Honoré de Balzac, Les Chouans (1829)

After I fell in love with audiobooks, I soon convinced myself that it was the magical tool I needed to “read” more classics, something I always feel I ought to do more. That’s how I started the 14+ hours of Balzac that soon felt like an eternity.

It is a challenge, but I’m going to sum up these long hours in 2 sentences: in 1799, the Revolutionary police sends a beautiful, aristocratic young woman, Marie de Verneuil, to Brittany to seduce the head of the Chouans, the monarchist rebels in Brittany. Will the young beauty succeeds in her dangerous mission, alone amidst barbarous soldiers from both sides, or will she betray the cause and fall for the dashing rebel?

You see? 2 sentences, done.

Litlove recently proclaimed her love of classics in audiobooks, but I dare to disagree, at least with this one. The truth is, audiobooks don’t make great books, they don’t “work” with any book, even when the reader’s voice is flawless. The problem with classics to listen to is that you’re stuck and can’t skip any word, any paragraph… any G-awful description of landscape that runs two pages with Proust-like sentences. You have to endure them all. And if you switch off, you miss something important going on next.

I soon got the impression that Balzac was paid by the word (can anyone attest this?). He didn’t exactly know the meaning of “to the point”, and his contemporary readers didn’t hold any grudges for that. They wanted to be entertained for hours on end, since these poor souls didn’t know the appeal of blogs, Pinterest, Youtube, Facebook and all these time-consuming activities that now compete for my attention. And I don’t even start on Dowton Abbey!

That said, this particular Balzac is full of action. Part history novel, part war novel (1799 in Brittany was as close as civil war in France as you can get), part spy novel, part romance. Take your pick! Balzac shakes all the ingredients together and pour lots of twists and turns. Everyone changes sides so many times that I started to lose count. Balzac, writing 30 years after the fictitious events, when the King has actually returned, is clever enough not to take sides. There are big meanies on both sides in the book and lurid atrocities are explicitly drawn (more on the Chouans’ side, if I’m counting), which makes it very different from other French bourgeois drawing-room dramas of the 19th century (I read that it was influenced by Walter Scott, I haven’t read any so I can’t really tell).

The downside from the “action flick” is that locals are little better than wild brutes moved by their instincts and superstition. And his view of women gets very annoying when you have to endure every single word.

I’ll certainly try other classics on mp3 soon, but for the moment being, I ran towards the next Mickael Connelly / Mickey Haller mystery, which reconciled me with audiobooks at once.


4 thoughts on “Honoré de Balzac, Les Chouans (1829)

  1. Interesting thought about the classics on audiobooks. I have mostly listened to the lighter, more modern stuff that way. I read through Balzac’s very long Lost Illusions (on paper) and I can attest that he tells you more about some subjects than you really want to know. I wouldn’t call it skipping exactly, but sometimes I did not give him my full attention as the words rolled by.

    Before radio, TV, movies and all of our other time wasters, readers needed as much text as possible to fill in those long winter evenings. That’s why all those Victorian sat around reading to each other. What else did they have to do!

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