B is for Bizarrely Sweet (Balzac)

What I read: Novellas by Balzac.

For no reason whatsoever, I'd always assumed Balzac was a long-winded "profound" writer—a French James Joyce. I'd also assumed he was really, really depressing; I guess I saw too many depressing French films in college.

He isn't—depressing, that is. And the first novella I read, "The Secrets of the Princess De Cadignan," had an unbelievably sweet ending. I thought it was headed towards Yes, Prime Minister type cynicism, and then, whammy, an ending which completely surprised and touched me.

I moved on to "Gobseck" which was interesting mainly because it proved to me that Balzac is a good writer—I'm always impressed by a writer who can effortlessly present a story told by a narrator who includes, in his narration, a story told by another character: all without losing me.

Then I tried "The Vicar of Tours" and that was cynical, so I stopped. One thing Balzac does supremely well is characterization. I cared far too much about the poor, vacuous Abbé Birotteau to endure what I knew was coming (and no, "The Vicar of Tours" does not have a surprise sweet ending)—although Abbé Troubert is a great "bad" guy; I put "bad" in quotation marks because I'm not sure Balzac created any completely bad guys, but then my exposure, as you can see, has been limited.

Still, Balzac reinforces what I essentially believe, even if no one else does any more: truly great writers generally deserve their great reputations. I don't understand all the history stuff in Balzac but the prose is pretty impressive. (He is yet another author who illustrates that throwing readers into the deep end doesn't mean abandoning them there--see "'A' is for Awkward".)


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