God bless the brave or persistent soul who persuaded Modern Library to republish Balzac’s Wrong Side of Paris in a splendid new translation by Jordan Stump (2003). Brave, because it is almost impossible to imagine what sort of audience the publisher foresaw. Not many people read Balzac at all any more (not even in
This may sound like a perverse kind of a pitch, because in some ways, Wrong Side is absolutely representative Balzac. It’s got a young man at sea in the great city; it’s got an old man obsessed with his daughter; it’s got a scheming landlady; it’s got crimes and betrayals, and long, loving detailed descriptions of person and place (and he wrote it to pay his bills, which is as typical as you can get). And wait, folks, there’s more, all within 208 pages.
Yet in another way, this is the least typical Balzac you are likely to read. We think of Balzac as the poet of the city, the passionate bard of
In one face, Balzac surely was a city man, as much as Dickens or Dostoevsky or James Joyce or Robert Musil. But it’s easy to forget that he was in the city but not of the city—that at the end of the day, he was a high-church royalist whose fascination was always animated by a kind of revulsion at what he saw. Indeed we forget that his first successful book—the first he counted as part of his Comedie Humaine—is Les Chouans, a story of a reactionary military revolt in the countryside against the revolution.
Wrong Side—it says here it was the last work he completed—give him a chance to bring the wheel full circle, or better, to set things right. This time we are remain in
Balzac wrote and published Wrong Side in two parts, and it reads like two loosely-jointed stories. The first is a kind of manifesto—the “last lecture” of an old man (he was not yet 50, but he was working himself to death). It’s hard to imagine anyone reading it today without irony—yet clearly Balzac was not ironic: he meant every word.
The second part shifts gears somewhat. In the context of his previous manifesto, Balzac here lets loose a plot so full of melodrama that it makes the plots of his contemporary Donizetti look like stark realism. Readerly irony helps again, although it is so fast-paced and full of invention, you find yourself sucked along in spite of yourself.
But the end, you reflect on the whole novel not just as itself, but as a coda, or criticism or commentary on everything that went before. This is why I did it. This is what it was all about. Now you understand.
Understand: you may or may not “understand” Balzac’s world, so diverse and inconsistent, but you probably do understand Balzac a little better, and every part of his world is richer as a result.
Afterthought: There is a fine, warm-hearted, appreciative introduction by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker that may help to reassure you that you are not wasting your time. Also a crisp introductory note from the translator, who has turned out as convincing a Balzac translation as any I know.