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Double Chiaroscuro: A Review of Balzac’s Lives by Peter Brooks

by Zane Rougier Perdue

Balzac's Lives by Peter Brooks (New York Review of Books, 2020)

After reading with great interest and pleasure the NYRB edition of The Human Comedy: Selected Stories, I discovered a new book (also NYRB, published in October of 2020) by Peter Brooks called Balzac's Lives. Significantly - and however incidental or secondary it may seem - the cover of the book itself ignited my interest before I even glanced at the title. It is designed with a beautiful photograph[i] of Rodin's Monument to Balzac. The image expresses a gloomy power; the explosive subjectivity which one immediately associates with Balzac. The photo is titled Towards the Light, Midnight. Its palette is evocative of Rembrandt and some of Goya’s Black Paintings. I recall a line of Cioran's that could aptly subtitle the photo, as well as the subsequent contents thereby portended: “The amount of chiaroscuro an idea harbors is the only index of its profundity.[ii]

The overarching concept of the book is novel in two senses of the word: the first being newness or singularity, the second being novelistic, literary. This dual-form of novelty present in Balzac’s Lives provides constant occasion for variation and re-examination of The Human Comedy and the world it subsequently created (“The 19th Century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.”[iii]). Brooks calls his book an "antibiography," or an "oblique biography.”[iv] It is structured over ten chapters, the first nine of which detail the protean lives of Balzac’s recurring characters, partially in the style of “biographical” synopsis (novelistic approach), and partially in the style of literary, historically rich criticism (the author’s own synthetic novelty). Brooks impressively navigates the ever-present danger of repetitiveness, which is to say, even if one is already familiar with The Human Comedy, these re-tellings function very well as vivid remembrances, without ever becoming repetition compulsions (wiederholungszwangen); meaning that Balzac’s Lives is clearly not a static trauma response to the event of Balzac, but a labor of love, or, to use Henry Miller’s subtitle to his book on Lawrence, “a passionate appreciation”.[v] The final chapter is a sustained reflection on the significance of the novel, as well as a lucid tempering of the extremes of semiotic analysis and fetishistic psychologism displayed in much contemporary literary criticism.

Professor Brooks methodologically regards the details of Balzac's life as rich footnotes to his work - that is, to his lives which shine through the "murky business" of The Human Comedy. This does great honor to one of the main themes of Balzac's work in general - i.e., the inversion of the biblical “word-made-flesh” into the artistic “flesh-made-word”.[vi] This concept finds its most intense expression, perhaps, in the work of Borges - and Balzac’s Lives is the kind of book I can well imagine Borges inventing purely to sustain a string of narratives. While Balzac's Lives naturally relies on the reality (the actual being-extant) of Balzac's work, the interest and power it evokes does not. Imagine a future in which civilization, along with an overwhelming percentage of its great works, has been annihilated, along with every line of Balzac and any memory of his having existed, but in which Peter Brooks' Balzac's Lives has survived. In such a nightmare scenario, one can imagine a Burgess Meredith voraciously poring over the latter book amidst the ruins, fired by the successful spirit of creative criticism, wondering who this fantastic “Honoré de Balzac” might have been - and for that matter, whether he was not simply a felicitous invention of the incisive Professor Brooks.

Thought experiments aside, Balzac's Lives raises some interesting philosophical questions about language as such. Brooks draws attention to the fact that Balzac's narrators are always also listeners recounting other narrators’ narrations.[vii] The feeling one has when reading Balzac's Lives, at its best, is comparable to the feeling one gets when having "a dream" within another dream. Of course, a dream within a dream still always occurs at the level of the initial dream - just as the story within a story occurs on the same level as the primary story. The stories and dreams exist side by side on the same sheet of paper, in the same language and with comparable vividness. Brooks elucidates the latent philosophical achievement of Balzac and shows, through what only appears to be a “meta-narrative”, the very impossibility of such a thing (Lacan's "There is no metalanguage."). One (the critic) returns to the scene of the crime (the original work), only to thereby enlarge the area of that scene, including oneself in it. The execution of this strange, inclusive movement is indicative of Peter Brooks’ power as a critic - he successfully becomes both witness and accomplice to Balzac’s original crime.

Throughout the book, Brooks makes repeated reference to Freud. A striking and brief comparison is made between the prime motives of Balzac's Pathology of Social Life and Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life.[viii] An episode of Freud's life is recalled, namely his deathbed reading of Balzac's The Fatal Skin just before the final, lethal dose of Morphine.[ix] Other names are invoked, all in Brooks' and Balzac's favor: Baudelaire, Proust, Marx, Lukács, Nietzsche, Henry James, Walter Benjamin, Barthes, the storytellers of The Arabian Nights and Oscar Wilde. No single mode of interpretation or inter-literary relationship is ever rested upon for longer than is required to be illuminating.

Near the end of the book, Brooks makes open note of the fact that the method of writing about fictional characters as if they were real people is not generally held in high regard.[x] But if, as Cioran says, the profundity of an idea (or, for that matter, a book) is to be measured by the extent of its chiaroscuro, by how deeply it reaches into both the shadows and into the light, then Balzac’s Lives is a profound and serious study regardless of its playful method, living up to its beautiful, photographic cover, Towards the Light, Midnight.

[i] Photograph: Edward Steichen, Balzac. Towards the Light, Midnight, 1908. Cover design: Katy Homans. [ii] Cioran, E. M., and Richard Howard. In A Short History of Decay, 95. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012. [iii] Wilde, Oscar. In Intentions: and Other Writings, 31. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1961. [iv] Brooks, Peter. Introduction. In Balzac's Lives, 1. New York, USA: The New York Review of Books, 2021. [v] Miller, Henry, Evelyn J. Hinz, and John J. Teunissen. The World of Lawrence: a Passionate Appreciation. London: John Calder, 1996. [vi] Brooks, Balzac’s Lives, 231. [vii] Brooks, Peter. “Marco Facino Cane (1738-1820) and Friend.” Chapter. In Balzac's Lives, 195–214. New York, USA: The New York Review of Books, 2021. [viii] Brooks, Balzac’s Lives, 34. [ix] Ibid., 102. [x] Ibid., 221-222.

Zane Rougier Perdue is a 24-year-old factory worker living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work has appeared in Solum Literary Journal, High Shelf Press, and Abstract Magazine: Contemporary Expressions (pending).

Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina (Xinqi) Zhang

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