes a sort of critical virtuosity not only to implant a desire to go out and buy the novels under discussion but also to provoke a pleasure not entirely dissimilar to that of reading a good book.
There is an admirable restraint in Brooks’s focus on Balzac himself, but at the risk of indulging in what a recent polemic disparaged as the “Contemporary Themed Review,” the virtues of La Comédie humaine are particularly relevant given the state of contemporary literature — or, perhaps better, given the paradigms into which contemporary writing is slotted. This is a matter of marketing, but it also points to the way contemporary literature is read by those who are paid to write about it (which, of course, is at least in part a function of marketing).
Though they hardly exhaust the field, the contemporary literary scene today is caught between a strange pair of poles. On the one hand, science fiction has become respectable. In particular, the idea of constructing alternate worlds is meant to be a way of imagining the transfiguration of our own. This is an explicitly political task. As Walidah Imarisha put it in the introduction to the anthology Octavia’s Brood (2015): “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction.” Ursula K. Le Guin — along with Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany — is one of the forebears of the new renaissance of politically committed speculative fiction — work produced by a group of writers “who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.” A corrective, then, one that recognized the radical potential of speculative fiction, was long overdue.
This renaissance of speculation, however, has coincided with the much commented upon phenomenon of “autofiction,” which now means something quite different from the French writing to which it originally applied (the work of Serge Doubrovsky, Annie Ernaux, Hervé Guibert, as well as, retroactively, Colette, Duras, and so on) or even the American New Narrativists. Among authors who can be relied upon to sell well, at least by the standards of literary fiction, who comes to mind more than Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Sally Rooney, and the dozens of others who, with more or (usually) less experimentalism, are marketed alongside them?
It would, of course, be an exaggeration to claim that these are the only two identifiable currents in modern letters. It is not so much that they exhaust the field as that their pulls seem so curiously opposite. But it is nonetheless a useful opposition. (Note that even an author like Ferrante ends up being lazily, yet seemingly inevitably, compared — ridiculous at a purely structural level, if one actually stops to think about it — to Knausgaard.)
To be clear, the point is not to dismiss the value of either of these kinds of writing, but rather of challenging the parameters of contemporary literary production — its marketing. Balzac, for his part, is resolutely inassimilable to present sensibilities, even if we expand our view beyond the narrower domains of auto- and science fiction. He can neither be recuperated in any straightforward way for political aims nor easily brought into line as a precursor to the great 20th-century modernist epic in the way that a line can be traced from, say, George Eliot or even Tolstoy to Proust and Joyce. Among English-language audiences, Balzac languishes as a canonical but I suspect not much read author, even by the standards of French 19th-century novelists. (Flaubert, for example, would beat him easily.)
What is in question is the reflective space for conceiving of what literature can and should do, the second-order discourses that dominate discussions of literary production in the present. Why is it that, at least in terms of literary forms that are amenable to relatively sophisticated reflective theorizing outside the confines of the academy, the two clearest paradigms seem so strikingly opposed? The point is not to submit a tedious demand for middle ground, let alone a retrenchment from these, but rather to consider what is lost.
A resurgence of Balzacian sensibility is worth taking seriously as a desirable, perhaps even necessary, alternative. Autofiction stands accused of bland aridity and political impotence. It is true, of course, that the personal is political. This need not be an invitation to narcissism, although it too often is. Similarly, the political bent of speculative worldmaking can liberate the imagination but may also risk untethering it. The task then is somehow to achieve a relation to the world that amounts to more than mere pedantic fidelity to the so-called real without abandoning it entirely.
What might this look like? Here is where we may turn to Brooks’s new book.
Balzac’s Lives is, among other things, an attempt to rectify the benign neglect from which Balzac currently suffers. Brooks’s book is not about any one work, or even any one theme. It is about the human dimension of the vast Balzacian universe taken, precisely, as a whole, in the classic sense. Nine of the book’s 10 chapters are devoted to a single character. A few of these will be familiar to those who have read some of Balzac’s better-known novels, especially the portraits of three ambitious young men: Raphael de Valentin, Eugène de Rastignac, and Lucien de Rubempré.
Three equally familiar characters are absent — Old Father Goriot, Cousin Bette, and Eugénie Grandet, each of whom has a novel bearing their name, which are in turn among the most famous and, I would wager, most read of La Comédie humaine. But Brooks’s selection of relatively minor characters — one cannot call them all “secondary,” since some, like Gobseck and Colonel Chabert, are the title characters of novels of their own — is neither unintentional nor perverse.
Balzac is justly famous for his recurring characters. There are thousands of people that populate the world of La Comédie humaine. No one knows how many, and cataloging them has become its own industry. The Répertoire de « La Comédie humaine », published in 1887, lists about 2,200 over the course of 550 pages. The Dictionnaire biographique des personnages fictifs de la Comédie humaine (1952), which runs to 676 pages, puts the total at 2,472. The official number given by the Maison Balzac in Paris says anywhere between four and six thousand. Not every one of them reappears, of course, but the ones who do are what give this world its unity.
There are also references, on occasion, to events that take place in another novel, which give the reader a spatiotemporal reference point that links the text being read to the broader sweep of Balzac’s universe. But it is the characters themselves who reappear. The usurer Jean-Esther van Gobseck, for example, has a book named after him. But he is equally central to other more famous entries in the series, Père Goriot (1835) — also where we are introduced to Rastignac — and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838–’47).
Even those stories that do not quite fit the normal tenets of literary realism are tethered to 1820s Paris by characters from other novels: Rastignac, after his appearance in Père Goriot, shows up to tutor Raphael in La Peau de chagrin (1831). The latter novel, with its eponymous magical talisman, violates the normal course of the world, even if we are meant to read the object as a crystallization of the connection between pleasure and death (Brooks is surely right to note that Balzac here presages Freud’s death drive) or of the way in which the modern city, in its capitalist frenzy, chews up and spits out young people seeking their fortune. But it is also, quite literally, a magical object presented to Raphael by a mysterious 102-year-old shopkeeper, impervious to destruction as well as to material analysis by Paris’s best scientists.
If La Peau de chagrin is meant to be a part of the same world as the rest of the Comédie, this means that Balzac’s version of 1820s Paris is one with significant differences from our own world in its very structure. We might, to adopt a slightly later idiom, call this a world that is not quite disenchanted. It is also a world that is larger than the “real” one in a rather more mundane sense. What I mean by this is as follows: many, though not all, of Balzac’s characters are based on real figures. Even the most inventive novelist, of course, cannot but allow the people they know to interact with the people they write. What is curious about Balzac’s characters is not just that they lend the volumes in which they appear the dimension of a roman à clef but that they appear alongside their inspirations.
Take the poet Canalis, a star of the literary scene under the Bourbon Restoration, who appears in Illusions perdues (1837–’43). Unlike most poetry, which was unprofitable for publishers, Canalis’s books sell. The character is based on the real poet Alphonse de Lamartine, like Canalis a fierce royalist in politics and a romantic in aesthetics, though Lamartine would go on to convert to republicanism and help found the Second Republic in 1848. (The pairing of romanticism and royalism is accurate: unlike in England, the luminaries of French romanticism tended to be monarchists, including the young Hugo. In an echo of the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes — recall that the argument for modern superiority was based on the superiority of the French state under Louis XIV — classicism was the province of liberals.)
All of this is unremarkable. What is curious, though, is not that Balzac created a fictional poet based on a real one, but that the original and the copy appear side by side: if Lamartine doesn’t appear in person in Illusion perdues, he is referenced frequently as a major figure in the Paris literary scene and as an acquaintance of the novel’s protagonists. It is easy enough to see why Balzac would want to insert a device like the magic skin, for all the reasons that Brooks notes, in addition to the fact that it makes for fun reading. But why two versions of the same character?
We are used to novels in which real characters — especially politicians, celebrities, and so on — appear in the background while fictional actors take center stage. This is the stock-in-trade of most historical fiction, although there are, of course, books where historical figures themselves are transfigured into main characters. But that is not quite what is happening with a figure like Canalis. Once we focus on the doubling, it becomes clear that Balzac’s fictional world is both very much his own real world and at the same time an enlarged world, with more people than the one he himself inhabits.
If we take this literally, although in an admittedly naïve way, and consider that there are somewhere between two and six thousand characters in La Comédie humaine, this means that we are dealing with a world (really a Paris) with that many more people living in it. Balzac, then, might be said not so much to create a world as to transfigure one, a feat that is far more impressive if one takes it seriously. And it belies a degree of ambition that is far too rare.
The most famous piece of critical writing about Balzac is almost certainly Roland Barthes’s S/Z (1970), a virtuosic performance of high literary theory. It is precisely the opposite of Brooks’s Balzac Lives, both in its sensibility and its execution. If Brooks’s aim is to capture in criticism the worldly spirit of La Comédie humaine taken as a whole, Barthes approaches a single text, the novella Sarrasine (1830), in painstaking, almost absurd detail. It is a mode of criticism that is best described as antagonistic to the sensibility of its object (even if Barthes clearly knows and loves Balzac).
S/Z is entirely devoted to dissecting Sarrasine, which tells the story of the titular character’s infatuation with Zambinella, a beautiful actress and singer who is secretly a castrato. Upon discovering this hidden truth, Sarrasine tries to kill his love object — the contemporary reader will be hard-pressed not to hear an early echo of the modern phenomenon of gay or trans panic — before being killed by the henchmen of her protector, a cardinal.
Barthes’s text is resolutely anti-novelistic. The whole, Adorno said, is the untrue, and S/Z has a horror of the whole. Barthes’s gambit is quite simply to subject the novella to analysis, in the literal and original sense of the word: to break it apart into its smallest constituents. What matters is what Barthes calls the “plural of the text.” One must give up chasing an elusive “great final ensemble” or “ultimate structure.” S/Z expresses this sensibility in the strictest sense: the text of Sarrasine is broken into 561 sections, ranging from a single word to, at most, a few dozen, which are laid out in order, each subject to inspection along multiple dimensions or “codes.” In short, Barthes pushes the modernist fragmentation of unity, the false myth of narrative cohesion, to its limit. If we consider S/Z to be the most famous critical text on Balzac, then Brooks’s book is something of a rescue operation, making a case for the novelist’s work itself, rather than simply as a material on which to practice analysis.
After Barthes, Balzac’s most famous fan is probably Marx, who planned to write a study of La Comédie humaine after finishing Capital. His written remarks on Balzac are sparse, but they are disproportionately well known — several people, upon hearing I was writing about Balzac, brought up Marx’s enthusiasm. This enthusiasm was not directly tied to Balzac’s own politics, which were the furthest possible from socialist, although his reactionary monarchism shared with Marx and his followers a contempt for bourgeois liberalism.
The lesson, however, is hardly that we ought to excise politics from our reading of literature, as if we can enlist Marx as an ancestor to today’s critics of “woke” or moralizing interpretations, whose handwringing can currently be found in the pages of any Anglophone literary review that is not avowedly leftwing.
For Marx’s interest in Balzac was resolutely political. When he described the author as having “studied every shade of avarice” or as “generally remarkable for his profound grasp of reality,” the point was not that we can do away with the political content of his work, or that we should treat these as documents of the enemy from which we can learn. Rather, in capturing the world in a way that is both faithful to and yet goes beyond it, Balzac could not help but betray his own political allegiances. Here is Engels, in a letter written after Marx’s death that echoes the latter’s critical line:
That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found — that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.
In short, Balzac’s work is a mode of descriptive writing that manages to come to grips with politics as more than mere window dressing, and also a mode of political writing that does not traffic in prescription, which is not the point of fiction.
The last chapter of Brooks’s book is called “Living in Fictional Lives.” In it, he asks, ventriloquizing the view of a literary snob, whether Balzac had simply created “a fantasy world in which he escaped from, or triumphed over, a cash-strapped and love-deprived existence.” The answer, of course, is no. Balzac lived in a time before Freud, and his discussions of sex are curiously prudish. But Brooks is surely right to link him to “psychoanalysts and child psychologists” in a common recognition of the importance of rationalization, of the fact that we “cannot cope with reality without made-up stories.”
These cannot, though, be just any old stories. Understood properly, Balzac’s achievement is to dissolve the antinomy between fiction as pedantic realism and as pure fantasy. This is not to say that to return to him would demand a simple mechanical repetition of his project, substituting New York of the 2020s, say, for Paris of the 1820s. Nor even that a renewed Balzacianism would require abandoning altogether our current genres and modes of writing. Brooks’s book is at its core protreptic, a literary study that reads like a novel and whose unabashed aim is to get its readers to read more Balzac once they’ve finished.
This is a good place to start. If it is not always possible, or desirable, to return to old modes of writing without descending into trivial mimicry, it is certainly possible, and desirable, to continue reading them.