A Balzac moment in Woolf: “the English novel and the French novel.”

As ‘Lost Illusions’ moves towards its conclusion, I was thinking about Virginia Woolf as I read. It occurred to me that in ‘To the Lighthouse’, one of the major characters has what could be described as a ‘Balzac moment.’ The grim Mr Ramsay is deep in thought and he is contemplating novels from England and France. He seems to take the work of Balzac as representative of art from the latter country.

I have no way of knowing whether or not Woolf was saying something about the character of Mr Ramsay with the Balzac reference. I cannot recall from reading biographies of Woolf whether or not she preferred Balzac to Flaubert or Zola. I do remember that Woolf was really impressed by Proust. Nonetheless, it is Balzac that she mentioned in the scene I am thinking of.

Equally, I’m unsure whether Balzac can be seen as typically French. Balzac was an extraordinary figure and his nationality seems largely irrelevant. While aspects of French culture formed an important backdrop to ‘Lost Illusions’, the fact that much of it was set in Paris is not as interesting as his unique perspective. The review to come might not mention France much at all.


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