In my Balzacian quest to acquire as many works of Balzac as geographically possible, I picked up the noble-titled L’Envers de l’histoire Contemporaine of which a new translation was reviewed on Powell’s a while back under the slightly askew translation as The Wrong Side of Paris; which is nonetheless miles ahead of my bargain-base Signet translation as The Seamy Side of History, complete with seedy cover — a busty woman swigging from a bottle while a ruffian feels up her exposed leg — which, for a novel about Christian charity seems just a little distracting and or beside the point. Or a juiced-up transliteration of what was a bad mistranslation in the first place.
It’s one of the Big B’s last works, written over several years and completed in Poland, a keepsake or wilfully charitable testament to Madame Eve Hanska (there’s a little bit of Polish genealogy in it, also a tasty counterpoint in the form of a Polish Jew). There are moments when it feels like a work made solely to impress — to advertise the Big B’s (sympathetic and sudden) catholic devotion and wed his countess all the sooner before his powers gave out, which they did not long after.
So of course the familiar Balzac facets are there: the fascination with secret and powerfully affluent societies, for fate and insurrection across post-revolution France, for printing and the law, for black and white poverty and noble hearts, for burnt-out ‘debauched’ husks of young men without ‘fortune’ or scruple but rich in wayward desperation, and above all, and this comes out clearest in the plotting stakes, a love of societal intrigue and an astutely economical ability to suggest its execution.
This is one of the great virtues of the book, with an eye to what makes B great across his entire oeuvre: his ability to be verbose and prolifically expansive one minute (especially in his generous asides) and then acutely economical while narrating and fleshing the action-narrative of intrigue. That should be cap I Intrigue. The twist he facilitates at the end is still so unexpected as to be almost divine in its intervention. One might think it a little too neat, or too rushed for someone who knew that what could’ve been a full novel had to be truncated for health/preservative reasons. Consequently one can read an air of desperation from B himself in the narrative, in yearning for some kind of personal and urgent salvation, like the final tubercular works of other writers, with all the overtones of fading powers and greater desperation. But a great twist it still is.
The Big B does at times seem restrained here, almost the ‘regular’ novelist. It’s fitting that this last story about Paris, written outside but set within, seems thoroughly unrelated to Paris in terms of atmosphere. I think he couldn’t effectively write about Christian virtue and restraint in the Intriguing City, at least not without seeming a little didactic or contrived. Which is not to say one has to be ‘within’ the throng of a city to transcribe a setting effectively — quite the contrary can be true — pastoral settings and scenes came just as easy to him. But maybe for B it was difficult to write sincerely and purely about Virtue without mincing and romanticising themes which in other novels served purely dramatic means. Or, from another point of view, Virtue is quite plain and uninteresting in terms of narrative value and goals, and as such cannot function without intrigue and plotting around it. Hence for a supremely Parisian (that is, Intriguing) writer such as B, it becomes a wavering or subordinated theme wielded to impress, removed from the dirty core of Paris in his heart. I think the snow and the frost had truly set in for B at his big new Polish estate, that the Intrigue of the city had burnt itself out, and all that remained was the decay of the corpus resorting to its ingrained understanding of essential novelistic form.
And yet, as novelistic means to personal end, B was petitioning all the while for a fitting Christian burial, with a Fortune and titled status and everything else he hungered for and hoped to achieve through writing (and by marrying Eve). See, all these things are between the lines, but Balzac is the only writer who could subtly graft his own needs onto characters and yet still build and furnish a narrative society larger than its parts and base motivations. So Paris is notable for its atmospheric absence, his characters find some kind of Christian solace, and the quest for money goes on. He put his dying wishes down in novelistic form, with the slight pathetic consciousness of one approaching death, but still he couldn’t help but maintain the wide angle, the broadly encyclopaedic view of society in a novel despite its shorter length…