I only picked up Père Goriot
Here's a sample of what was so gripping - a lengthy sample, since Balzac loses all of his charm in snippets:
Monsieur Poiret was more machine than man. Seeing him gliding along the pathways of the Botanical Gardens like a gray shadow, a limp old cap on his head, barely able to hold the knob of his yellowing ivory-headed walking stick in his hand, wind flapping his wilted coattails so loosely behind him that they barely hid trousers that seemed to have nothing in them, his blue-stockinged legs quivering like a drunk, flashing a dirty white vest and shriveled shirt-ruff of coarse muslin that seemed ready to part company from the tie knotted around his turkey-cock neck--seeing him thus, many people must have wondered whether this Chinese ghost truly belonged to the bold white race, said to be described from Japthet, flitting up and down the Boulevard Italien. What could have been the life's work that so shrunk him down? What passion could have darkened a face so bulbous that, had it been drawn by a cartoonist, no one would have believed it? What had he been? Maybe he had worked at the Ministry of Justice, in the office to which executioners report their expenses--how much they'd spent on black veils for the eyes of parricides; how much for straw and chaff, to line the basket where heads drop; how much for twine to tie the guillotine's blades. Maybe he had been the receptionist at a slaughterhouse door, or perhaps an assistant inspector of health or sanitation. In a word, this was a man who looked as if he'd been one of the mules who turn out great social mill wheel, one of those Parisian Rats who pull other people's chestnuts out of the fire but never ever know who eats them, a sort of spindle for public misery and filth to whirl around on--in short, one of those men of whom we say, the minute we see them: We can't do without fellows like that. Their cadaverous faces, stamped by pain--psychological or physical--are unknown to the Beautiful People of Paris. But Paris is as immense as an ocean. Drop in your sounding line and it will never reach the bottom. Have a look, try describing it! No matter how carefully you try to see and understand everything, to describe everything, no matter how many of you there are, trying hard, all of you exploring that great sea, there'll always be places you never get to, caverns you never uncover, blossoms, pearls, monsters, quite incredible things that every literary diver overlooks. And Maison Vauquer is one of those odd monstrosities.
There are a number of serious things wrong with this passage. First of all, it is totally unnecessary; Monsieur Poiret is a minor character who has only one real thing to do in the narrative, and we don't need much convincing to believe that he would do it. There is no real reason to learn so much about him, let alone hypothesize about what he might have done involving twine and guillotines. Second, there are sentences here that are obviously untrue - can anyone really imagine a nose on a human being that would seem unbelievable if a cartoonist drew it? But Balzac cannot stop to think about whether what he is saying makes exact sense - it sounds good, and he is writing as fast as the ideas come. And that, finally, is what is great about this sloppy passage. It gives off the impression of being written at white heat. This writing is alive, and that is more important than anything that might be wrong with it.
Apparently Balzac had the habit, like Proust, of getting back proofs from the typesetters and, when inspiration struck him, basically changing the manuscript - adding pages and pages to a single passage and getting rid of others. I do not get the impression that this is because he was a careful writer - he did not tweak sentence by sentence; something set off an idea, I think, and he followed it wherever it led. That is why this novel, at least, and I'm guessing most of his others, has absolutely no sense of proportion - the narrative is like a roll of dough that has been squished in various random places; there will be pages and pages devoted to minor characters, and what should be major developments in the plot are rushed through. The plot has clearly been planned out, but what should be major dramatic scenes do not come off at all, and scenes of pointless narrative padding - like a group of people eating at the inn - are as wonderful as any scenes in realistic literature. You read this novel and get the sense of a great artist who appears of have no control over his talent.
Another thing: I get the sense that Balzac's genius would have expressed itself best in short essayistic sketches. This is one of those books that starts to suck whenever it becomes concerned with advancing the plot - the basic thread is an ambitious middle-class law student named Rastignac, up from the provinces, with some distant aristocratic relations, who wants to make his way into Parisian society. An old man, Goriot, lives in the pension with him, and is driving himself to bankrupcy supporting his two daughters, who have both made bad marriages to wealthy but stingy and controlling men. There is also a schemer Vautrin who wants to help Eugene acquire a forture by less than moral means. How will all these conflicts be resolved? Balzac's prescription: melodrama.
That is, lots of long speeches, sequences of long, stagy dialogue, and - of course - secret, hidden pasts that get characters conveniently dragged off when they have performed their function in the plot. I noticed something about this book, and I get the feeling that it is representative of Balzac's work as a whole - it is at its absolute best in character sketches, generalization from the mouth of the author, and in large group scenes.
Any time a scene calls for real intimacy between two people, or a small group, it quickly starts to sound phony. But when you get a bunch of people together, engaging in the silly collective chatter that takes up so much of modern life, Balzac is your man - I have never felt a stronger sense of verisimilitude come off a book than in some of these scenes. And for anyone that thinks that, because of television or whatever, modern people speak a more degraded version of language, and are more prone to stupid fads, look no further for evidence that it has ever been so - although in Balzac's time I suspect it was an urban phenomenon and not, as it is now, universal.
The rest of lodgers appeared, one after the other, both those who lived in and those who did not, wishing each other good day and murmuring those empty phrases which, among certain sorts of Parisians, constitute a kind of droll good humor of which stupidity is the main component and whose principal virtue consists only in how the words are pronounced or what gestures accompany them. This sort of jargon is always changing. The jokes that underlie it never last a month: some political event, some lawsuit or trial, a street song, some actor's comic routine, all serve to keep this joke going, since more than anything else it involves snatching up words and ideas as they go flying past, and then hitting them back, as if with racquets.
In this case, the silly joke of the day consists of adding "-rama" to everything, as in "souporama" and "healtharama" (and I checked the French, it is "rama" in English, so apparently we English-speakers were dominating shit culture even in Balzac's time). It is hard to explain what makes these group scenes so pleasing - maybe just their energy, and how accurately they capture a bunch of people sitting around and shooting the breeze. It is easy to see why so many great writers have admired Balzac, despite his obvious flaws, because the flair and ease with which he brings off certain types of scenes is astonishing.
There was a lot in the novel, actually, that reminded me of Proust, although Proust is by far the greater artist. The main similarity, I think, is the impulse - alternately fascinating and maddening - to make every action and event stand for some sort of generalization about society. Nothing can just be what it is: there must be some sort of larger truth behind it. Even when the generalization is apt I'm annoyed to keep having the narrative broken by these essays (Balzac is much clumsier about it than Proust) especially since it seems to keep robbing the characters of their reality.
Both writers, too, despite their love of generalizations, have absolutely no talent for the epigram, because they refuse to ever turn away a clause that might pin down their meaning a little more clearly. I suppose this is a form of honestly, since an epigram always requires that a great deal be ignored. For example, the most famous line in Balzac is probably "Behind every forture lies a great crime." Well, I think it comes from this novel, and here is how it actually reads, with greater accuracy and a lot less punch: "The secret of all great fortures, when there's no obvious explanation for them, is always some forgotten crime--forgotten, mind you, because it's been properly handled." The only generalization I remember being presented with complete simplicity comes out of Goriot's mouth, and from what I have read it is the one thing that Balzac believed with no qualifications: "Money is life. It can do everything."
So: I finally understand why Balzac is usually seen as second-rate (he is) and also why he is still a classic and worth reading and learning from. Regarding Raffel, the translation reads well, although I glanced occasionally at the French and was confused by the odd liberties he took in translating colloquialisms. For example, in the French, Vautrin is talking about killing someone quickly, and says "Et, à l'ombre!" This literally means something like "into the shade/shadows." (See the second volume of the Recherche for a sample usage.) I'm guessing an equivalent English phrase would be "Lights out!" - or, in case this phrase only makes sense with the widespread use of electricity, something quick and brutal like "That's that!" since Vautrin is saying this as he demonstrates a fatal saber thurst. Here's what Raffel chooses: "And he'll do it without any fuss at all!" How he gets this out of "à l'ombre" is beyond me.
Anyway, these are quibbles. The book was thoroughly engrossing, and for all its flaws clearly had the mark of greatness on it.