Rain Taxi Review of Books: French Writers in English Translation

Are these 1,066 pages worth the trouble? Unequivocally.

The first new translation of Balzac’s 1847 novel Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes in half a century, fully annotated and with an extensive introductionA new annotated translation of the keystone of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine—a sweeping narrative of corrupted idealism in a cynical urban milieuFive books by authors ranging from Balzac to Michel Leiris, three of them translated by Lydia Davis, can be used to understand centuries of French literature and history. One could argue that not only Michel Leiris, but Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, and ultimately Davis herself, are all quasi-ethnographers possessed of a grasp of both how society works and a sufficient distance to view it objectively. They are able to then write about it from both on high (le monde) and down low (le demi-monde) yet stand at a sufficient remove to retain what translator Raymond N. MacKenzie calls “a clear-sightedness that is almost but not quite cynicism.” This essay examines the evolution of this insight into French culture through some of literature’s most gifted contributors.

If readers in the monoglot “anglosphere” struggle through Proust and Flaubert, where to begin with Balzac’s vast fictional chronicle of France between 1815–1848, The Human Comedy? Two novels recently translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie, Lost Illusions and Lost Souls, suggest an answer. Are these 1,066 pages worth the trouble? Unequivocally.

Read the full essay at Rain Taxi.