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11.2.04

How Much Do You Love Balzac?

In an article (Honoré de Balzac en version numérique [Digital edition of Honoré de Balzac], February 10) in Le Figaro, Marie-Douce Albert describes what one fan of Balzac's novels has done (my translation):

This is one thing Balzac could not have imagined. That there could exist a devoted Japanese reader of La Comédie Humaine [in English, The Human Comedy]. A Japanese fan, so full of fervor that one day he would have the idea of listing all the words of his favorite author. This unusual person really and truly exists. Now retired from the Saitama University, in the Tokyo metropolitan area, Kazuo Kiriu was a professor of French literature for 32 years, and more than 20 years ago he began digitalizing the works of Balzac in order to study the vocabulary used by the writer in La Comédie Humaine, as well as in his first novels and in his letters to Mme. Hanska.

From this word hunt, he completed an alphabetical list which, from "abîmer" to "Zuzino," brings together all the nouns, proper and otherwise, found in the writer's work. This probably gave the professor a precise understanding of the word "work," which Balzac used no fewer than 5,542 times in La Comédie Humaine. And the results of his labor are furthermore free for all to use, on the Web site of the Maison de Balzac. It's a crazy undertaking, as this 69-year-old gentleman admits. To understand its origin, we have to go back to Japan after World War II and to an adolescent looking for "a third way" between the destruction of traditional Japanese ideals and the refusal of the American model. The young man threw himself into European literature: Dickens, Heine, Gide. Up to the day when his high school librarian, "with whom I was perhaps a little in love," he admits, suggested he read Le lys dans la vallée [in English, The Lily of the Valley]. From the emotion provoked by a "white shoulder," he made the work his whole life. He learned French and became a professor. Then he undertook this research that no one else, in seems, has dared. All this, "because I do not read Balzac very well," claims the former professor, who in perfect French asks his interlocutor to correct his mistakes.

François Truffaut, Les Quatre Cents Coups"That is extreme modesty," say Nicole Mozet and Isabelle Tournier, of the Groupe international de recherches balzaciennes (Girb) [International Group of Balzac Studies]. "We also had need of this index. It offers extremely fast and precious information, on big things as well as the smallest." Thanks to the Maison de Balzac Web site, designed by Claire Scamaroni, you can worry about the comings and goings of Lucien de Rubempré in the different volumes, wonder about the absence of the word "syphilis" (which was after all one of the great ills of the period), or undertake a gigantic study of urbanism in Balzac by tracing the squares, the avenues, the bridges.
You can read Mme. Mozet's official announcement of Mr. Kiriu's work here. You should also check out Balzac Text Data Mining: How to pick apart Balzac's Comedie Humaine with a computer, which shows you how to use Python to analyze Balzac. In all this furor about Balzac, I am reminded of François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), in which young Antoine Doinel, the director's alter ego, nearly burns down his parents' apartment because he lights a candle in a homemade shrine to his favorite writer, Honoré de Balzac (image shown above).

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