Rooting around in the basement of a Camden library a couple of decades ago I came across a set of shelves buckling under the weight of the handsome Caxton edition of Balzac’s Comédie humaine, published in 1899 to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. Inserted in the copy of Eugénie Grandet was a note from a senior librarian to the effect that once the present reader had finished going through them, the books could be pulped.
At the time, I thought it a stupefying act of literary vandalism; now, I fear, it would take an illegal substance to quell my anger. But such shabby treatment is not unusual where Balzac is concerned. To this day, the English reader is dependent on second-hand bookshops and uneven translations should he wish to immerse himself in the oeuvre of the man who famously, and with typical bravado, announced that what Napoleon had been unable to finish with the sword, he would accomplish with the pen.
As Graham Robb acknowledges in an appendix to his even-handed, sceptical and engrossing biography, Balzac, throughout his life and in the hereafter, inspired contrary views and violently differing opinions. Unsurprisingly, Zola saw him as the father of the Naturalist novel (with himself, no doubt, as its grandson), in Robb’s paraphrase,