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12.7.14

À mon chevet: 'La Comédie humaine'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
"Before we part tonight, Monsieur Hermann is going to tell us another one of those chilling German stories." The announcement came from a pale, blond young woman who had doubtless read the stories of Hoffmann and Walter Scott. She was the banker's only child, a ravishing creature who was putting the final touches to her education at the Gymnase and adored the plays that theater presented.

The guests were in the contented state of languor and quiet that results from an exquisite meal, when we have demanded a little too much of our digestive capacities. Leaning back in their chairs, wrists and fingers resting lightly upon the table's edge, a few guests played lazily with the gilded blades of their knives. When a dinner reaches that lull some people will work over a pear seed, others roll a pinch of bread between thumb and index finger, lovers shape clumsy letters out of fruit scraps, the miserly count their fruit pits and line them up on their plates the way a theater director arranges his extras at the rear of the stage. These small gastronomic felicities go unremarked by Brillat-Savarin, an otherwise observant writer. The serving staff had disappeared. The dessert table looked like a squadron after the battle, all dismembered, plundered, wilted. Platters lay scattered over the table despite the hostess's determined efforts to set them back in order. A few people stared at some prints of Switzerland lined up on the gray walls of the dining room. No one was irritable; we have never known anyone to remain unhappy while digesting a good meal. We enjoy lingering in a becalmed state, a kind of midpoint between the reverie of a thinker and the contentment of a cud-chewing animal, a state that should be termed the physical melancholy of gastronomy.

Thus the guests turned happily toward the good German, all of them delighted to have a tale to listen to, even a dull one. For during that benign interval, a storyteller's voice always sounds delicious to our sated senses; it promotes their passive contentment. As an observer of scenes, I sat admiring these faces bright with smiles, lit by the candles and flushed dark by good food; their various expressions produced some piquant effects, seen through the candlesticks and porcelain baskets, the fruits and the crystal.

-- Honoré de Balzac, The Red Inn (translation by Linda Asher)
One of my goals for this summer's reading was to finish more (or all) of Balzac's La Comédie humaine, the sprawling, interconnected collection of novels, novellas, and short stories. This new translation of several longer stories, by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman, and Jordan Stump, published this year by the New York Review of Books, has turned out to be a delightful way to start. This excerpt stands out this week, as I am celebrating a childhood friend's birthday over several excellent meals with him and other friends. Balzac was a gastronome of the highest order, and many of his stories have the feel of, or are even presented literally in the context of, tales told at the end of such meals. As he wrote in a story also in this collection, Another Study of Womankind, "The body must be secure and at ease before we can tell a good tale. The best narratives are spun at a certain hour -- look at all of us sitting here at this table! No one has ever told a good story on his feet nor with an empty stomach."

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