Repertory of the Comedie Humaine, by Honoré de Balzac

Translator’s Preface

“Work crowned by the French Academy” is a significant line borne by the title-page of the original edition of Messieurs Cerfberr and Christophe’s monumental work. The motto indicates the high esteem in which the French authorities hold this very necessary adjunct to the great Balzacian structure. And even without this word of approval, the intelligent reader needs but a glance within the pages of the Repertory of the Comedie Humaine to convince him at once of its utility.

In brief, the purpose of the Repertory is to give in alphabetical sequence the names of all the characters forming this Balzacian society, together with the salient points in their lives. It is, of course, well known that Balzac made his characters appear again and again, thus creating out of his distinct novels a miniature world. To cite a case in point, Rastignac, who comes as near being the hero of the Comedie as any other single character, makes his first appearance in Father Goriot, as a student of law; then appearing and disappearing fitfully in a score of principal novels, he is finally made a minister and peer of France. Without the aid of the Repertory it would be difficult for any save a reader of the entire Comedie to trace out his career. But here it is arranged in temporal sequence, thus giving us a concrete view of the man and his relation to this society.

In reading any separate story, when reference is made in passing to a character, the reader will find it helpful and interesting to turn to the Repertory and find what manner of man it is that is under advisement. A little systematic reading of this nature will speedily render the reader a “confirmed Balzacian.”

A slight confusion may arise in the use of the Repertory on account of the subdivision of titles. This is the fault neither of Messieurs Cerfberr and Christophe nor of the translator, but of Balzac himself, who was continually changing titles, dividing and subdividing stories, and revamping and working other changes in his books. Cousin Betty and Cousin Pons were placed together by him under the general title of Poor Relations. Being separate stories, we have retained the separate titles. Similarly, the three divisions of Lost Illusions were never published together until 1843 — in the first complete edition of the Comedie; before assuming final shape its parts had received several different titles. In the present text the editor has deemed it best to retain two of the parts under Lost Illusions, while the third, which presents a separate Rubempre episode, is given as A Distinguished Provincial at Paris. The three parts of The ThirteenFerragus, The Duchess of Langeais, and The Girl with the Golden Eyes— are given under the general title. The fourth part of Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life, Vautrin’s Last Avatar, which until the Edition Definitive had been published separately, is here merged into its final place. But the three parts of The CelibatesPierrette, The Vicar of Tours and A Bachelor’s Establishment, being detached, are given separately. Other minor instances occur, but should be readily cleared up by reference to the Indices, also to the General Introduction given elsewhere.

In the preparation of this English text, great care has been exercised to gain accuracy — a quality not found in other versions now extant. In one or two instances, errors have been discovered in the original French, notably in dates — probably typographical errors — which have been corrected by means of foot-notes. A few unimportant elisions have been made for the sake of brevity and coherence. Many difficulties confront the translator in the preparation of material of this nature, involving names, dates and titles. Opportunities are constantly afforded for error, and the work must necessarily be painstaking in order to be successful. We desire here to express appreciation for the valuable assistance of Mr. Norman Hinsdale Pitman.

To Balzac, more than to any other author, a Repertory of characters is applicable; for he it was who not only created an entire human society, but placed therein a multitude of personages so real, so distinct with vitality, that biographies of them seem no more than simple justice. We can do no more, then, than follow the advice of Balzac — to quote again from the original title-page — and “give a parallel to the civil register.”

J. WALKER McSPADDEN

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31