Balzac's Shorter Fictions: Genesis and Genre (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 394-396

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Farrant, Tim. Balzac's Shorter Fictions: Genesis and Genre. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Pp. xi + 356. ISBN 0-19-815197-7

On the first page of this remarkable book, the author declares, with what readers will come to recognize as characteristic forthrightness:

Balzac is generally thought to be long without good reason; this study hopes to turn this notion on its head. It explores Balzac's short stories in the light of their genesis, as individual fictional entities, in relation to others, and in the context of his work's overall development. Short stories make up over half La Comédie humaine, in addition to the thirty published Contes drolatiques, and scores of other narratives and newspaper articles. Balzac's writing career began with short fiction - the first trace of narrative in his work is an anecdote - and ended with it, to all intents and purposes, in what are vastly expanded stories, Le Cousin Pons and La Cousine Bette. 'Tout s'agrandit sous ma plume': virtually everything in La Comédie humaine either is short fiction, or grew from it.

Some three hundred pages later, after visiting virtually every nook and cranny of the Comédie, in a series of studies of individual works that are rarely perfunctory and almost invariably illuminating, Dr. Farrant, his confidence undiminished, is able to conclude:

The first half of Balzac's career was a general movement from conte to novel; the remainder, the development of the conte alongside, and within the novel. But, in absolute terms, there is no end to Balzac's brevities. They are present in the contes and nouvelles of the Comédie; in innumerable articles and scenes; and in the bite-sized units of even his longest works. The relation between petit and grand, between [End Page 394] shorter and longer fiction lies at the heart of his opus. Short fiction, far from being a transient phenomenon, is the cradle and crucible of Balzac's enterprise: it is the Urform of his creation as a whole.

To prove such a thesis beyond reasonable doubt, and in so doing turn on their head certain well-entrenched preconceptions about Balzacian long-windedness and how it relates to the dozens of nouvelles and contes that he chose to include in the Comédie, was no small undertaking. So let it be said at the outset that Farrant has carried it out with exemplary thoroughness and unqualified success: Balzac's Shorter Fictions is the best English-language book on Balzac to appear for at least a generation, and, in this writer's view, one of the Top Ten of all time in any language, right up there with the work of Anthony Pugh or Stéphane Vachon in terms of all-embracing, meticulous scholarship, yet as brim full of critical ideas per page as Maurice Bardèche or Pierre Barbéris at their vintage best.

Thirty years ago, when Theory ruled, the publisher's readers for O.U.P. would doubtless have urged the author to build his case on some kind of preliminary generic foundations. (How short does a story have to be to be considered "shorter?" What are the distinguishing marks of a Balzacian nouvelle, and it what way does it differ from a conte? At what point does an expanded novella qualify as novel? and so on...). The early numbers of Novel: a forum on fiction, New Literary History and Critical Inquiry were full of such theoretical soul-searching; and even those of us who were historically (rather than aesthetically) inclined felt uneasy walking into a classroom without at least some knowledge of what the Russian formalists had written a generation earlier. In Farrant's view, these definitional niceties are largely irrelevant to the Comédie humaine, given Balzac's well-known practice of rewriting, recycling or re-contextualizing existing stories, or combining them to form new composite works such as Histoire des Treize or La Femme de trente ans. As a consequence, he plunges straight into what is basically...