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A Distinguished Provincial at Paris by Honoré de Balzac

Readers Recommend

Posted 1.24.12

“I had to read Honoré de Balzac’s A Distinguished Provincial at Paris for a grad school lit class. I was expecting it to be boring or inaccessible because a lot of my other favorite books this year, and in general—Emma Donoghue's Room (Little, Brown, 2010); Melinda Moustakis' Bear Down, Bear North (University of Georgia Press, 2011); and Tayari Jone's Silver Sparrow (Algonquin Books, 2011)—don't use elevated language and are narrated in the first person by characters who have strange voices and skewed perspectives. A Distinguished Provincial at Paris is certainly concerned with plot and character, but not half so much as it is concerned with being pithy. Every page of this book is crammed with aphorisms. Scarcely a paragraph in, Balzac has already attached a moral to Lucien and Mme. de Bargeton’s on again off again relationship, “A woman, whose nature is large as her heart is tender, can smile upon childishness, and make allowances; but let her have ever so small a spice of vanity herself, and she cannot forgive childishness or littleness, or vanity in her lover.” However, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that many of these aphorisms are laced with sarcasm and cynicism and are simultaneously deep and deeply shallow, wise and patronizing; eventually, they grow so loud that they fall on the exhausted reader’s deaf ears. Of course, it is precisely this tone that makes the writing so successful, since it makes the reader feel just as inconsequential and uniformed as Lucien feels when mixing with the Parisian upper class. It is as if the reader were also stumbling through the streets of Paris (or in my case, the streets of Manhattan), thinking he had figured a few things out only to realize, “You are somebody in your own country, in Paris you are nobody.” And Balzac is so good at giving long sentences movement and power that I felt encouraged to be less minimalist in my own writing. The book showed me that any perspective—whether it's that of a nineteenth-century writer in post-Napoleonic France or a little boy in the twenty-first century who's never left a room—can be exciting when the details are well observed and the themes timeless.”

—Amy Gall from New York, New York

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