There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step. Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.
The crown jewel in a remarkable literary career, Cousin Bette is regarded by many critics to be Balzac's last great work before his death in 1850. A fine example of European realist fiction, the story recounts the attempt of a disgruntled housewife to bring about the misery and destruction of her entire extended family. Fans of Tolstoy's War and Peace will enjoy Cousin Bette.
The longest, without exception, of Balzac's books, and one which contains hardly any passage that is not very nearly of his best, Illusions Perdues suffers, I think, a little in point of composition from the mixture of the Angouleme scenes of its first and third parts with the purely Parisian interest of Un Grand Homme de Province. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the gain in distinctness and lucidity of arrangement derived from putting Les Deux Poetes and Eve et David (a much better title than that which has been preferred in the Edition Definitive) together in one volume, and reserving the greatness and decadence of Lucien de Rubempre for another. It is distinctly awkward that this should be divided, as it is itself an enormous episode, a sort of Herodotean parenthesis, rather than an integral part of the story. And, as a matter of fact, it joins on much more to the Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes than to its actual companions. In fact, it is an instance of the somewhat haphazard and arbitrary way in which the actual division of the Comedie has worked, that it should, dealing as it does wholly and solely with Parisian life, be put in the Scenes de la Vie de Province, and should be separated from its natural conclusion not merely as a matter of volumes, but as a matter of divisions. In making the arrangement, however, it is necessary to remember Balzac's own scheme, especially as the connection of the three parts in other ways is too close to permit the wrenching of them asunder altogether and finally. This caution given, all that is necessary can be done by devoting the first part of the introduction entirely to the first and third or Angouleme parts, and by consecrating the latter part to the egregious Lucien by himself.
During Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, one French soldier becomes separated from his regiment and finds himself wandering lost in the desert. Just when he has given up all hope, he makes an unlikely friend. This highly allegorical short story gives readers an opportunity to ponder the nature of love and human relationships.
This is the question that fills the minds of the inhabitants of Saumur, the setting for Eugénie Grandet (1833), one of the earliest and most famous novels in Balzac's Comédie humaine. The Grandet household, oppressed by the exacting miserliness of Grandet himself, is jerked violently out of routine by the sudden arrival of Eugénie's cousin Charles, recently orphaned and penniless. Eugénie's emotional awakening, stimulated by her love for her cousin, brings her into direct conflict with her father, whose cunning and financial success are matched against her determination to rebel. Eugénie's moving story is set against the backdrop of provincial oppression, the vicissitudes of the wine trade, and the workings of the financial system in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It is both a poignant portrayal of private life and a vigorous fictional document of its age.
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