cover image The Human Comedy: Selected Stories

The Human Comedy: Selected Stories

Honoré de Balzac, trans. from the French by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman, and Jordan M. Stump, edited by Peter Brooks. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (448p) ISBN 978-1-59017-664-1

As Peter Brooks observes in his marvelous introduction to this volume, reading Balzac is almost always thought of as requiring time—“of a length for evenings without television or smartphones.” Yet, amongst the exhaustive tales that make up his panoptic portrait of 19th-century France are shorter works that distill and exemplify Balzac’s great gifts. Collected here are nine supremely satisfying tales from the father of realism, newly translated for the first time in a century. Amongst them is the famous “Serrasine,” which unravels an unworldly young sculptor’s infatuation with an opera star. “Gobseck” is the intricate examination of Paris’s preeminent usurer, which reads as an allegory of the accelerating greed in the capitalism of Balzac’s time. Included also are lesser known works such as “A Passion in the Desert,” a shimmering mirage of a tale that tells of a lost soldier’s exotic encounter. Or “Adieu,” a proto-postmodern tale in which a soldier meticulously brings a memory to life to win back his lover from madness. These tales provide the reader a healthy introduction to Balzac’s famous hyperbole, his melodrama, and his extended descriptions and explanations where nothing goes unsaid. We don’t read Balzac for his refined style; rather, his genius lies in the sheer ambition of his reach, the vastness of his grasp. (Feb.)