Friday, August 18, 2017

Les Paysans (Sons of the Soil) by Honoré de Balzac

War between the classes
Honoré de Balzac’s final published work, Les Paysans, also known by the English titles of The Peasantry or Sons of the Soil, was released posthumously in 1855. The novel takes place in the French region of Burgundy and focuses on the history of antagonism between a land-owning count and the peasants of his district. Though Balzac sets the scene with vivid descriptions of the beautiful countryside, his depiction of rural life in this novel is far from picturesque. Sons of the Soil is the antithesis of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, in that here the poor people are the villains. The book is closer in tone to the more humorous scenes of Emile Zola’s novel The Earth, in that the country folk are depicted as lazy and shiftless ne’er-do-wells. The treatment of the peasantry in Sons of the Soil is even less sympathetic than Zola’s, however, as Balzac grants them almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Over the course of a complex back story, a retired general and count named Montcornet purchases the estate of Les Aigues in the Burgundy wine country. Though he makes frequent trips to Paris, the general is far from an absentee landlord and resides most of the year at his country estate. The tenants who work the land are constantly trying to rob, cheat, or swindle Montcornet for as much as they can get out of him, often instigated by a few petit bourgeoisie resentful of the general’s aristocratic status and avaricious for his lands. The poor are allowed to gather dead wood from the grounds of Les Aigues for their fires, but they steal whole trees. They are allowed to glean scraps from the fields where crops have been harvested, but they fill their aprons with pilfered produce. The count and countess bestow charitable gifts upon the poor, but their generosity is frequently taken advantage of by lies and deceit. The whole novel is essentially a chess game in which Montcornet’s middle-class enemies scheme to steal his profits and lands, using the farmers as pawns, while the general in return seeks to thwart their thievery.

Sons of the Soil is a lengthy and incredibly complicated book with an ensemble cast likely surpassing a hundred characters. Each player in the narrative has a cousin or a brother-in-law that somehow factors into the story, and each gets his or her own personal biography, detailed physical description, and tailor-made domestic environment. This is a book that really needs charts and family trees to keep everyone straight. Not realizing that until it was too late, I was often lost amid the Byzantine relationships among the characters. The novel is much longer than it needs to be because it is so loaded with descriptive digressions that distract from the main narrative. Balzac attempts to fully immerse the reader into this fictional world, but at times he only manages to disorient and distance his audience.

Nevertheless, it is this very frustrating intricacy that makes Sons of the Soil such an admirable work of literature. Few writers could pull off the creation of a realistic microcosm so rich in detail and abundant in social commentary as Balzac so expertly manages to accomplish here. At the end of his career, he was clearly still at the height of his literary powers. However, I didn’t care much for the message of the book, which relentlessly paints the poor country folk as evil and immoral riff raff. Though in other works Balzac occasionally displays a post-Revolutionary sympathy toward the lower classes, overall he had a decidedly monarchical bent that is nowhere more apparent than in Les Paysans. Even so, although I usually prefer more leftist takes on the class struggle, I still managed to enjoy this entertaining and skillfully constructed novel.
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