On the quick-mention list, Balzac’s L'Envers de l'histoire Contemporaine
of which a new translation was recently reviewed on Powell’s
under the slightly askew title of 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 (honestly, 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). It’s one of the Big B’s last works, written over several years and completed in Poland, no doubt as some kind of keepsake or charitable testament to 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 I did feel it was just a work made to impress — to advertise the Big B’s (sympathetic) catholic devotion and wed his countess all the sooner before his powers gave out, which they did shortly after. But not that this is in any way inconsistent for B, what between his wacky Romantic ideas of science on one hand and a kind of fitful subscription to Christianity and royalism on the other. When working on the big scale, I think he just wanted to have the broadest canvas and the widest possibilities on his side, or hedge-betting, what you will — it was all innate for the encyclopaedic novelist par excellence. So of course the familiar facets are all 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 or ‘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 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 out the actions of intrigue. That should be cap i Intrigue. The twist he facilitates 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 would could’ve been a full novel had to be truncated to a novella for health reasons. Consequently there might be an air of desperation from B himself in the narrative, in yearning for some kind of personal salvation, like in the final tubercular works of some other writers. The Big B does at times seem restrained here, almost a ‘regular’ novelist. It’s strange that this last story about Paris, written outside of it, seems almost completely unrelated to it in atmosphere (I think he couldn’t effectively write about Christian virtue in the intriguing city, at least without seeming a little didactic). I think the snows 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. And yet petitioning eagerly all the while for a fitting Christian burial, with a fortune and titled status and everything else he hungered for.