Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was an early proponent of literary realism (perhaps with a dash of naturalism), with the collection called La Comédie humane (The Human Comedy) being his crowning achievement. At 91 published works and 46 unpublished, this collection of interrelated stories is immense. His characters are real; even the good have flaws. Themes include power, wealth and social success. Characters across the social spectrum come in and out throughout his novels, typically shown struggling with or against the norms of society. Some works focus on country life, some on city life, others on military life or political life. His novels can be negative in their view of human nature, especially when highlighting the morality of the higher stages of society. He has been enormously influential in literature, with writers such as Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Henry James taking stylistically from him.
Old Goriot (fr. Le Père Goriot), published in 1835 is part of The Human Comedy, specifically part of the grouping of works under ‘Scenes from private life.’ It is probably Balzac’s most read and most influential single novel. Taking place in 1819 Paris, during the Bourbon Restoration, the novel’s protagonist takes parental self-sacrifice to the extreme, much to his detriment, to provide every possible advantage to his greedy and ungrateful children. The theme of social climbing is paramount, especially the corrupting influence of such. The betrayal of Goriot by his daughters is often compared to that of Goneril and Regan in Shakespeare’s King Lear. If you have not read Old Goriot, you should. It is a great novel; a pleasure to read and always interesting.
This edition of Old Goriot from the Limited Editions Club (LEC), while not in their top tier from this time period, is very nicely done. Sir Francis Meynell, of The Nonesuch Press, designed this edition and had it printed at The Curwen Press. His choice of binding is certainly attractive with shelf-backs in goatskin, tanned and rolled to the grain of a French levant morocco, and dyed a deep blue, with the title stamped in gold. The sides of the boards are covered with a French hand-made marbled paper; the slipcase is covered with the same marbled paper. For paper, Meynell choose a smooth rag sheet, soft gray in color, made in England to his specifications. I found the paper tint interesting, especially its offsetting from the color illustrations, though a bit somber and almost newspaper-like (in color, not texture, which is very nice). For type, which is very attractive and readable, Meynell used a Monotype version of Bembo along with a series of printer’s ornaments (Fleurons). Sizing is also nice, at 7″ x 10 3/4″, 336 pages, this is an edition made to be held and read.
There are twenty Illustrations in color by Rene Ben Sussan; drawn in black first, with a brush using black water-color, which were then reproduced by the collotype process in the atelier of Georges Duval in Paris. Then, on the prints, Rene Ben Sussan sketched in the colors, sometimes four colors on a print and sometimes seven. All of the sheets were then colored by hand, through stencils, in the atelier of Maurice Beaufume in Paris. The illustrations are narrative based and descriptive in nature. Stylistically they are what some call ‘old school’, which seems apropos for this novel. As stated in the Monthly Letter:
The result also is that there exists in the illustrations a fine quality of pathos…there is also a most interesting set of characterizations…and there is also a pleasingly archaic quality about Rene Ben Sussan’s personal style.
The translation by Ellen Marriage, which remains very popular to this day, was modernized for the LEC by A.S.M. Glover. I do not have a basis for comparison as I have not read other translations, but this one read very well.
All in all, this is another LEC which you should have in your collection. The work itself is a must for any fan of classic literature, as this is arguably the most important work of one of the most important French writers in history. The LEC version is designed by one of the great printers/designers of the twentieth century, and is printed at a great press. The edition is chock full of hand colored illustrations, on unique paper, wonderful type, and wrapped in a beautiful binding. All of this in a 66 year old edition that can still be found in very good to fine condition in the $25-$100 range, depending on how perfect you want it.
About the Edition
- Twenty Illustrations in color by Rene Ben Sussan; drawn in black first, with a brush using black water-color, which were then reproduced by the collotype process in the atelier of Georges Duval in Paris; Then, on the prints, Rene Ben Sussan sketched in the colors, sometimes four colors on a print and sometimes seven; All of the sheets were then colored by hand, through stencils, in the atelier of Maurice Beaufume in Paris
- Translation by Ellen Marriage, modernized for the LEC by A.S.M. Glover
- Introduction by Francois Mauriac
- Typographic plans created by Sir Francis Meynell of The Nonesuch Press
- Printed at The Curwen Press
- Monotype version of Bembo; also a series of printer’s ornaments (Fleurons), French in their flavor
- Paper is a smooth rag sheet, soft gray in color, made in England to the specifications of Sir Francis Meynell
- Bound with shelf-backs in goatskin, tanned and rolled to the grain of a French levant morocco, and dyed a deep blue, with the title stamped in gold with a design by Sir Francis Meynell; The sides of the boards are covered with a French hand-made marbled paper; the slipcase is covered with the same marbled paper
- 7″ x 10 3/4″, 336 pages
Pictures of the Edition
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