Often I will buy a book not because I want to read it but because I think I should read it, and this slim, lovely volume is just such a case. I knew of French novelist Honoré de Balzac, of course. Not only are there are statues and tributes to him all over the world, but his name is just almost-naughty enough that it has been a lazy punchline for comedy writers across several generations.
But I’d never actually read anything of his, because while I could name the author I’d never even heard a title mentioned, which made me wonder, was Balzac even a writer? Maybe he was a philosopher? Historian? Artist?
Well, if this vignette is any indication, he was all three.
It turns out that Balzac is best-known (and was, likewise, in his lifetime) for his multi-volume La Comédie humaine, in which he explores France after the fall of Bonaparte in 1815 and the restoration of the monarchy, through to basically his death in 1850. But this story — original title: Un épisode sous la Terreur, often translated An Episode During the Terror) takes place further back, when the French Revolution had its death grip on the nation and aristos and their sympathisers were being executed left and right. I knew this, of course — what I did not know was that at the same time there was a concerted effort to suppress religion during the same era, an initiative of the Committee of Public Safety that was a clear precursor to Communist rhetoric against the church. Now, look, I’m no fan of church, but killing nuns and priests is unacceptable, and that is what was apparently happening, and it is the reason the kindly elderly lady who is our protagonist is in hiding, immediately following the guillotine death of Louis XVI.
Masterfully, Balzac unravels the realities of post-Revolutionary Paris, and also seeds in a sinister air of menace that culminates in a shocking twist I did not see coming at all, it was so thriller-like and revelatory, even amid all the pondering of man and God and morality. It’s so satisfying, isn’t it, when you experience something — or by someone — critically acclaimed, and you agree, and can understand why the work has stood the test of time? (Unlike, say, James Joyce and all his nonsense.)
I’m not saying I’m about to rush out and read Balzac’s dozens of novels, and even more short stories. I have no doubt they will be excellent, but also, this was depressing as hell, and I’m not sure how much of that I can necessarily take. But I am very pleased, and weirdly proud, to have read this one, and should another such book penned by him (and so pretty!) happen across my path, I will assuredly buy it on the instant.
And I might not even wait six years tor read it.
TBR DAY 104: An Episode Under the Terror by Honoré de Balzac
GENRE: Non-Fiction, History
TIME ON THE TBR: 6 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Sidewalk book stall.