The Wrong Side of Paris; Honore de Balzac, translated from the French by Jordan Stump; Modern Library: 240 pp., $19.95
This is a new translation of the last of the 81 novels that make up Honore de Balzac’s masterwork, “La Comedie Humaine,” which he began in 1833. Originally translated as “The Seamy Side of History” or “The Brotherhood of Consolation,” this final novel was the least read of all of Balzac’s works, writes New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik in his introduction.
“The Wrong Side of Paris” opens in 1836 on the Ile de la Cite, “the very heart of old Paris ... the city’s loneliest and most melancholy spot. The waters of the Seine clap against the quay, shrouded in the long shadows of the cathedral as the sun sinks in the west.”
Thirty-year-old Godefroid, the novel’s main character, longs for a new life. He wants to shake off all the “bourgeois ambition” he has been raised with. He has spent down his inheritance working as a journalist and responds to an advertisement in the paper offering rooms to rent.
His prospective landlady, Madame de La Chanterie, is an unusual and inspiring aristocrat. (“She was clearly a person of another century or even, we might say, of another world. She had a bland face, with a complexion at once soft and cold, an aquiline nose, a motherly brow, brown eyes, and a double chin, all framed by curls of silvery hair.”) Madame has four other lodgers, all of them engaged in daily efforts to help the poor people of Paris, many of whom were left destitute after the 1830 revolution.
The lodgers appear to have troubled pasts, which they rarely speak of. Godefroid enters this “brotherhood” of good-deed-doers: “He had left the broad highway of the world and entered an unknown lane; but where would this lane take him? To what sort of occupation would he devote himself?”
Certainly, “The Wrong Side of Paris” is one of the least cynical, most earnest of all the novels of “La Comedie Humaine.” The translation, by Jordan Stump, preserves all the flourish of the original, without making it sound ridiculous or hopelessly out of date.
Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories; Jim Shepard; Vintage Original: 352 pp., $13 paper
The narrator of this remarkable collection’s first story is chagrined, to say the least, when his best friend, Chick, unwisely sells several automatic weapons to the narrator’s wife, who then proceeds to hold her husband hostage in their Waterbury, Conn., home. Together they watch themselves on TV while their house is surrounded by cameras and special forces in “dark blue vans.”
“ ‘You’re a pig,’ she said. ‘You respect nothing. You have the integrity of a grease trap.’ I asked her whatever happened to divorce in such situations,” and he declares, “I’m not going to provide a whole Ring trilogy of what she’s been mad at,” shrugging off his lack of sobriety and rejection of monogamy, “fiscal responsibility” and “periodontal hygiene.”
Each of the stories in this collection is rich in humor, irony and inexplicably appealing characters. The title story, set in 1937 aboard the Hindenburg, is about two male crew members, Gnuss and Meinert, who fall in love despite the possible repercussions. (“ ‘Do you two ever separate?’ Eck [another crewman] asks. “Night and day I see you together.’ ”)
“Spending the Night With the Poor” is about a young girl who tries to befriend a girl in her dance class who is extremely poor -- “Crystal was poor like in the movies. She carried her stuff in a plastic bag.... She was clueless about her hair; she had it up with a butterfly clip” -- but finds herself unable to make it all the way through a sleepover in the girl’s cramped trailer home: “I didn’t want to be there, and she knew it.”
Shepard, who is often referred to as a “writer’s writer” (a condition that can be the kiss of death for wage earning, though it’s great for literature), is, without any pomp or pyrotechnics, a writer utterly unique. “The acoustics of empty stadiums were very beautiful,” one of these stories begins. “When you took a ball out to the middle of the pitch and struck it once, the thump filled the entire space. The thump seized something in your chest.” So do Shepard’s stories.