The novelist and short story-writer Honoré de Balzac has long been a fixture in the Penguin Classics range, bound between attractive covers that have been updated, with different illustrations and typeface, through the decades.
His Selected Short Stories are as good an introduction as any, translated from the nineteenth century French into bright, accessible English by Sylvia Raphael. Balzac (1799-1850) packed a hell of a lot of story-telling into his short life. Aside from the short stories, the French writer penned some 90 novels, and he also wrote essays and plays. The best-known and most enduring of his fictional works are his Comedie Humaine series of novels, throughout which various characters reappear in diferent scenarios.
A contemporary of Charles Dickens, he generated suspense and intrigue in a number of masterpieces, including Pere Goriot, Eugenie Grandet, Cousine Bette and Lost Illusions. Pere Goriot - a staple of first year French in 1970s UCD - is called Old Man Goriot in a recent translation by Olivia McCannon, also published by Penguin Classics.
Human frailty, avarice, artistic pretension and filicide are Balzac’s themes in the short stories. One of the most striking is A Tragedy by the Sea, in which a father kills his son because of his errant ways. The tales are typically told by a narrator who is free with his opinions about life and human nature in France, both in Napoleanic and monarchial times. But the tales are not all set in France, and two individual stories deal with incidents involving French soldiers in Spain and Germany. “Balzac gives us a fascinating insight into the life of a past age,” writes Sylphia Raphael in the introduction to the stories, “ and the short stories, like the novels, are full of interest to anyone who wants to know what it felt like to be alive during one of the most violent and disturbed periods of French history.”
By letting the reader in on what he knows – he is usually very indiscreet indeed, or these dark secrets would never be uncovered - the effect is conspiratorial. The titles certainly draw one in, to take five in this collection of twelve, which runs to 278 pages - A Study in Feminine Psychology, An Incident in The Reign of Terror, Domestic Peace, The Atheist’s Mass. This edition concludes with a very useful timeline/biography.
Balzac was born in Tours, the son of a civil servant of peasant stock. In 1822 he became the lover of Laure de Berny, who was a mother of nine children and was 22 years his senior. She died in 1836, the year his supposed son was born. He wrote under a pseudonym at first and when his work as ‘Horace de St Aubin’ was panned in a literary journal in 1824, he contemplated suicide. In 1831, he began to live beyond his means. He was obliged to liquidate a journal one year after purchasing it and he incurred serious debt after speculating in Sardinian silver mines. In 1832 he was rumoured to be `going mad.’ He had a printing business which went bust in 1828. In 1832, he began corresponding with a Polish countess named Eveline de Hanska. She delivered a still-born baby in 1846 which would have been named Victor-Honoré had he lived. The author married the countess in March 1850 but they were only married for five months, as the author died in August of that year.
So much for the life. After all the drama of his tales, his narrators - typically sitting around their dinner tables as they hold the audience in thrall - end their stories of high drama almost nonchalantly. “Facino Cane died during the winter, having lingered for two months, “ concludes the eponymous story of the old tavern musician, who claimed to be Venetian royalty and was obsessed with a store of gold hidden away under the Doge’s palace. “The poor man had caught a chill” is Balzac's final sentence, reminding us how all our dreams and obsessions can end ever so casually.