Kirkus Reviews QR Code
BALZAC'S LIVES by Peter Brooks


by Peter Brooks

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-68137-449-9
Publisher: New York Review Books

Loosely connected biographical sketches of Balzac’s central characters sandwiched between two chapters of insightful literary analysis.

French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) has had an inestimable influence on subsequent Western literature and culture. In his return to the inspiring fount of Balzac’s The Human Comedy, Brooks, emeritus professor of comparative literature at Yale, delves into the inner lives of its main characters to illuminate the obsessions and fantasies that drove Balzac’s writing. Unfortunately, after a provocative introduction to his approach in this “oblique biography,” the author’s retelling of the life stories of Balzac’s main characters reads more like a set of CliffsNotes for The Human Comedy. In contrast, the final chapter of this book, “Living in Fictional Lives,” reprises the originality of the introduction and features the discerning and perceptive scrutiny that the author displayed in his earlier analyses of Balzac, The Melodromatic Imagination (1995) and Realist Vision (2008). In closing Balzac’s Lives, Brooks reminds us that Balzac’s vast imagined social world derived from his being able to write down all that was in his head. But getting inside the head and illuminating the inner workings of one of the world’s preeminent novelists is not the same as summarizing his characters’ lives or even their dreams and daydreams. Rather, it may be enough to recognize, as Balzac himself knew, that “invented persons represent…life for us.” As Brooks notes, “their lives are exemplary ways of being. Fictional characters give us as-if experiments in knowing the world.” Just because Balzac projected himself into his characters and continually reinvented his own life through them, it does not necessarily follow that the characters are facets of Balzac’s mind. As Brooks knows well, we read fiction to know the world, not the author.

Balzac imagined a world of people with rich, intertwined stories. This retelling of these stories pales in comparison.