Books 31 through 40 - Balzac to D'Annunzio

[Note: this is part of Powys' One Hundred Best Books.]



Balzac’s books create a complete world, which has many points of contact with reality; but, in a deep essential sense, is the projection of the novelist’s own passionate imagination. A thundering tide of subterranean energy, furious and titanic, sweeps, with its weight of ponderous details, through every page of these dramatic volumes. Every character has its obsession, its secret vice, its spiritual drug. Even when, as in the case of Vautrin, he lets his demonic fancy carry him very far, there is a grandeur, an amplitude, a smouldering flame of passion, which redeem a thousand preposterous extravagances.

His dramatic psychology is often drowned in the tide of his creative energy; but though his world is not always the world of our experience, it is always a world in which we are magnetized to feel at home. It is consistent with its own amazing laws; the laws of the incredible Balzacian genius. Profoundly moral in its basic tendency, the “Human Comedy” seems to point, in its philosophical undercurrent, at the permanent need in our wayward and childish emotionalism, for wise and master-guides, both in the sphere of religion and in the sphere of politics. (For more information, see Leslie Stephens' essay on Balzac's novels.)


 32. GUY DE MAUPASSANT. LE MAISON TELLIER. MADAME TELLIER’S ESTABLISHMENT. Any translation, preferably not one bound in paper or in an “Edition de Luxe.”

Guy de Maupassant’s short stories remain, with those of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, the very best of their kind. After “Madame Tellier’s Establishment” perhaps the stories called respectively “A Farm Girl” and “Love” are the best he wrote.

He has the eternal excellencies of savage humanity, savage sincerity, and savage brevity. His pessimism is deep, absolute, unshaken;--and the world, as we know it, deserves what he gives it of sensualized literary reactions, each one like the falling thud of the blade of a murderous axe.

His racking, scooping, combing insight, into the recesses of man’s natural appetites will never be surpassed. How under the glance of his Norman anger, all manner of pretty subterfuges fade away; and “the real thing” stands out, as Nature and the Earth know it—“stark, bleak, terrible and lovely.” His subjects may not wander very far from the basic situations. He does not deal in spiritual subtleties. But when he hits, he hits the mark.


33. STENDHAL (HENRI BEYLE). LE ROUGE ET LE NOIR. Either the original French or any translation, if possible with a preface; for the life of Stendhal is of extraordinary interest. 

Stendhal is one of those who, following Goethe and anticipating Nietzsche, has not hesitated to propound the psychological justifications for a life based upon pagan rather than Christian ethics. A shrewd and sly observer, with his own peculiar brand of the egoistic cult, Stendhal lived a life of desperately absorbing emotions, most of them intellectual and erotic. He made an æsthetic use of the Will to Power before even Nietzsche used that singular expression. In “Le Rouge et le Noir” the eternal sex-struggle with its fierce accompaniment of “Odi et Amo” is concentrated in the clash of opposing forms of pride; the pride of intellect against the pride of sex-vanity.

No writer has ever lived with more contempt for mere sedentary theories or a fiercer mania for the jagged and multifarious edges of life’s pluralistic eccentricity. For any reader teased and worried by idealistic perversion this obstinate materialistic sage will have untold value. And yet he knows, none better, the place of sentiment in life!


36. LE LIVRE DE MON AMI. Either in French or the authorized English translation.

Anatole France, now translated into English, is the most classical, the most ironical, the most refined, of all modern European writers.  He is also, of all others, the most antipathetic to the Anglo-Saxon type of mind. In a word he is a humanist of the great tradition—a civilized artist—a great and wise man. He is Rabelaisian and Voltairian, at the same time. His style has something of the urbanity, the unction, the fine malice, of Renan; but it has also a quality peculiar to its creator—a sort of transparent objectivity, lucid as rarified air, and contemptuously cold as a fragment of antique marble.  Monsieur Bergeret, who appears in all four of the masterpieces devoted to Contemporary France, is a creation worthy, as some one has said, of the author of Tristram Shandy. One cannot forget that Anatole France spent his childhood among the bookshops on the South side of the Seine. We are conscious all the while in reading him of the wise, tender, pitiful detachment of a true scholar of the classics, contemplating the mad pell-mell of human life from a certain epicurean remoteness, and loving and mocking the sons and daughters of men, as if they were little children or comical small animals.


37.     REMY DE GOURMONT. UNE NUIT AU LUXEMBOURG. Translated with a preface by Arthur Ransome, published by Luce, Boston.

Remy de Gourmont’s death must be regretted by all lovers of the rare in art and the remote in character. As a poet his “Litany of the Rose” has that strange, ambiguous, sinister, and lovely appeal, the full appreciation of which is an initiation into all the “enclosed gardens” of the world.

He is a great critic—perhaps the greatest since Walter Pater—and as a philosopher his constant and frank advocacy of a noble and shameless Hedonism has helped to clear the air in the track of Nietzsche’s thunder-bolts.

His audacity in placing an exposition of the very principles of Epicurean Hedonism, touched with Spinozistic equanimity, into the mouth of our Lord, wandering through the Luxembourg Gardens, may perhaps startle certain gentle souls, but the Dorian delicacy of what might for a moment appear blasphemous robs this charming Idyll of any gross or merely popular profanity. It is a book for those who have passed through more than one intellectual Renaissance. Like the “Golden Ass” of Apuleius it has a philosophical justification for its mythological audacity.



“Le Disciple” is perhaps the best work of this voluminous and interesting writer. Devoid of irony, deficient in humor, lacking any large imaginative power, Paul Bourget holds, all the same, an unassailable place among French writers. Though a devoted adherent of Goethe and Stendhal, Bourget represents, along with Bordeaux, the conservative ethical reaction. He upholds Catholicism and the sacredness of the “home.” He is a master in plot and has a clear, vigorous and appealing style. A gravely portentous sentiment sometimes spoils his tragic effects; but every lover of Paris will enjoy the unctuous elaboration of the “backgrounds” of his stories, touched often with the most delicate and mellow evocations of that City’s atmosphere.


39.     ROMAIN ROLLAND. JEAN CHRISTOPHE. Translated by Gilbert Cannan.

Rolland’s “Christophe” is without doubt the most remarkable book that has appeared in Europe since Nietzsche’s “Ecce Homo.”

It is a profoundly suggestive treatise upon the relations between art and life. It contains a deep and heroic philosophy—the philosophy of the worship of the mysterious life-force as God; and of the reaching out beyond the turmoil of good and evil towards some vast and dimly articulated reconciliation. Since “Wilhelm Meister” no book has been written more valuable as an intellectual ladder to the higher levels of æsthetic thought and feeling.

Massive and dramatic, powerful and suggestive, it magnetizes us into an acceptance of its daring and optimistic hopes for the world; of its noble suggestions of a spiritual synthesis of the opposing race-traditions of Europe. Of all the books mentioned in this list it is the one which the compiler would most strongly recommend to the notice of those anxious to win a firmer intellectual standing-ground.



[Editor's note - a discussion of D'Annunzio may be found on the next page in this list.]





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