Monday, November 21, 2011

Existing in the Police City-State of New York City: Reading Balzac

Foto by tgw, New York City, 2011
Reading the Amazing Balzac

I have heard praise of Balzac all my life but, for some reason or another, I never got around to reading any of his books. Last year, however, thedailygrowlerhousepianist returned from a gig in Switzerland, and at the next meeting of our quorum at an uptown Irish pub, he handed me a copy of Balzac's Lost Illusions--he'd bought it to read on the flight back to the US and he said he knew I'd like it if I ever found the time to read it. Almost immediately on getting home with the book, I soon found it calling to me to read it. You know how a book sits among other books but stands out, as if animatedly appealing to you to read it? Thus I soon picked up the hefty Lost Illusions and began reading it. I read almost 200 pages in one sitting. I found the book not only very up-to-date in terms of its description of the Parisian leisure class but also in the many schemes and delicate scams those entering into the entertainment of that class (books, theater, opera, etc.) had to adjust to in order to find success as writers, philosophers, playwrights, lyricists, publishers, agents, etc. Soon I was lost in Lost Illusions and totally under Balzac's spell.

Honore de Balzac (he really didn't have the right to use the participle de with his name. de being the same as von in a German name, meaning your family has a connection to royalty or wealth) was born in 1800 and died 51 years later of what we assume was a heart attack. He had physical problems all his life, but his biggest problem was with his heart. Though his family didn't have the right to place a de in front of its name, Balzac's father had risen from poverty to a high societal position. A high enough social position that when he died, he left his wife (there was no love in their marriage) fairly well off and totally well off when you considered her own personal wealth she inherited from her family. Balzac was a master of starting failing businesses, from printing, typography, to going to Sicily and trying to recapture value from the slag of ancient Roman mines, and from traveling to the Ukraine in order to buy acreages of forests in order to cut them down and take the timbers back to Paris and sell them there. These business adventures, like I said, failed utterly. At one time before Balzac had a best seller (Eugénie Grandet), he was 50,000 francs in debt to his mother.

Lost Illusions (Illusions perdues) was published in 3 volumes from 1837 to 1843. It, to me, is amazingly well written and does constitute what the literary crowd calls a realist novel. It is so real, I find it quite easy to exist in its time even though I am sitting here 168 years later in a contemporary world that really hasn't changed that much in basic terms of politics and doing business and making a living. I can easily inhabit the time of this novel and find it amazing how up-to-date the book's concerns are. I read in the introduction how Balzac had direct influence on the writing of Marcel Proust, Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoyevski, William Faulkner, and of all people, Jack Kerouac--ironically, the above list consists of my fav authors, especially Poe, Dostoyevski, Faulkner, and Kerouac. Unfortunately, though I have read Proust, I am not so thoroughly familiar with his work as I am that of the other four men.

What I find fascinating in reading Lost Illusions is not only the story itself and the thorough descriptions of life in Paris in the 1820s (and it really is hard to believe that this novel was written that long ago) but also in the way he writes--long thorough descriptions of the novel's many actions--but also in the many deductions he comes to--aphorisms galore--wonderful ways of wording things--and his use of words I've never before in my life heard of (and of course I must give most of this credit to the translator, Kathleen Raine []. As one of commenters answered one of my comments about translators, linguist scholars consider translators as co-authors of the books they translate).

Here are some quotes from Lost Illusions [from Modern Library Edition, Random House 2001] that impressed me enough to jot them down in my notebooks as I continue reading this tome--I'm up to 400 pages already:

p. 51: "...for young people always begin by loving exaggeration, that infirmity of noble minds."

p. 52: "...they treated him with the overwhelming politeness that well-bred people use towards their inferiors."

p. 56: "Great minds always tend to see virtue in misfortune" [and Balzac knew all about misfortune].

p. 60: "Genius is answerable only to itself; it is the sole judge of the means, since it alone knows the end; thus genius must consider itself as above the law, for it is the task of genius to remake the law; moreover the man who frees himself from his time and place may take everything, hazard everything, for everything is his by right." [I find that an extremely deep consideration.]

p. 61: "He wrote one of those wild letters in which the young point a pistol at a refusal, a letter full of childish casuistry and of highminded irrational reasoning, enchanting verbiage, embroidered with those naive declarations, spoken unawares from the heart, that women love so much." [How can you not like such writing? And women do love such letters.]

p. 62: "Nobility of mind does not always go with elegance of manners. Racine may have had the manners of a courtier, but Corneille behaved more like a cattle dealer."

p. 72: "Like most young people, these two attributed to the world their own intelligence and virtues. Youth who knows no failure has no mercy on the faults of other people; but it has also a sublime faith in them."

p. 87-88: "If poetry is to be spoken aloud in such a way as to be understood, absolute concentration is necessary. There must be complete sympathy between the reader and the audience, in the absence of which no electrical communication of emotion can take place. If this sympathetic atmosphere is lacking, the poet finds himself rather in the position of an angel attempting to sing heavenly music against a background of the mocking laughter of hell." [Powerful stuff; I myself know of singing heavenly music against that background of the mocking laughter of hell.]

p. 103: "...but before the world recognizes superiority of any kind it demands brilliant achievement." [This could be the reason We the People of the US so admire the members of the Power Elite--we consider being rich as "brilliant achievement."]

p. 103: "Now literary success can only be won in solitude by persevering labor." [Balzac stuck to the guns of this statement by practicing what he preached. He was a constant rewriter--actually rewriting whole chapters after his books were already published.]

p. 103: "...idleness--the bane of poetic souls."

p. 130: "Some women have a horror of contracts that does honour to their delicacy; they would rather submit to a living impulse than to a dead convention."

p. 150: "A man must be very sure of a woman before he allows her to see his emotions and his thoughts as they arise....Some women carry their devotion to such lengths that they must always see their idol as a god and only those who love a man for his own sake, rather than for their own, love his weaknesses no less than what is great in him."

p. 170: "'Intellect is the lever with which a man can move the world.' But another voice replied that money is the fulcrum of intellect."

p. 198: [enthusiastic success, according to Balzac] " enthusiasm, if it is to succeed, must be reinforced by the fierce energy of real talent or the grim determination of ambition."

p. 215: "'A great writer is nothing less than a martyr who does not die.'"

p. 217: "But woman brings disorder into society through passion."

p. 217: [Balzac's advice to writers via his character Daniel d'Arthez]:
1) "Woman brings disorder into society through passion" therefore a writer must "portray the passions" with a) "Great originality," b) "Avoiding single ideas in favor of contrasting ideas."

p. 220: "...but love has been his undoing, for it not only makes inroads into his heart--it shoots its arrows into his brain, and upsets his life, precipitating him into the most erratic courses."

p. 223: "True talent is always straight-forward, simple, and open, and never formal; epigrams in that circle, stimulated the mind, but was never aimed at self-respect."
Words and Phrases From Balzac I've Never Heard of or Used Before:

1) Superfoetation (p. 56)
2) "the Phocion's axe" (p. 61)
3) "flatfooted as a Welshman" (p. 63)
4) Nankeen as in "nankeen trousers" (p. 78)
5) Cockchafer--"M. de Bargeton buzzed about the house like a cockchafer...." (p. 128)
6) Toques (togs?) (p. 160)
Around the Town
Wow, our billionaire mayor today was all over television, on every channel, especially his own channel, announcing how his military police under Ray Kelly had undercovered a plot by a discontented Dominican Republican (under al-Queda influence, as our billionaire mayor put it) to blow up libraries (Huh?), police buildings (though originally the report said "police vehicles" and didn't mention buildings--why, Ray Kelly even had a simulation filmed that showed how this poor bastard planned on blowing up police cars--though the latest newscasts have turned their focus on his intending to blow up buildings). They showed a video this dude put on the Internet explaining how to make these bombs he was going to use to blow up these police cars. Then, as is the case in most of these Bloomberg/Kelly terrorist busts, they said they had been tracking this guy for over a year! So why arrest him all of a sudden today? Ironically, the FBI said they weren't interested in this guy. How strange is that?

All afternoon today (the 21st) there have been sirens in the streets and helicopters in the air. As I went down Fifth to get my beef terriyaki (I love it), there was a cop helicopter hovering over Madison Park. I haven't heard yet what new terrorist plot the NYC Military Police were uncovering.

News From Europe
Guess what the new head of Greece and the new head of Italy have in common? First of all, they both were not elected to office by the people, and second of all, both men formerly worked for Goldman-Sachs Europe!

We now live in a corporate world. The militaries and police of the world are to protect this corporate world from TERRORIST attacks. Such an insane world; such a cruel world-domination concept; making profits off bank scams, wars, and inner fightings in Africa, and threats aimed at one of the world's largest oil producers, IRAN.

Expansion of US Military Presence
President and Commander in Chief Obama proudly announcing we will now have a military presence in AUSTRALIA!!! Why? Let me tell you why: because Indonesia, where Obama recently traveled doing some arms selling, just a few miles away from Australia, is the world's largest Islamic nation! We now have nearly 200 military bases around the world. Only Ron Paul is saying if you elect him president he will shut those bases down and bring the troops home where Constitutionally they are supposed to be protecting our perimeters (borders) from invasion, something they failed to do back on September 11, 2001.

Do you see signs of fear of We the People building up in our Power Elite and government lackeys and government executives?

for The Daily Growler

A Little Taste of American Art:
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Volcano, Georgia O'Keefe

No explanation needed.


Marybeth said...

Fabulous O'Keefe.

languagehat said...

Damn, now I've got to read Balzac.