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Splendeurs Et Miseres Des Courtisanes [Mar. 15th, 2008|10:34 am]
Tony Grist

I need to take it back to the library today so I spent yesterday afternoon and evening ploughing through the final 200 pages- no hardship- except that this morning my eyes are all itchy and I'm having trouble focusing.

Splendeurs et Miseres was a favourite of Oscar Wilde's. He once remarked that the death of Lucien de Rubempre was the saddest thing that had ever happened to him. This was early in his career.

Lucien is a breathtakingly selfish, shallow, heartless, whiny, little prick. I didn't think I was going to miss him. But Balzac is one of those writers who can blind-side you with a sudden change of tone.  And Lucien's exit- I don't think it's really a spoiler to reveal that he hangs himself in his prison cell- has unexpected moral grandeur- and you're reminded that this star-fucking social climber started out as a poet.

In the final section Balzac invents the police procedural. And throws in a locked-room murder mystery as a bonne-bouche. 

The book belongs to Vautrin (aka Carlos Herrera, aka Jacques Collin) who starts off in support of the rather soppy heroine and gradually takes over- like the spreading shadow of menace in an expressionist movie. He's the first and greatest of the criminal masterminds. Without him there'd be no Moriarty, no McCavity the Mystery Cat, no Ernst Blofeld.  He does appalling things, but you're with him all the way. You want him to win-  and he does. Yes!

Vautrin is gay. And rather movingly in love with the unworthy Lucien. Is he the first character in modern literature to step out of the closet? I rather think he is.

Balzac is largely ignored in the English speaking world. It's not just that we're insular- because we're perfectly well aware of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Stendhal and Victor Hugo and Flaubert.  Maybe Balzac is just too big. Those other guys are alps and he's a complete mountain chain. There are over 90 titles in la Comedie Humaine.

I've read five of them now. I've hardly started. So much left to enjoy.

It's like I found the perfect holiday destination and the tour companies haven't latched onto it yet and I can saunter all day and never hear a word of English....

"Oh- hi there, Oscar...."


[User Picture]From: ingenious76
2008-03-15 05:04 pm (UTC)
Or, A Harlot High And Low in English?

Fabulous, fabulous book. People do tend to ignore Balzac because of the attention to detail, but the same criticism can be made of early Zola. I loved Harlot, its such a deceptive, cleverly plotted novel. I've got Lost Illusions to read after I've finished my current book.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-03-15 09:28 pm (UTC)
That's the one.

Lost Illusions is equally brilliant. And, of course, it fills in Lucien's back story and explains how he and Jacques Collin first met.
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