Did Balzac Ever Go to Java?

Cover of a French Edition of the Voyage

Well, not exactly. But he is known to have drunk approximately fifty cups of Java each day. No doubt that helped inspire him to write this hilarious spoof of voyages to exotic locales. It is not until the last couple of pages that Honoré de Balzac writes:

In truth, soon I will be losing no time in taking the stagecoach once again, travelling back to Paris across the fields of Touraine and Poitou that I thought I should never see again. During my first days back in Paris I had a lot of trouble persuading myself that I had not indeed been to Java, so much had that traveller [M. Grand-Besançon] struck my imagination with his tales.

So in the end it is a delightful hoax. Balzac tells a series of tall tales redolent of earlier (unsubstantiatable) journeys full of tall tales about the flora, fauna, and women of the Far East. Not all of it consists of tall tales, such as this realistic warning to travelers to be alert at all times:

Go inside a shop selling precious cloths; bargain, buy some cashmere or a length of tamava … if you turn your back for a moment while the merchant is rolling up your purchase on the counter, wrapping it and tying it with string, the package flies to the back of the shop and is replaced by another containing inferior goods, that an apprentice has been preparing in the corner of the shop to look exactly like the one you were buying. With no explanation for this miraculous metamorphosis, you return to the shop furious at having been duped by the Chinese everybody had warned you about; but his only response is to laugh at you.

I have read virtually all of Balzac as translated into English, but this is by far the funniest of his works. An English edition entitled My Journey from Paris to Java (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2010) is available.


Too Much Self-Esteem

The Whole Package for Guys Who Believe They’re Special

The worst thing about living in Southern California is that there are too many people—particularly males—who have been told all their lives that they are special. The result is a population that thinks they deserve all the good things in life without having to work for them. One sees on the road all the BMWs, Lexuses, Mercedes Benzes, Maseratis, Bentleys, Jags, and other high-priced vehicles that are the trademark for guys with tiny weenies who at the same time are big dicks … and who have to prove it several times each mile.

At the time I was sent to school at the tender age of five, I was not told I was special. My friend András and I were considered as little freaks who attacked our teacher because she refused to understand our Hungarian, which, after all, was the prevalent language of the Buckeye Road neighborhood in Cleveland where we lived. My teacher, Mrs. Idell, retaliated by sending me home with a note pinned to my shirt asking what language I was speaking. From that point until the fifth grade, when I finally knew enough English to get good grades, I was thought to be something of a retard. In Second Grade, Sister Frances Martin, the Dominican nun who was our teacher at Saint Henry, would come up to me, pull my nears hard, and call me “cabbagehead.”

When I came to Los Angeles in 1966, I encountered a widespread plague of high self-esteem. Everybody had to pretend to be richer, more handsome, and more of a stud than they in actuality were. I think that one result of all this is that many of my fellow students put themselves in debt up to their ears. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are living on the streets in homeless encampments.

It reminds me in so many ways of many Honoré de Balzac novels, such as Lost Illusions, in which a whole society tried to live beyond its means. Some managed to do it; others fell hard by the wayside.


Better Than Ever

Monaco Stamp Commemorating Honoré de Balzac

It has been over six years since I opened a book by one of my favorite authors, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Sometimes when I revisit a favorite author after a long absence, I find that my ardor has cooled somewhat. Not so with Balzac!

In the Yahoo French Literature Reading Group, I recommended that we select A Harlot High and Low, a.k.a. Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847) for our July read. It didn’t take too many pages before I was as entranced as ever. It was almost half a century ago that I first undertook to read Père Goriot (1835), still my favorite among his works. Interestingly, two of the characters from the earlier book—Eugène de Rastignac and Vautrin—appear in the work I am re-reading.

The period of the author’s life somehow tied together the French Revolution (1789-1799), the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Bourbon Restoration, the reign of Louis-Philippe “The Citizen King,” and the Revolutions of 1848. No other writer on the Continent was able to bridge these critical periods as Balzac did with his Comédie Humaine series of stories and novels, although Charles Dickens at times came close.

Balzac was the first writer to share characters between stories. As one reads his works, one gains a deeper understanding not only of the characters, but the times and milieus in which they lived.

The Work I’m Re-Reading Now

As I re-read A Harlot High and Low, I see myself returning to my favorites among his works:

  • The Wild Ass’s Skin (Le Peau de Chagrin), 1831
  • Eugénie Grandet, 1833
  • Old Goriot (Le Père Goriot), 1835—probably the best place to start if you want to read Balzac
  • César Birotteau, 1837
  • Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues),  1837-1842
  • Cousin Bette (La Cousine Bette), 1846
  • Cousin Pons (Le Cousin Pons), 1847
  • A Harlot High and Low (Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes), 1838-1847

Over the years, I have actually read all 50-odd novels and all 20-odd short stories that have been translated into English, some more than once. And it appears that I’m not finished yet.



Beatniks Then and Now

Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A Full Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A hundred years before Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation came into being, there were the “original” Bohemians—although, possibly, one could make a case for tracing them all the way back to François Villon in the 15th Century—popularized by Henri Murget in Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (or Bohemians of the Latin Quarter). We are probably much more familiar with the operas based on this popular novel of the 1840s, including Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. Ruggiero Leoncavallo also wrote an operatic version, and the Broadway musical Rent is loosely based on  Murger’s novel of 1846-1847.

The big difference between the Beats and Murget’s Bohemians is that, while the Beats were more heavily into booze and drugs, the Parisian artists and artistes of the 1840s were more into surviving. The whole picture of the starving young artist really came into fruition around then. We see pieces of it in Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions) and some of his other works, but it was Murger who popularized it, while graciously acknowledging Balzac’s contribution.

In Murget’s novel, there were four main heroes: Rodolphe, Marcel, Colline, and Schaunard, along with their mistresses, especially Mimi and Musette. What distinguishes Murget from Balzac is that he is nowhere near as dark. His Bohemian artists are impoverished, but generous and good-hearted. Although it has a “where are the snows of yesteryear” (itself a quote from Villon) sadness to it, we do not feel there is any evil present, except perhaps in the landlords who persist on asking for rent. As Marcel cynically says at one point toward the end:

It is no longer possible for us to continue to live much longer on the outskirts of society—on the outskirts of life almost—under the penalty of justifying the contempt felt for us, and of despising ourselves. For, after all, is it a life we lead? And are not the independence, the freedom of mannerism of which we boast so loudly, very mediocre advantages? True liberty consists of being able to dispense with the aid of others, and to exist by oneself, and have we got to that? No, the first scoundrel, whose name we would not bear for five minutes, avenges himself for our jests, and becomes our lord and master the day on which we borrow from him five francs, which he lends us after having made us dispense the worth of a hundred and fifty in ruses or in humiliations. For my part, I have had enough of it. Poetry does not alone exist in disorderly living, touch-and-go happiness, loves that last as long as a bedroom candle, more or less eccentric revolts against those prejudices which will eternally rule the world, for it is easier to upset a dynasty than a custom, however ridiculous it may be. It is not enough to wear a summer coat in December to have talent; one can be a real poet or artist whilst going about well shod and eating three meals a day. Whatever one may say, and whatever one may do, if one wants to attain anything one must always take the commonplace way.

Unfortunately, not many people today read Murger. It is interesting, however, to trace an idea back to its origins; and Murger makes for pleasant reading. You can find a free English translation on Gutenberg.Com.

Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

I don’t even remember what it was that led to me read Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot around 1970. It was a Penguin paperback with a cover illustration of the last chapter’s funeral scene at Père Lachaise cemetery in muted colors. The scene, quoted below, showed the book’s young hero Eugène de Rastignac, poor scion of a good family, seeing the virtually unattended obsequies of an old man, who, like King Lear, gave everything to his daughters. Except there was no Cordelia in this tale:

But just as the coffin was put in the hearse, two empty carriages, with the armorial bearings of the Comte de Restaud and the Baron de Nucingen, arrived and followed in the procession to Père-Lachaise. At six o’clock Goriot’s coffin was lowered into the grave, his daughters’’ servants standing round the while. The ecclesiastic recited the short prayer that the students could afford to pay for, and then both priest and lackeys disappeared at once. The two grave diggers flung in several spadefuls of earth, and then stopped and asked Rastignac for their fee. Eugène felt in vain in his pocket, and was obliged to borrow five francs of Christophe. This thing, so trifling in itself, gave Rastignac a terrible pang of distress. It was growing dusk, the damp twilight fretted his nerves; he gazed down into the grave and the tears he shed were drawn from him by the sacred emotion, a single-hearted sorrow. When such tears fall on earth, their radiance reaches heaven. And with that tear that fell on Father Goriot’s grave, Eugène Rastignac’s youth ended. He folded his arms and gazed at the clouded sky; and Christophe, after a glance at him, turned and went—Rastignac was left alone.

He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently:

“Henceforth there is war between us.”

And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen.

At the time, I was only about 25 years old myself, and I felt myself, like de Rastignac, to be a creature of destiny. The years have shown that I was deluding myself, but that wasn’t Balzac’s fault.

Over the years, Balzac has continued to cast his spell on me. By now, I have read virtually everything Balzac published under his own name, as well as two works written under the pseudonym Horace de Saint-Aubin. I am a member of a reading group dedicated to Balzac under Yahoo!—a group which at one time read and discussed all of the author’s books over a period of several years.

Interestingly, Balzac is a rare example of a great writer who is not a consistently good writer. He was remarkably slapdash about composing and editing his works, yet he always entranced the reader by the breadth of his imagination which, to this day, has never been approached by any other writer, not even Marcel Proust. He is like a candle burning at both ends, a creature of soaring ambition, poor spending habits, and a remarkable understanding of how people interact in what is a material world. At his worst, he is a tedious dimestore philosopher in Seraphita and the second half of Louis Lambert.

Ah, but at his best, he is sublime. Even when all the pieces don’t add up, the following works are among the most powerful works ever penned:

  • The Wild Ass’s Skin (1831)
  • Colonel Chabert (1832)
  • Père Goriot (1835), his masterpiece
  • Lost Illusions (1843)
  • Cousin Bette (1846)
  • Cousin Pons (1847)
  • A Harlot High and Low (1847)

If you have a Kindle or other e-reading device, you can pick up Balzac’s complete work, translated into English, for free or for mere pennies. And be sure to visit La Comédie Humaine by Balzac, which was put together by members of the Yahoo! Balzac group, and which includes dozens of reviews and summaries written by me and others.