Roney on Bordas, ed. (2019)

Bordas, Éric, editor. Balzac et la langue. Éditions Kimé, 2019, pp. 324, ISBN 978-2-84174-922-5

Irrefutably never at a loss for words, Balzac composed his monumental Comédie humaine, a compilation of 137 novels, short stories, and essays (forty-six remain incomplete), from 1829 until his death in August of 1850. The collection of essays that comprise Balzac et la langue, however, impressively covers the broader depth of his literary production, of which the Comédie humaine merely represents a portion. There were his initial attempts at poetry, as well, followed by his early publications under various pseudonyms, such as Lord R’Hoone (an anagram of Honoré). Concurrent to the Comédie humaine, he tried his hand as a playwright, and also published three volumes of Cent contes drolatiques (18321837), humorous tales evocative of Boccaccio’s Decameron (13701371) and Marguerite de Navarre’s L’Heptaméron (1559), which were written in a Renaissance-style French of his own invention. On the side, he further maintained a disciplined correspondence. Despite or perhaps because of this extraordinary totality of writing, as Éric Bordas points out in his editorial introduction, critics both before and after his deathmost notably, Sainte-Beuvedeclare him to be a terrible writer (1012). 

Balzac et la langue is a comprehensive collection that divides contributions from fourteen authors into four sections in order to revisit this nagging issue of stylistic merit from the modern perspective of linguistic theory. It is the product of a special journée d’études hosted by the Maison de Balzac and organized by the Groupe international de recherches balzaciennes from Paris 7 (équipe CERILAC) with the support of the Institut d’histoire des représentations et des idées dans les modernités from Lyon on 15 June 2018. This event resumed a discussion from twenty-two years earlier, on 3 June 1996, by the same organization and at the same location, and published under Balzac et le style (SEDES, 1998) with Anne Herschberg-Pierrot as editor. While the structure and indeed several of the scholars remain unchanged, Bordas distinguishes between the most recent publication as “le Balzac de Saussure” and the former as “le Balzac de Bally” (14).

The collection is structured thematically with fourteen articles divided into four parts: “Savoirs, sentiments et pratiques linguistiques, de la langue au text”; “Marges et experimentations ?”; “Le romanesque de la langue”; and “Postérités réceptives.” The first theme is treated most substantively, containing five articles, while the second only comprises two. The third and fourth parts have three and four articles respectively. Authors range from linguists to literary critics.

This compilation breaks with the scholarly trend of isolating studies on Balzac to the Comédie humaine or one of his other volumes of works. Romain Jalabert, for example, discusses the author’s early poetry and the influence of various contemporary nineteenth-century poets, while Takeshi Matsumura studies the structure of his supposed sixteenth-century dialect. The remainder of the essays largely address the Comédie humaine, which undeniably represents the most significant facet of Balzac’s legacy, but at the same time, makes connections with other written works, such as his detailed correspondence. 

Of primary interest is the range of topics covered in this study of Balzac. More than one article (Gilles Siouffi, José-Luis Diaz, Jacques-Philippe Saint-Gérand) analyzes his use of neologisms, slangs, and dialects, noting how his vocabulary permeated the bounds of acceptable nineteenth-century French vocabulary, such as: exclusivité, conjugalité, excentricité, flexibilité (Diaz, 130). That is not to say that Balzac alone invented these elements of the French language, but rather, as noted by Diaz, “Pour Balzac historien du social, les mots à la mode fonctionnent comme des marqueurs d’époque et comme des marqueurs de classe” (117). In his effort to realistically depict his society, Balzac used these idiosyncrasies to more effectively distinguish his characters, their personality, their origins, and their social class through the manner in which they expressed themselves. Notably, he transcribed accents for characters such as Nucingen, Schmucke, and Mme Cibot. Agnese Silvestri elaborates on how these accents enhance the portrayal of their characters while Marie-Christine Aubain discusses the challenges they present and the strategies employed by translators of his works. Takao Kashiwagi emphasizes the increased complexity presented by vastly different cultural references. Still others analyze Balzac’s sentence structure (Rudolf Mahrer), methods of revision (Joël Zufferey) and initial composition (Takayuki Kamada), use of religious terms (Vincent Bierce), and even his influence on Flaubert (Jacques Dürrenmatt). 

Balzac et la langue provides an excellent collection of articles for linguists and literary scholars alike. While some chapters might appeal more strongly to one party than another, both will find much insight throughout the text, and will broaden their knowledge of this prolific author and the totality of his work.

Kristina Roney
Washington and Lee University