You know what? I think this might be my favourite. At an earlier stage- when I'd only read harsher texts like Eugenie Grandet and Le Pere Goriot- I had Balzac pegged as a pessimist and a cynic. This was wrong. There are pessimistic books and there are optimistic books, cynical books and cheery ones. The totality of La Comedie Humaine encompasses a multiplicity of attitudes and philosophies.
Flaubert said of Balzac, "What a pity he couldn't write". True enough, as far as it goes; the work is often slapdash, hurried, clumsy- Balzac had so much to say and was racing death (death won)- but, on the other hand, if he'd been as scrupulous an artist as Flaubert he'd only have written as many books as Flaubert- and that would have been a huge pity. Balzac is Balzac is Balzac: a unique force in literature- overflowing with views and opinions and information. There isn't a nook or cranny of his society- from the highest reaches of the aristocracy down to the peasantry of the provinces- where he's not at home, where he doesn't know how people think and act. Name a profession- from engineering, to the law, to politics, to high finance, to the church, to the criminal underworld- and he's an initiate of its mysteries. And if the finish is sometimes rough, the modelling is always vigourous and full of life- with passages where the mastery- of narrative, dialogue, psychology- takes your breath away.
The greatest of all novelists- oh easily! Everyone else- ever since- has just been gleaning the field he reaped.