Droll Stories (Contes drolatiques) is a collection of short stories by Honoré de Balzac published between 1832 and 1837. Dedicated to the entertainment “of Pantagruelists everywhere and of none else“, the stories are certainly Rabelaisian in nature (also, Boccaccio would be proud). Lively, humorous and unbound from social convention (The Limited Editions Club Monthly Letter refers to its “naughty, naughtiness“), the stories are a delight to read, while being distinct stylistically from Balzac’s voluminous other works. Though written in the nineteenth century, the stories feel and read as one has been dropped back in time nearly 400 years, providing “a marvelous picture of French life and manners in the sixteenth century…one could almost find one’s way about the towns and villages of Touraine, unassisted by guide.” The ability of Blazac to accomplish this degree of sixteenth century “literary archeology‘ is astounding, so much so that Droll Stories has become “a model of that which it professes to imitate“.
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 At 91 published works and 46 unpublished, this collection of interrelated stories is immense.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.
Prior to LEC publishing Droll Stories in 1932, there was only one complete translation in existence, that being an anonymous one from 1874. The LEC commissioned Jacques LeClercq do a new translation for this edition. The Monthly Letter (ML) says of it:
If Balzac had written his stories in English, these are the stories he would have written…All of the joviality of the original is in Le Clercq’s translation…
Whether that is the case or not, unfortunately I cannot say. I have not read the original French, nor any other translation. However, this edition certainly is entertaining, so the translation is at a minimum adequate.
Like most works from the first decade or two of the Limited Editions Club (LEC), this edition is outstanding and full of charm. The designer of this edition, who also provides the decorations, is W.A. Dwiggins, who was one of the major book artists of America at the time. Early in his career he worked with Fredreic W. Goudy in the designing of type letters and with D.B. Updike in fine printing. The ML tells us that Dwiggins brought “a unique desire for experimentation” to problems of fine printing, often resulting in “refreshing, unconventional and usually lovely ideas.” I would classify his work here with the word ‘delightful’; certainly not a perfect specimen of fine press printing, but apropos for this work as it emanates “drollery“!
Droll Stories was printed by Fred Anthoensen at The Southworth Press, which many of you know eventually became known as The Anthoensen Press. The type used was a new (at the time) linotype version of Janson. Janson is based upon a seventieth century letter cut by a Dutch punch cutter named Janson. Much later, a German type foundry named Stempel picked it up and supplied it to printers, the aforementioned D.B. Updike amongst them (which he used hand-set, as an example, in his 1930 La Fontaine’s Fables for the LEC). The ML calls the type “clear, crisp, delicate and interestingly uneven in design. It is one of the loveliest types in which to dress a book.” That may be the case (see below), though I do wonder if Droll Stories would have allowed a more risky and whimsical choice; though since I have no such suggestion, I will be happy with that they did choose!
The ML goes on to tell us about colors used, certainly relevant to the discussion on design:
For the type itself is printed in black ink….But forty different forms were printed in the making of this book, and forty different colors were mixed to print upon these forms… All of the decorations and page numbers are printed in a second color, and a different color is used as the second color in the printing of each form. As a result, you pick up a copy of the book and leaf it through and get an amazing effect of variety in color. This is refreshing, this is unconventional, this is lovely. And it is bright and smiling.
Droll Stories was printed on rag paper with a mellow antique color, designed to lend the flavor of the medieval period in which the stories are set. It was made by Worthy Paper Company to specifications from W.A. Dwiggins. The binding is done with backs of black silk-finished vellum cloth, stamped with one of W.A. Dwiggins scripts in gold. The boards are decorated with monasteries and nunneries, also designed by W.A. Dwiggins, done in a dark purple ink on different colors of paper for each volume.
About the Edition
- Designed and decorated by W.A. Dwiggins
- Printed by Fred Anthoensen at The Southworth Press
- Translation and introduction of Jacques LeClercq
- Type used in a linotype version of Janson
- Rag paper with a mellow antique color, designed to lend the flavor of the medieval period in which the stories are set, was made by Worthy Paper Company to specifications from W.A. Dwiggins
- Binding done with backs of black silk-finished vellum cloth, stamped with one of W.A. Dwiggins scripts in gold; and with decorated boards of monasteries and nunneries all in a mass, also designed by W.A. Dwiggins, done in a dark purple ink
- 880 pages in 3 Volumes, each 5 1/2″ x 8 1/4″
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by W.A. Dwiggins
Pictures of the Edition
(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)