In our era of boxed-set, television bingeing, it’s astonishing there hasn’t been a revival of Honoré de Balzac’s “Human Comedy.” Did the conclusion of “The Wire” leave you bereft? Here’s a serial that almost never ends. When the French novelist died in 1850 at age 51, having basically worked himself to death, his magnum opus stretched to more than a hundred works: novels, plays, stories. Its interrelated cast of characters tipped in at 2,000. Their assorted genealogies took up three walls of a room in Balzac’s Parisian home.
Reading Balzac’s great living map of French society has never been a chore. The characters and sentences still leap from the page as if they were trapped there just seconds ago. It’s just choosing where to begin. Read the highlight novels, such as “Le Père Goriot,” and one can leave with a taste of Balzac the conservative, the royalist, Balzac the nifty portrait maker. Read at random and one misses the extraordinary deftness with which Balzac tracked his age.
Balzac could do this with such felicity and ravenous curiosity because he was a man of vast contradictions. He was a sensualist with a moralizing streak; he believed in monarchy but portrayed working life so well he was one of Marx’s favorite writers; he shunned nightlife, working almost continuously, but was clearly obsessed with detailing its every move. One could practically make a fall collection from the descriptions of women’s clothing that fluff up even the briskest Balzac tale.
Happily, in “The Human Comedy: Selected Stories,” Peter Brooks has managed to capture this enormous range and more by plucking a mere nine of the Frenchmen’s best tales. There is a good range on display here, as broad as the Napoleonic Empire. Dandies and duchesses discuss the decline of aristocratic mores at a dinner party in “Another Study of Womankind.” In “A Passion in the Desert,” a soldier lost in the Sahara stumbles upon an oasis, which he discovers is inhabited by a panther. Out of such tales one can see how Balzac was the great-grandfather to writers as diverse as Colette and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
In his novels, Balzac occasionally gets lost in tangents or bricks himself into a closet with too much description. He makes no such mistakes here. Even when weighing in at close to one-hundred pages, they feel swift and urgent, rare, like a meteor spied falling to earth. A great many begin framed by a narrator who eventually introduces a character whose tale gradually eclipses the narrator’s own. It’s a clever ruse. Wodehouse used it a lot, as did Roberto Bolaño in his day. The page drops away, and one becomes, in the best sense, a kind of listener.
Brooks’s selection showcases how many ways this device could be used. In “Facino Cane,” the opening story, a young man who sounds a lot like Balzac himself, when he abandoned law for life in a garret. “Dropping my own habits, becoming another person through a kind of intoxication of my imagination faculities . . . that was my delight.” The young man then describes how he met a blind musician from Venice, a former prince who promises he will take the young man to his buried riches, so long as he listens to his story.
In the following story, “Another Study of Womankind,” Balzac practically paints the narrator out of the scene. We are at a party, the elite part, when most of the guests have left and just a few friends stay for food, the moment of the evening that happens to this day in New York and elsewhere. The guests are sitting around, happy on wine, telling stories, which Balzac neatly slips one inside the other, like Russian nesting dolls, until we are at the final, heartbreaking tale, which one of the guests unfurls with relish and care, like a contemporary of Poe.
In this story, Balzac’s characters rail — as we do today — against the need to rush, the collapse of old ways, of the constant instinct to abbreviate pleasure for the sake of efficiency. It’s wandering, luxurious format reads like a clever argument for living in an opposite mode. And yet, Balzac is such a clever writer the prose here and in other stories has the great torque of aphorism. “No one has ever told a good story on his feet nor with an empty stomach,’’ pronounces one guest.
Love and vengeance exist in the human heart in equal measure, Balzac knows, and time and again here one watches a man or woman suddenly switch from one to the other. In “The Duchess of Langeais,” a wealthy woman befriends and seduces a wounded war hero, recently returned to Paris. She almost can nurse him out of his shell, and the moment of their passion is almost unbearable for one who has so carefully made armor out of reserve. “Monsieur de Montriveau stayed until two o’clock in the morning with his mistress, who from this moment on no longer seemed to him a duchess or a Navarreins: Antoinette had in the end disguised herself as a woman.”
Graham Robb points out in his tremendous biography, “Balzac,” that the great writer stood, by virtue of his tremendous willpower, a chance of seeing three centuries. He didn’t make it, but he still straddled an enormous era of change: The blood was not yet dry on the revolution when he was born, and by his death France possessed, in a small way, the social mobility of the colony across the water. Balzac’s father was born poor and died a respected man. His son would become a national treasure.
In the pages of “The Human Comedy,” Balzac shows us these massive changes making pincher movements on that most important battlefield: relationships. The duchess of Langeais wants her fun in Balzac’s tale, but she is unwilling to risk the comforts and position her marriage assures her. When the war hero realizes he has been played like a bauble, he plots a horrible revenge. The heart quickens as we read of it, as if all this were not unreal, as if all of it were not a century and a half ago.John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.’’ He teaches at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research.