Honoré de Balzac’s ‘La Comédie humaine’ (‘The Human Comedy’) “consists of 91 finished works (stories, novels, or analytical essays) and 46 unfinished works (some of which exist only as titles).” (Wikipedia).
Most listings of the ninety-one works commence with “Scènes de la vie privée” (“Scenes from private life”) with the first listed work “La Maison du chat-qui-pelote” (“At the Sign of the Cat and Racket”, 1830).
Although the text is available freely on the web (Project Gutenberg), I prefer reading physical books and this is a title I managed to source via a second-hand retailer, an early 1900’s Everyman’s Library edition #349.
The story begins in a Paris street, where a young man is standing outside “one of those delightful houses which enable historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy”, a “drapery”, on which is painted the store’s logo, a picture of a cat playing tennis:
In the middle of this broad and fantastically carved joist there was an old painting representing a cat playing rackets. The picture was what moved the young man to mirth. But it must be said that the wittiest of modern painters could not invent so comical a caricature. The animal held in one of its fore-paws a racket as big as itself, and stood on its hind legs to aim at hitting an enormous ball, returned by a man in a fine embroidered coat. Drawing, colour, and accessories, all were treated in such a way as to suggest that the artist had meant to make game of the shop-owner and of the passing observer.
Hence the strange title, however this is not a story of a cat playing tennis. The young man observing the Cat and Racket and awaiting the eyes of the young girl in the rooms above, is the artist Théodore de Sommervieux, the young girl he loves Augustine Guillaume, youngest daughter of the cloth merchant. Théodore achieves fame through his exhibition in the Paris Salon, a reproduction of the interior of the Cat and Racket, alongside a strikingly modern portrait of Augustine.
Despite family wishes, Augustine and Théodore are eventually married. However, Augustine’s lack of education and social standing hinders her ability to mix in the artistic social circles of Théodore and his passion wanes, eventually he gives the famous Augustine portrait to the Duchesse de Carigliano.
In spite of all this lovemaking, by the end of this year, as delightful as it was swift, Sommervieux felt one morning the need for resuming his work and his old habits. His wife was expecting their first child. He saw some friends again. During the tedious discomforts of the year when a young wife is nursing an infant for the first time, he worked, no doubt, with zeal, but he occasionally sought diversion in the fashionable world. The house which eh was best pleased to frequent was that of the Duchesse de Carigliano, who had at last attracted the celebrated artist to her parties. When Augustine was quite well again, and her boy no longer required the assiduous care which debars a mother from social pleasures, Théodore had come to the stage of wishing to know the joys of satisfied vanity to be found in society by a man who shows himself with a handsome woman, the object of envy and admiration.
The story then moralises on the importance of art, marriage, love, Augustine visits her husband’s mistress, the Duchess de Carigliano where she is advised of how to reconquer her husband’s heart.
To avoid spoilers I will not continue with the narrative precis.
As mentioned in a prior piece about ‘La Comédie humaine’, Balzac touches on the structure of his works in the introduction to the Everyman’s Edition:
I may repeat here, but very briefly, what was written by Felix Davin — a young genius snatched from literature by an early death. After being informed of my plan, he said that the Scenes of Private Life represented childhood and youth and their errors…
This work does capture the innocence of youth, the early love and marriage commitment, the inability to see art as more important than one’s self, however it does also touch on many other subjects, melancholic characters, delicacy, beauty, societal standing, blind love…
The habit of seeing always the same face leads insensibly to our reading there the qualities of the soul, and at last effaces all its defects.
As this work appeared on two lists as the first in Balzac’s ‘La Comédie humaine’ I thought to read it first. I have subsequently learned of William Hobart Royce’s study “Balzac As He Should Be Read: The Comédie Humaine arranged in logical order of reading according to Time of Action” and may work through the works in his suggested order. An impossible project:
What I do unhesitatingly affirm, without fear of contradiction, is that the tremendous scope and quantity of Balzac’s novels – comprised under the generic title of La Comédie Humaine – present a formidable mass, even to the scholar, and much more so to the casual reader. This huge bult of fiction has been compared to a mountain, the summit of which may be attained only by a tortuous ascent of blazed trails; to a gigantic edifice, the innumerable rooms and galleries of which can be visited only with the direction of an experienced guide; to a dense forest of tangled jungle growth, which can be penetrated only by patience and persistence, by mental and indeed physical endurance; in fact, it is the whole of human life, than which nothing can be more difficult or more terrible to contemplate, to comprehend, to controvert, and to conquer.
That is a challenge if I ever saw one, a “mountain…a tortuous ascent of blazed trails”. I have read other parts that are out of sequence to William Hobart Royce’s suggested order…. but a structure? That’s something to think about….