Saturday, May 06, 2006

Jane Smiley on Balzac

Jane Smiley's series on the novel continues in the Guardian with her analysis of Balzac's work.

Balzac's greatest work is a cycle of novels called La Com├ędie humaine, in which he attempts to capture the vastness and variety of life in Paris in the middle of the 19th century. Each novel and story is different, and meant to stand alone, but many characters recur in different capacities. The result is a dense fictional kaleidoscope of materialism, envy, spite, worldliness, and occasional virtue--characters of all ages and types and social positions encounter one another, act in one another's dramas, and then go on, in many cases, to something completely different. Two important novels in the larger project are Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons, which were written as a pair on the theme of "poor relations."
Click here to read the entire essay.

For other essays in the Smiley series, click here, here, and here.

In 1995, the writer Alison Lurie reviewed Smiley's Moo and spotted some similarities to Balzac's fiction.
Like a Balzac novel, Moo has a broad canvas and dozens of characters. Its central figure, however, is not a human being but a 700-pound pure white hog who is "as big as a Volkswagen Beetle but much faster." This animal's name is Earl Butz, and he is Ms. Smiley's landlocked Midwestern version of Moby Dick, an innocent embodiment of isolation, stupidity and greed. He is, as Ms. Smiley puts it, "the secret hog at the center of the university." Unknown to most of the faculty and students, Earl Butz occupies a pen in the basement of an abandoned building in the middle of the campus, where he eats voraciously all day and is tended by a work-study student named Bob.
Lurie is not exactly wrong about anything she writes here. I remember hearing about and reading about the centrality of the hog to the novel; and a hog is the dominant image on the book's cover. And, even though I was a great admirer of Smiley's A Thousand Acres, all that hog talk deterred me from picking up the novel.

I'm not a concrete-loving urbanite: I've spent time on farms and I like the idea of farm life--though anyone who romanticizes making a living that way has never actually had to make a living on a farm--but this swine story just did not sound appealing.

It turns out, the hog is not nearly as important as so many people (including the publishers?) implied. You can hate everything to do with hogs and agricultural life and still (very much) enjoy Moo. It's very funny--and melancholy--and one of the better university novels I've read.

Check it out.

--Marshal Zeringue