Oscar Wilde liked to say that Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) invented the 19th century. The Human Comedy (La Comédie Humaine) comprises approximately 3,000 characters in a total of 92 novels, sketches, stories, and philosophical tales. For the first time in the history of the novel, characters recur—a star of one book may reappear as a minor figure in the intricate social background of another. “Real life is the life of causes,” wrote this giant of world literature. What does Balzac mean by a cause? It is an idea, a dream, an obsession, a project demanding strategies and conspiracies, lingos and lies, histories and myths. Balzac has been called “a nocturnal Homer,” haunting the theatres, bars, streets, shops, and businesses in the Paris and provinces of his day. “I have learnt more from Balzac than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together,” wrote Marxist theorist Friedrich Engels. A master at rendering the visible world, Balzac was also obsessed with portraying the hidden desires, ambitions, and yearnings of a society in the throes of tectonic change. The Comedy, though full of fact, is not chronological, causing contemporary critics to liken it to a “mobile, ”pre-figuring the narrative experiments of the 20th century. In this seminar, we will read a selection of the major novels as well as some shorter works. Over the course of the term, there will be regular response papers, group and individual presentations, a longer essay at around the mid-term, and a culminating project at the end of term. I will distribute a syllabus page for each reading and writing assignment. We will havetime toward the end of term to go back through some of our readings according to your points of fascination. During this time, we will organize colloquia on the topics you have devised, with each of you presenting work-in-progress on a panel.
Corequisite: Students are required to be in attendance at all Literature evenings and Poetry at Bennington events (typically on alternating Wednesday evenings at 7:00pm).