by Sarah J. Sloat
In 1938, when German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki was deported from Berlin to Poland, he had nothing in his briefcase but an extra handkerchief and a copy of Honoré de Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty. “Not one of his best,” Reich-Ranicki said later in life.
The detail that stands out for me in Into the Wild, about a young man who perishes alone in Alaska, is his reading Doctor Zhivago before he died. Striking is the coincidence, the vast landscapes overlapping.
The last book Sigmund Freud read before his death was Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin. The story — about a man who finds a magic, shrinking skin - confronted Freud with his own diminishment, as cancer of the jaw, caused by heavy cigar smoking, sped his demise. Scholars consider it unlikely that Freud ever said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes a cigar is just an instrument of death.
"One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré.... It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh," Oscar Wilde said of the protagonist in Balzac’s Lost Illusions.
The year I’d hoped to make “My Balzac Year,” I set out with Lost Illusions. I was stopped at page one by a translation error.
Dear Sir or Madam,
I spent some time choosing which translation of Honoré de Balzac's Lost Illusions to read, and decided on the Modern Library Classics edition (Kathleen Raine, trans.). The first scene opens in a print shop, where the narrator talks about "the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest..." I love typefaces, and knowing the Didot typeface, I looked up Aldus Didot. There is no Aldus Didot. I thought perhaps Balzac invented him, this being fiction, but that seemed odd since the others cited were real people.
So I referred to the original French, which reads - "les beaux livres des Elzevier, des Plantin, des Alde et des Didot..."
In other words, I purchased a book I can't trust. On the very first page there is an error. One doesn't need to be all that good in French to understand the above phrase says "the beautiful books of Elzevier, of Plantin, of Aldus and of Didot." There is no Aldus Didot. Is it possible to replace my book with another translation within the Random House group? If it were I would say yes.
S. Jane Sloat
The only other Balzac I’d read at that time was Père Goriot, which I picked up as a teenager after my father referred to it in a bitter letter about children.
Thank you for contacting Random House, LLC, we appreciate your continued interest in our publications. The only edition of Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac that we currently offer is the translation by Kathleen Raine. Please reply with the ISBN and print run (both found on the copyright page) of the edition you have, and we will forward your notes to the appropriate editorial team.
To be fair, the error that rattled me could have been a missing comma, a typo rather than a translation flub. Nevertheless, it’s on page one. I put the inquisition aside, along with any quest to right the wrong to Balzac’s masterpiece. My husband had recently given me a handsome wine-red copy of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. It took me 49 days to read it.
Fernando Pessoa considered The Pickwick Papers his constant companion. “One of my life's greatest tragedies is to have already read Pickwick Papers,” he said. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa also adored The Pickwick Papers, and kept it at his bedside to sweeten insomnia. Leo Tolstoy considered Dickens England’s best novelist, and kept a portrait of him in his house in Yasnaya Polyana, where he wrote Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
Dickens was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood when he died, a mystery with no conclusion. He also seems to have been an unfair husband.
Not that that affects my enjoyment of his work.
Tolstoy died in a train station (1910). Dickens died in Kent, the day after a stroke (1870).
Freud gave his fiancée a copy of his favorite book, David Copperfield, upon their engagement in 1882. Robert Oppenheimer, a chain-smoker who also died of cancer, read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time on a short trip to Corsica. “One of the greatest experiences of my life,” he called it.
The last book Elvis Presley read was A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus, a gift from his hairstylist and spiritual guide. The book was found in the bathroom with his body at Graceland.
One of the greatest tragedies of my life is Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. That he wrote it. That other people have read it. That it dethroned his poetry on my nightstand.
Dickens was deeply fond of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who died at 17. She inspired the character Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, whose death scene is considered one of the sappiest in Victorian literature. Aldous Huxley called the portrayal of Little Nell’s death “inept and vulgarly sentimental.” Oscar Wilde said only the stoniest heart could resist breaking into laughter at Little Nell’s deathbed. “Old wounds bleed afresh when I only think of the way of [killing Little Nell],” Dickens wrote to a friend.
Dickens, like Balzac, was ravenous for detail. He loved visiting the morgue. For both authors, the wellspring of inspiration was city life, where they found names for their characters on signs and in advertisements.
Balzac ravaged his insides daily with epic amounts of coffee, and eventually resorted to consuming coffee pulver without the bother of properly brewing the drink. Coffee brutalizes the stomach’s voluptuous lining “as a wagon master abuses ponies,” Balzac wrote. Coffee was both the fuel and the death of him.
Reich-Ranicki, who is buried down the street from my house, considered David Copperfield the best of Dickens, though by the time he passed the judgment, he’d read the book some seventy years earlier. “I won’t (read it) again,” he said. Freud thought Dickens was too black and white in his characters, with the exception of those in David Copperfield. “They are sinful without being abominable,” he wrote to Martha Bernays. Freud later gave a patient who shared qualities with David Copperfield’s “child-wife” Dora the pseudonym Dora.
Shortly before she was murdered, the actress Sharon Tate gave her husband a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, saying it would make a fine film. I read Tess on my first trip to England, and savored reading a story set in the same green countryside where I found myself. Decades later I read Jude the Obscure beside a dingy indoor pool I’ll always associate with the doom overhanging its characters. After the opening credits to Tess, Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, dedicates the film to her.
“A good husband ought never to be the first to go to sleep or the last to awaken,” Balzac said in The Physiology of Marriage, long before he married.
Richard Burton was an avid reader, and a friend of fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas. When Burton died in 1984, he was buried with The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas on his chest.
Lydia Davis said she began writing in her signature style, the story of utmost brevity, while translating the meandering sentences in Proust’s Swann’s Way. She wanted to see how short fiction could be yet “still have a point.” Davis also credits the prose poems of Russell Edson with encouraging her to break away from her former style.
“The floor is something we must fight against,” Edson wrote.
Davis wrote a story called “A Woman, Thirty,” about a single woman living with her parents. At 58 words, not one of her best stories, but pretty good.
My favorite Huxley book, The Doors of Perception, explores his experiences with mescaline. The title is a reference to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” — “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. / For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Freud, who was cremated, continued to smoke cigars until his death, despite the suffering. Freud was also extremely fond of his wife’s younger sister, Minna.
“An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates,” Proust wrote.
"The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin," Balzac wrote.
“Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no landscape but what we are. We possess nothing, for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have nothing because we are nothing. What hand will I reach out, and to what universe? The universe isn’t mine: it’s me,” wrote Pessoa.
Sarah J. Sloat lives in Frankfurt, Germany, a stone’s throw from Schopenhauer’s grave. Her poems and prose have appeared in Passages North, Whiskey Island and Beloit Poetry Journal, among other publications. She is in the midst of reading In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust.
- “Ask Marcel Reich-Ranicki,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nov. 14, 2005
- “Ask Marcel Reich-Ranicki,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Dec. 28, 2006
- Into the Wild by John Krakauer
- Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac
- “Heaven and Hell” by William Blake
- Leaves of Elvis’s Garden by Larry Geller
- “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” by Honoré de Balzac
- Tess (Turner Classic Movies website)
- Leading Questions by Malcolm Peet
- The Physiology of Marriage by Honoré de Balzac
- The Death of Sigmund Freud by Mark Edmundson
- “Lydia Davis: My style is a reaction to Proust’s long sentences,” The Guardian, Aug. 1, 2010
- “Live Chat with Lydia Davis,” The New Yorker, Dec. 10, 2009
- “The Floor” By Russell Edson
- “The 100 Best Novels: #15 David Copperfield” by Robert McCrum, The Guardian, Dec. 29, 2013
- New York Times obituary of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Feb. 19, 1967
- The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa