Some time last year, when NYRB Classics posted the books they’d be publishing in the near future, I immediately began tweeting about them (I pay close attention). One of the books that got people most excited was a new translation of selected stories from Balzac’s The Human Comedy. Apparently, people who know Balzac well have been hoping for some updated translations. I say “apparently” because I cannot count myself as someone who knows Balzac well. Before this edition I had . . . this is hard to say . . . I had never read any Balzac. If you feel the need to strike me from your blog reader, I guess I understand.

That said, I do think I have something to say on this particular story and this particular translation. Furthermore, I don’t think I’m alone in my ignorance of Balzac. So, I have been working hard over the past month to educate myself as well as I could so that I could talk to two audiences: those who have read Balzac and who might be curious whether this edition is worth picking up and those who have never read Balzac who might be curious whether this is a good place to start. The direct answer to each of those questions: yes.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

The Human Comedy is a gigantic series of novels, novellas, and stories that Balzac published between 1829 and 1847. In 1832, Balzac was struck with the ambitious idea to write this enormous series that would portray “all aspects of society” in France from about 1815 (the Bourbon Restoration) through 1830 (when the Bourbon Restoration was ended with the July Revolution, setting up the July Monarch) to 1848 (when the July Monarchy ended with the Revolution of 1848). Obviously, these were times of change and tumult, and Balzac was interested in tracking the social, economic, legal, philosophical, etc. underpinnings that affected the daily life of these characters. In the end, the project, which morphed over the years, eventually taking in almost everything Balzac wrote or thought to write, found some containment in a “definitive” 24 volumes.

Obviously, this single book from NYRB Classics does not contain the entire series (though NYRB Classics has published Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, which is included in The Human Comedy). What we get here are nine stories, some short and some quite long, including “The Duchesse de Langeais,” “A Passion in the Desert,” and “Sarrasine.” At 415 pages, it’s still a weighty undertaking. The introduction by Peter Brooks is in itself adds another fifteen pages, and it’s a great introduction that introduces Balzac’s weaknesses even before introducing Balzac’s strengths. It helped make Balzac less intimidating while simultaneously whetting my appetite, giving as it does glimpses at the “mysterious circulation of blood and desire” the volume promises.

In this post, I’m going to address only “Facino Cane,” the first story in this new edition, leaving the other eight stories for future posts (after seeing the length here, I think you’d agree that’s best, right?). “Facino Cane” being the first thing I ever read by Balzac, I can say that it took me by the hand and led me in quite nicely — in other words, this story makes for a pleasant initiation.

Before getting to the substance of the story, I’d like to take a moment to praise the translation. I think those waiting for improvement have what they’re looking for in this new translation by Linda Asher. Taking some lines out of context, I’d like to compare Clara Bell’s translation, which we’ve had for most of the last century, with Linda Asher’s.

Here is Bell’s translation of the first few sentences:

I once used to live in a little street which probably is not known to you — the Rue de Lesdiguieres. It is a turning out of the Rue Saint-Antoine, beginning just opposite a fountain near the Place de la Bastille, and ending in the Rue de la Cerisaie. Love of knowledge stranded me in a garret; my nights I spend in work, my days in reading at the Bibliotheque d’Orleans, close by. I lived frugally; I had accepted the conditions of the monastic life, necessary conditions for every worker, scarcely permitting myself a walk along the Boulevard Bourdon when the weather was fine.

And here is Asher’s:

At the time, I was living on a little street you probably do not know, rue de Lesdiguières: Its starts at rue Saint-Atoine across from a fountain near place de la Bastille, and ends at rue de la Cérisaie. A passion for knowledge had flung me into a garret room where I worked nights, and I would spend the day in the nearby library established by Monsieur, the king’s brother. I lived frugally; I had accepted all the conditions of monastic life so necessary to serious workers. In find weather I would at most take a brief stroll on boulevard Bourdon.

I think Asher’s comes alive, touching on the boring details of the street without making them simply boring details. What’s more, looking at the original, Bell actually adds in another boring detail: that the Bibliotheque d’Orleans was the nearby library. In fact, it seems that in most every way Asher’s translation is not only more lively but also more closely related to the original French:

Je demeurais alors dans une petite rue que vous ne connaissez pas, la rue de Lesdiguières: elle commence à la rue Saint-Antoine, en face d’une fontaine près de la place de la Bastille et debouche dans la rue de La Cerisaie. L’amour de la science m’avait jeté dans une mansard où je travaillais pendant la nuit, et je passais le jour dans une bibliothèque voisine, celle de MOINSIEUR. Je vivais frugalment, j’avais accepté toutes les conditions de la vie monastique, si nécessaire aux travailleurs. Quand il faisaint beau, à peine me promenais-je sur le boulevard Bourdon.

The energy found even in those first few relatively boring sentences is found throughout Asher’s translation. On to the story . . .

Though published in 1836, well into Balzac’s project, “Facino Cane” seems a natural place to start The Human Comedy, and not just because of its brevity (sixteen pages). It opens with the narrator — is this Balzac himself? — looking back to when he was twenty years old, living the life of a passionate scholar, the kind of life that demands the rigors of monasticism. Spending much of his day inside and alone, the narrator was drawn out by the promise of one activity: taking a walk and observing “the customs of the neighborhood, its inhabitants and their character.” He’s blessed with imaginative faculties that “allowed me to live a person’s life, let me put myself in his place, the way a dervish in The Thousand and One Nights would take over a person’s body and soul by pronouncing certain words over him.”

One gets the sense that in these lives he finds the “life” necessary so he can go on with his monasticism. In other words, by doing this he can live hundreds of lives, even if he is mostly alone and in one room. However, it’s more than that. This is the kind of knowledge he’s hungry for: what makes people tick, what do their lives convey about society? Thus, his studies extend from that room to these walks and encounters. It’s all the same.

I will say, though, that from that time on, I have gone on teasing apart the elements of the heterogeneous mass we call “the people,” analyzing and evaluating its good or bad features.

He is interested for his own knowledge and how these lives would reveal themselves in art. The lives, he says, are “masterpieces born of chance,” and he admits that his “[i]magination could never touch the reality hidden there,” but that is not going to stop him from relating the stories he’s collected. And so we transition to the story about an eighty-two-year-old, blind clarinetist who claims to be a descendant of Facino Cane, a noble condottiero who lived four centuries earlier.

The young narrator met this blind clarinetist at the wedding of his housekeeper’s sister (though this story is short, Balzac doesn’t withhold much, and we get a lovely page on this housekeeper, though her only apparent role in this story is to get us to that wedding). The three musicians performing at the wedding are each blind, but one stands out: the clarinetist. Examining his face, the narrator knows that “[t]here was something grand and despotic in this old Homer, who harbored within himself an Odyssey consigned to oblivion.” Intrigued, wanting to know the stories that would make the old man’s face shaped just so, the narrator talks to the clarinetist. The old man claims he is named Marco-Facino Cane, after his famous ancestor, though in France he goes by Old Man Canet. Canet tells the narrator he once lived in Venice and longs to go back. His desire is not simply born of nostalgia. He has something there he wants to retrieve. He wants the narrator to take him there: “If I went there with you, it would be worth your time.” He practically begs.

For his part, the narrator thinks the man may be mad, but he wants to listen, wants to hear how the “profound physical and moral degradation” came about.

His ancestor, Facino Cane, was brutal in his military exploits, and at his death he had amassed a massive treasure, and his descendants were wealthy senators in Venice. Old Man Canet was, sixty years earlier, a very wealthy young man in love with a woman named Bianca. She was married.

It’s a rather exciting tale, filled with murder, the loss of all riches, the threat of execution, a prison escape, and a secret treasure. Essentially, the old man blames all of his misfortunes on his lust for riches, having, more than once, lost everything — including his love — in an attempt to get more. And now he wants to go back to Venice because he knows of a secret treasure that could still redeem him in some way. He’ll share it with this young narrator.

The story is quite unbelievable — the old man found the secret treasure by digging under his prison cell, something he knew to do because of Arabic scribblings on his cell wall, scribblings he could read because he once studied Arabic at an Armenian Convent. The old man finishes and must know that the young man is skeptical. He settles back and plays a Venetian song:

It was something like the psalm “Super flumina Babylonis.” My eyes filled with tears. If a few late-night strollers happened along boulevard Bourdon just then, they probably stopped to listen to that ultimate prayer of the exile, the last longing for a lost name, touched with the memory of Bianca. But soon gold took the upper hand again, and that fateful passion stamped out the youthful gleam.

Even this song is overtaken by a lust for gold. Perhaps because he experiences his own lust for gold, perhaps because he pities the man and wants to give him the burst of energy he needs so he can walk home — or, perhaps, because he can’t bear to see this specimen walk away — the narrator says, “We’ll go to Venice!”

If his goal were to give the old man a pick-me-up, it worked. They walk off into the night with the old man saying they don’t need to wait to get money because they can simply walk to Venice — “I’m sturdy, and a person is young when he sees gold ahead.”

The story ends immediately:

Facino Cane died during the winter, after a two-month illness. The poor man had suffered a bad cold.

If that long paragraph about his maid left us feeling that Balzac would tell us everything, we’re shocked at this ending, after which we feel we know nothing. Did our young narrator believe him? Was he seriously going to go to Venice if he could find the way? Perhaps they were on their way when the old man got sick, leaving the unfulfilled promise of wealth and adventure.

Or maybe not. It seems that a lot of people who are underwhelmed with “Facino Cane” take the old man’s story at face value. I’m not saying they’re wrong to do so — that’s a viable reading — I just think it leaves a lot of the richness of this story out on the floor. I’ve seen it suggested that “Facino Cane” shows that Balzac succumbed to the allure of the implausible, that adventure story, but attempting to write the realist piece (which he was writing well before “Facino Cane” came along) just had to throw up his hands and abruptly end the story with something absolutely mundane, as if he were upset at the kind of art he devoted his life to.

But the old man’s story is not the most exciting thing about “Facino Cane.” And I don’t think the narrator — and certainly not Balzac — thinks so either. After all, in contrast to the build up, the old man’s story takes up merely a few pages, and for the most part it’s skimmed over, one exciting summary leads to the next. It’s not thoughtful like the young man’s narrative had been before. It talks of love and betrayal in Romantic terms: “I loved as no one loves any longer these days — to the point of closing myself into a chest and taking the risk of being stabbed in it for just the promise of a kiss.” What Balzac means here is that no one speaks of love that way these days. The Romantic period was over, by his clock, and this is a story ushering in his brand of realism.

And it’s all the richer for it, for Balzac is not too concerned with the adventure story (just as the narrator is not too concerned with the old man’s treasure); both Balzac and the narrator are interested in the old man himself, what his life has been, and what has made him share this story in the first place. There’s the suggestion that Old Man Canet is mad. The narrator suspects this from the beginning, and I’m not convinced that his suspicions aren’t confirmed by the end of the old man’s story. Certainly, just going off what the narrator writes to us readers, the narrator is not as interested in telling us of the man’s adventures as he is in telling us about the man’s face, a face marked with troubles, but perhaps not the troubles the old man claims.

I’ll concede that it’s ambiguous, but it seems to me that Old Man Canet’s claims to great treasure are mere imaginings, and thus he’s to be all the more pitied. Yes, pity — partially — made the narrator say he’d take the old man to Venice, but I find it unlikely he ever intended to take the trip. His pity wasn’t meant to help the old man get to Venice in reality. It was meant to get the old man through that night and to keep up the acquaintance, for it’s there — though it’s not spoken, it’s not even written — it’s there that this narrator finds the treasure he’s looking for.

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