Honoré De Balzac (1799-1850) is generally credited as the inventor of the modern realistic novel. In more than ninety novels, he set forth French society and life as he saw it. He created a cast of over two thousand individual and identifiable characters, some of whom reappear in different novels. He organized his works into his masterpiece, La Comedie Humaine,which was the final result of his attempt to grasp the whole of society and experience into one varied but unified work.
Richard Howard was born in Cleveland in 1929. He is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry and has published more than one hundred fifty translations from the French, including works by Gide, Stendhal, de Beauvoir, Baudelaire, and de Gaulle. Howard received a National Book Award for his translation of Fleurs du mal and a Pulitzer Prize for Untitled Subjects, a collection of poetry.
Two very intelligent, very idealistic young women leave the convent school where they became the fastest of friends to return to their families and embark on their new lives. For Renée de Maucombe, this means an arranged marriage with a country gentleman of Provence, a fine if slightly dull man for whom she feels admiration but nothing more. Meanwhile, Louise de Chaulieu makes for her family’s house in Paris, intent on enjoying her freedom to the fullest: glittering balls, the opera, and above all, she devoutly hopes, the torments and ecstasies of true love and passion. What will come of these very different lives?
Despite Honoré de Balzac’s title, these aren’t memoirs; rather, this is an epistolary novel. For some ten years, these two will--enthusiastically if not always faithfully--keep up their correspondence, obeying their vow to tell each other every tiny detail of their strange new lives, comparing their destinies, defending and sometimes bemoaning their choices, detailing the many changes, personal and social, that they undergo. As Balzac writes, “Renée is reason...Louise is wildness...and both will lose.” Balzac being Balzac, he seems to argue for the virtues of one of these lives over the other; but Balzac being Balzac, that argument remains profoundly ambiguous. “I would,” he once wrote, “rather be killed by Louise than live a long life with Renée.”
An NYRB Classics Original
Characters from every corner of society and all walks of life--lords and ladies, businessmen and military men, poor clerks, unforgiving moneylenders, aspiring politicians, artists, actresses, swindlers, misers, parasites, sexual adventurers, crackpots, and more--move through the pages of The Human Comedy, Balzac’s multivolume magnum opus, an interlinked chronicle of modernity in all its splendor and squalor. The Human Comedy includes the great roomy novels that have exercised such a sway over Balzac’s many literary inheritors, from Dostoyevsky and Henry James to Marcel Proust; it also contains an array of short fictions in which Balzac is at his most concentrated and forceful. Nine of these, all newly translated, appear in this volume, and together they provide an unequaled overview of a great writer’s obsessions and art. Here are “The Duchesse de Langeais,” “A Passion in the Desert,” and “Sarrasine”; tales of madness, illicit passion, ill-gotten gains, and crime. What unifies them, Peter Brooks points out in his introduction, is an incomparable storyteller’s fascination with the power of storytelling, while throughout we also detect what Proust so admired: the “mysterious circulation of blood and desire.”