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The Human Comedy: Introductions and Appendix   By: (1799-1850)

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By Honore De Balzac


Honore de Balzac Introduction and brief biography by George Saintsbury.

Appendix List of titles in French with English translations and grouped in the various classifications.

Author's introduction Balzac's 1842 introduction to The Human Comedy.


"Sans genie, je suis flambe!"

Volumes, almost libraries, have been written about Balzac; and perhaps of very few writers, putting aside the three or four greatest of all, is it so difficult to select one or a few short phrases which will in any way denote them, much more sum them up. Yet the five words quoted above, which come from an early letter to his sister when as yet he had not "found his way," characterize him, I think, better than at least some of the volumes I have read about him, and supply, when they are properly understood, the most valuable of all keys and companions for his comprehension.

"If I have not genius, it is all up with me!" A very matter of fact person may say: "Why! there is nothing wonderful in this. Everybody knows what genius is wanted to make a name in literature, and most people think they have it." But this would be a little short sighted, and only excusable because of the way in which the word "genius" is too commonly bandied about. As a matter of fact, there is not so very much genius in the world; and a great deal of more than fair performance is attainable and attained by more or less decent allowances or exhibitions of talent. In prose, more especially, it is possible to gain a very high place, and to deserve it, without any genius at all: though it is difficult, if not impossible, to do so in verse. But what Balzac felt (whether he was conscious in detail of the feeling or not) when he used these words to his sister Laure, what his critical readers must feel when they have read only a very little of his work, what they must feel still more strongly when they have read that work as a whole is that for him there is no such door of escape and no such compromise. He had the choice, by his nature, his aims, his capacities, of being a genius or nothing. He had no little gifts, and he was even destitute of some of the separate and indivisible great ones. In mere writing, mere style, he was not supreme; one seldom or never derives from anything of his the merely artistic satisfaction given by perfect prose. His humor, except of the grim and gigantic kind, was not remarkable; his wit, for a Frenchman, curiously thin and small. The minor felicities of the literature generally were denied to him. Sans genie, il etait flambe ; flambe as he seemed to be, and very reasonably seemed, to his friends when as yet the genius had not come to him, and when he was desperately striving to discover where his genius lay in those wonderous works which "Lord R'Hoone," and "Horace de Saint Aubin," and others obligingly fathered for him.

It must be the business of these introductions to give what assistance they may to discover where it did lie; it is only necessary, before taking up the task in the regular biographical and critical way of the introductory cicerone, to make two negative observations. It did not lie, as some have apparently thought, in the conception, or the outlining, or the filling up of such a scheme as the Comedie Humaine . In the first place, the work of every great writer, of the creative kind, including that of Dante himself, is a comedie humaine . All humanity is latent in every human being; and the great writers are merely those who call most of it out of latency and put it actually on the stage. And, as students of Balzac know, the scheme and adjustment of his comedy varied so remarkably as time went on that it can hardly be said to have, even in its latest form (which would pretty certainly have been altered again), a distinct and definite character. Its so called scenes are even in the mass by no means exhaustive, and are, as they stand, a very "cross," division of life: nor are they peopled by anything like an exhaustive selection of personages... Continue reading book >>

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