Honoré de Balzac, The Wrong Side of Paris (Random House, 2003)
Bless Random House for re-releasing so many of the Modern Library editions of classic works of fiction and non-fiction in the last few years!!! Whenever I visit any bookstore, I look for these affordable, handsome paperbacks with their distinctive black and copper spines, readable font and high-quality paper and bindings! Not a few of them have found their way onto the shelves of our home library.
A quick visit provides a fascinating piece of the Modern Library story. It seems that Bennett Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer, who owned the Modern Library in 1925, created a subsidiary imprint to publish "at random" those titles that didn't fit into the Modern Library typology. Ultimately, the imprint outperformed the parent publishing company and their respective roles were reversed.
Although I have been devouring the works of his countryman Emile Zola for nearly a decade, I first encountered Honoré de Balzac in the 2001 Modern Library paperback edition of Lost Illusions just a few months ago. It was a perfect introduction. Lost Illusions relates the misadventures of a young poet from the provinces who travels to Paris to seek his fortune, achieves brief fame and experiences the high life, then falls into debt and despair, eventually returning to his family after saddling them with his financial obligations. Lost Illusions reflects themes I have come to associate with Balzac, related to money, vocation, ambition, family and friendship commitments, reversals of fortune, and contrasts between the hubbub of Paris and the dullness of provincial life. The book is rich with details about the printing and publishing industry in early nineteenth century France. Along the way, it provides colorful descriptions of the homes, furnishings, costumes, amusements and legal entanglements of its many characters.
Balzac lived from 1799 to 1850, a very turbulent period in the history of France. In about twenty years, he wrote ninety-two works of fiction (yes, I really said ninety-two!). He conceived most of these to be part of a masterwork he called La Comédie Humaine. Although they do not constitute a serial, one of their great charms is the recurrence of characters in major and minor roles across the different pieces. I confirmed this when, after I finished The Wrong Side of Paris, I picked up a 1952 translation of The Bachelor's Establishment (also known as The Black Sheep) that I found at a local used bookstore. As I read it, I kept encountering references to characters I remembered from Lost Illusions.
But this review is about The Wrong Side of Paris, isn't it? As you will quickly discover, I have been trying to avoid dealing with this out of respect for the publisher and the translator. To begin with, the edition I hold in my hands isn't a re-release at all, but an entirely new translation. It doesn't look like the other Modern Library books in my collection. It is hard cover, not paperback. The dust jacket is chartreuse and orange, the cover adorned with a black and white photograph of a few shadowy figures in a Paris subway station. Nonetheless, I do find the high quality paper and readable font, the interesting and informative endnotes that I associate with other Modern Library editions.
In brief, The Wrong Side of Paris is about a man named Godefroid who finds himself at the age of thirty-something unmarried and without income or vocation, despite his parents' best intentions. In an effort to reduce his expenses and to reflect on his future, he rents rooms in a house located near the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He soon learns that his housemates are engaged in efforts to save deserving people who have fallen on hard times, often as a consequence of the extreme disruptions in French political and economic life during the early 1800s. Much of the book's opening narrative consists of these household members telling Godefroid their personal histories as a way of explaining their mission. Several pages near the end of the book's first section represent the text of a lengthy affidavit that relates certain events in the lives of the house's two female inhabitants, Madame de La Chanterie and the maidservant Manon. I found both of these narrative devices quite tedious and uncharacteristic of Balzac's other writings.
The story's pace picks up a bit in the second section. Godefroid receives an opportunity to prove himself worthy of full membership in this unorthodox collective of urban rescuers. He temporarily moves into an apartment in the building where his subject family resides. The narrative follows his efforts to investigate their situation prior to initiating a rescue. Balzac's lively and detailed descriptions of the streets, buildings, interiors and people in this section are more typical of his other writings. Nonetheless, I found the characters in The Wrong Side of Paris a bit too pious and self-sacrificing for my tastes. I missed the sarcasm and ribald humor I have found in Balzac's other works.
At just over 200 pages, The Wrong Side of Paris is short enough to qualify as a novella. By contrast, Lost Illusions is nearly 700 pages long and The Bachelor's Establishment tops 300 pages. While I am not in favor of writing for the sake of writing, my admittedly limited experience with the works of Balzac suggests that the man needed some room to tell his tales properly. In his preface to The Wrong Side of Paris, translator Jordan Stump provides some background on this book, noting that Balzac completed the first half which was published in serial form in 1845, but did not finish writing the second half until 1848, two years before his death. The book was not published as a single unit in France until 1854. Reading between the lines, I surmise that Balzac may have been tired or disillusioned when he wrote these sections. It is also possible that he did not intend for them to represent a completed piece of fiction in their present form.
Like their predecessors in the Paris of Lost Illusions, modern publishers are inclined to produce works that have a good chance of selling well. Balzac's ninety-two-volume oeuvre probably doesn't quality in that regard. In fact, scarcely a double handful of the books that comprise La Comédie Humaine are currently in print in English translations. If The Wrong Side of Paris is representative of the others that have not recently seen the light of day, I can't argue with that logic. I'm just glad that I first became acquainted with Balzac through the far more entertaining Lost Illusions.