Roney on Brooks (2020)

Brooks, Peter. Balzac’s Lives. New York Review Books, 2020, pp. 266, ISBN 978-1-68137-449-9

Peter Brooks has long written about Honoré de Balzac, but he describes this newest book as an “antibiography” or perhaps an “oblique biography” as opposed to a standard one (1). While many biographies have been written about the life of the literary giant, each recounts his chronological life only to allude to his work in a referential manner. Brooks opts to invert this traditional approach, purporting that, “starting with the fictional lives and moving outward to their implications for authorship opens up richer and subtler contexts for reading the work” (6). Furthermore, he insists that, “[t]o understand the dimensions and applications of this invented world is what matters. That may be the way into Balzac’s inner world, which often seems to escape traditional biographies” (6). He thus selects nine characters, from among nearly twenty-five hundred that Balzac created, to compose mini-biographies that trace each fictional character’s life across the expanse of La Comédie humaine. The challenge of this endeavor stems from the fact that Balzac’s characters appear, disappear, and reappear at different stages and moments in their lives across the over eighty completed novels and novellas that comprise La Comédie humaine. As though to further entangle the web of his fictional society, Balzac’s works are arranged thematically into Scènes and rarely progress from one to the next in a linear manner. Brooks’s unique approach disentangles each focal character to synthesize a linear biography which provides for an in-depth study of the individual character and makes for a pleasurable read for those familiar with Balzac’s monumental work. 

Brooks befittingly begins his series of mini-biographies with Eugène de Rastignac, a character whose name remains synonymous with the social climber and who represents the embodiment of ambition—for Balzac was nothing if not ambitious. Although not the most central character of La Comédie humaine, the majority of his story takes place in Le Père Goriot, which is certainly one of the key novels of the collection and the one attributed to Balzac’s innovation of reappearing characters: the author decided to change the original character’s name from Massiac to Rastignac, thus reviving him from La Peau de chagrin and nuancing his character with a back story of his coming of age in Paris, prior to his role in La Peau de chagrin (12). Analyzing the life of Rastignac gives Brooks an entry into the novel as a whole, which is populated with numerous other prominent Balzacian figures, as well as the opportunity to discuss this pivotal decision by Balzac to interweave his novels through mutual characters.

The series of biographies naturally advances to the second most dominant power of nineteenth-century society with Jean-Esther van Gobseck incarnating the role of money in this burgeoning industrial society. This powerful transition to his eponymous short story further compliments the previous chapter by revealing the source of Anastasie de Restaud’s marital discord and incessant financial straits. She is, of course, one of Goriot’s daughters from Le Père Goriot whose constant hardship causes him such despair. As a natural extension of Gobseck’s own life, Brooks adeptly traces the transcendence of the fortune he leaves behind upon his death. His wish to bequeath everything to the daughter of his late grandniece, a prostitute commonly known as La Torpille, seamlessly leads to the story of Frédéric de Nucingen, who also happens to be the husband of Goriot’s other daughter and Rastignac’s lover, Delphine. But his role is additionally that of a wealthy banker and thus Gobseck’s more modern counterpart. In just two short chapters, Brooks thus depicts the two driving forces for youth coming of age in Paris—ambition and money. Along the way, he conveys a thorough analysis of Le Père Goriot and its network of interrelated novels and novellas. 

This in-depth summary of the first two chapters serves as an example of how smoothly Brooks intertwines his “biographies” with scholarly analysis of La Comédie humaine. Each chapter introduces a new character who exemplifies a unique and yet essential driver in both society and in the life of the author himself. Hence, Rastignac represents the force of ambition, Gobseck—money, Antoinette de Langeais—the aristocracy, Raphaël de Valentin—desire, Lucien Chardon de Rubempré—literature, Jaques Collin—the underworld, Henriette de Mortsauf—woman, Colonel Chabert—identity, and Marco Facino Cane and friend—storytelling.

As with any biography, Brooks does not limit his work to simply recounting the tale of each individual subject. He eloquently interweaves his own and other scholars’ interpretations and situates each story within its historical context of past, present, and future. He discusses the influence of Arabian Nights, Walter Scott, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Balzac’s work as well as Balzac’s influence on those who followed him, most notably: Charles Baudelaire, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, and Sigmund Freud.

In his tenth and final chapter Brooks addresses Balzac and his life more directly, creating a link between his real and fictional lives. This line was one Balzac was known to often obscure. As legend has it, Balzac requested the assistance of his fictional doctor, Bianchon, even as he lay on his deathbed. For someone who created with the intensity of Balzac, fiction must remain ever present, perhaps inescapable.

In sum, Brooks introduces a novel approach to study the author by way of his work rather than the reverse. His focus on mini-biographies of nine central figures from La Comédie humaine disentangles them from their web of appearances and disappearances, allowing the reader to better understand the individual character and its purpose to the collection as a whole. Brooks provides a new platform for those who revel in the work of Honoré de Balzac from which they may reminisce and enjoy La Comédie humaine while coming to a deeper understanding of the author, his work, and his cultural influence.

Kristina M. Roney
Washington and Lee University