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Sunday, March 19, 2006

B is for Balzac

Posted by on March 19 at 18:45 PM

I figure that everyone wants a little, but not a lot, of Balzac in their lives. Just a bit. I can help. I am reading Lost Illusions and I am in the mood to share good lines. Here is my first, from page 27 of the Modern Library Classics (yes) paperback translation from the French.

On looking at his feet, a man might have been tempted to think him a young girl in disguise, the more so because, like nearly all men of subtle, not to say astute, minds, the contour of his hips was womanly.

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If you reverse the gender references and incorrectly translate "hips" as "Adam's apple," Balzac's line is a good decription of neofascist talking head Ann Coulter:

"On looking at her feet, a woman might have been tempted to think her a young man in disguise, the more so because, like nearly all women of subtle, not to say astute, minds, the contour of her Adam's apple was manly."

Coincidentally enough, I just had my first Balzac experience yesterday. A friend read me the first half of Sarrasine over the phone; we plan to finish it on Tuesday. The main thing I noticed is that Balzac is nearly unparalleled at wedging pithy generalizations into a narrative. My favorite bits so far from Sarrasine:

"The old man did not choose to leave the charming creature, to whom he clung capriciously with the silent and apparently causeless obstinacy to which very old persons are subject, and which makes them resemble children."

"Ah! how sharply I felt at that moment those pangs of jealousy in which a poet had tried in vain to make me believe! the jealousy of engravings, of pictures, of statues, wherein artists exaggerate human beauty, as a result of the doctrine which leads them to idealize everything."

I copied these from Project Gutenberg, a nearly inexhaustible fount of pixellated Balzac.

Here's a bonus sentence, courtesy of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who for all his sins stands as perhaps the last great practitioner of offhand authorial comment (the sort of thing impulse that immediately gets pounded out of young authors by professors of "creative writing"):

"Such is the power of young contralto voices on sink-down sofas."

Crap! I don't really hold an opinion on any "thing impulse" in young authors. In the course of my habitual rephrasing, I left the old word adjecent to its replacement.

Which "Lost Illusions"? There are two, oddly enough.

Balzac is like candy; you can eat as many as you want, though you may make yourself sick if you overdo it. I can say from experience that the limit, for me, was about twenty.

He's hardly the artist that Flaubert, Proust, or even Stendahl were, but it's fun going. Kind of like a French Dickens; rococo in a very French way, as Dickens was in an English. Dickens was much the greater writer, though.

PS - be sure to finish off with "Harlot High and Low", a sequel to the last "Lost Illusions".

I agree with an essay writer who once named the Penguin edition of "A Harlot High and Low" as the worst title translation to English of a French novel. Balzac's French title was "Splendeurs et miseries des coutisanes," and a literal English translation would be the magnificent "Splendors and Miseries of a Courtesan," not the lame and unpoetic "A Harlot High and Low."

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