Treatise on Elegant Living
by Honoré de Balzac, Translated by Napoleon Jeffries
Wakefield Press, March 2010
112 pp. / $12.95 Buy from Wakefield Press
Wakefield Press describes themselves, on their website, as “an independent American publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities in small, affordable, yet elegant paperback editions.” The fact that they are a publisher dedicated specifically to translated “buried” texts, so to speak, has kept them on my horizon since their launch in 2010. As the press has developed, they’ve continued to release incredibly interesting (and, as is their goal, elegant) books by many authors and writers that populate the literary landscape that I prefer to frequent. Paul Scheerbart, who I learned of as a devotée to “glass architecture” in my readings on the architecture of the fantastique, has had two books released by the press, many (often absent) key players of French literature have books on the press (Marcel Schwob, Georges Perec & Rene Daumal to name a few), and even the authors I hadn’t formerly heard of seem tailored to my taste. As such, I thought it would be a brilliantly rewarding project to review every title the press has released.
Earlier in the year I reviewed their release of Rene Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays, and my enjoyment of everything about the book (from its content to its translation to the materiality of the book itself) lead me to consider the project. I had encountered the concept of reviewing an entire press’s output before, I think initially in JA Tyler’s review of Calamari Press’s output on BigOther. While I love Calamari press, their output spans, at this point, much wider than Wakefield Press, whose number of titles seemed both manageable and limited enough that I would enjoy the entire project. I had no interest in launching into the project & losing steam half-way through, as I knew that would be disappointing both on a personal level, and also probably a disappointment to the press. With these considerations in mind, I decided to dive in.
As I am a fan of chronology, I’ve decided to approach the Press’s released chronologically. This would serve to give structure to the project, and also provide me with a path through the meta-textual elements of the press itself, as they grew from a press having only published two books (their launch), into having published 10 books at this point, with more titles on the horizon. So without further adieu, I’d like to present the launch title of Wakefield Press (while I think it was released in tangent with Pierre Louys’s The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments, Treatise… is granted number “1” in the press’s subdivision of “Wakefield Handbooks”).
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To begin with, there’s an irony to be considered. Despite my excitement over the idea of reviewing all of Wakefield Press’s releases, the singular title I was not excited about happened to be their first released book, the title at hand in this review. The reason for this comes down to two major points. First, I had read Balzac’s Pere Goriot in a French Literature class I took during my undergrad studies &, more or less, abhorred it. It had less to do with content than with style, a particularly lauded sense of realism. Of course, this makes sense, I would learn, as Balzac seems to more or less be considered as the Father of the Modern Novel, which of course entails a particular brand of realism–not my cup of tea. Secondly, Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel, which I found instrumental in my development as writer when I read it half a decade ago, goes through pains to particularly posit the Balzacian novel as a novel to be overcome–the new is pushing away from Balzac.
However, Treatise on Elegant Living is not a novel–it’s a handbook. The tropes of the Balzacian novel, while they might be present here, take on a different form as Balzac is not specifically trying to tell a story here, he’s trying to illustrate an idea, he’s trying to establish a precendent for elegant living. The book is also a fragment, as Balzac never finished writing it. I always find myself fascinated with incompleted work that ends up standing the test of time and making its way down, in partial form, to the present. Rene Daumal’s incomplete Mount Analogue is one of my favorite works of fiction, while Kafka’s the Castle is a clear contender for “most famous incomplete novel of all time.” There’s an air of interest that permeates the fragment, whether the fragmentation is intentional or not. It functions interesting here, because the book is not so much concerned with narrative (and in this case by narrative I mean story), rather than it is interested in laying out ‘rules’ for elegant living. This, in itself, is an interesting concept, as many of the ideas and aphorisms presented herein, while they maintain a sense of truth even now, having also been restructured in the hyper-development of capitalism that plagues the 21st century. So, the fact that this is a fragment of a guide to elegant living works.
The structure the work takes strikes one as a clear method of approaching the subject at hand: the first part of the book is dedicated to generalitie:, including a Prolegomena; “On the Feeling for Elegant Living” which expresses the “je ne sais quis” of the ideas behind Elegant Living; & an “Outline of This Treatise,” which, literally, outlines the book that would have followed in its entirety. The second part of the book covers “General Principles,” which in this partial form covers nothing but “Dogmas.” The third part, the final part in this partial edition, proclaims “On Things That Come Directly From the Person,” which, once again truancated, only includes “On Clothing in All Its Parts.” There’s a literalness to the structure that strikes me as very transparent. we’re dealing with a literal guidebook.
There are two ways to approach the book that I found particularly engaging. The first comes by way of looking at the subtle jabs at classism that manage to enter the discourse on the ideas of Elegant Living, which I found particularly interesting:
While it’s not an entirely perfectly constructed demonstration of class relations, it’s impressive for coming from 1830 & within the context of, basically, the “artistic bourgeois”–the dandy. But no! Balzac says, the man who subscribes to Elegant Living is not a Dandy! He is simply an aesthete! But, you know what they say, if it looks like a duck… The remonstrance of syntactical meaning has always been in style.
The second approach to the book is simply through its number of aphorisms–while many of the historical references Balzac makes were lost on me (even with the abundance of end notes)–the aphorisms drive the point home in a simple and, yes, elegant style.
‘Though elegance is less an art than a feeling, it is also the result of instinct and habit.’ (34)
‘Unity is impossible without cleanliness, harmony, and relative simplicity.’ (44)
‘Luxury is less expensive than elegance.’ (51)
‘A man of good company no longer believes himself the mast of all the things that, in his home, must be put at the disposal of others.’ (52)
The final aphorism above ties into the class relations, as it seems to posit that elegance divorces itself from the obsession with private property (which had me shouting “Right on, Balzac!”)–though admittedly the aphorism that follows somewhat demeans the implications of the former: ‘To receive a person into your home is to assume that he is worthy of dwelling in your sphere.’ (53).
Overall, the book is not a revelation, but its certainly enjoyable in its simplicity, and there are aphorisms that can and should be carried into modern life.
Alright! That’s it for Balzac, next up we have a nice little dirty handbook of smut from Pierre Louÿs, correspondant of Mallarmé & author of one of the five books proclaimed by Susan Sontag as a masterpiece in her essay, “The Pornographic Imagination” !