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KARACHI, Oct 24: An interesting collaborative presentation on one of the masters of French literature Honore de Balzac, titled The Human Comedy of Balzac, was given by Hidyat Hussain, Eric Touze and Marion Rolland at the Alliance Francaise Karachi on Thursday evening.

Coordinator of Centre for Social Sciences Karachi Hidayat Hussain shared the bulk of the presentation which he said would be in three languages — English, Urdu and French. Well, it actually happened in the former two. He said Balzac was an unusual figure in 19th century French literature. He didn’t have one particular work (unlike Hugo’s Les Misérables or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) which could be discussed separately but a collection of 90-plus novels called The Human Comedy, most of which were not published. Balzac was born in 1799 and died in 1850 at the age of 51. He had a productive life of only 22 years and yet made a major contribution to French literature.

Mr Hussain said Balzac had a firsthand experience of what he wrote. However, he did not lead a comfortable life as he owed money to many people till the time he breathed his last. He was always worried about how to earn a living and took up quite a few jobs (publisher, printer, pineapple grower, etc). He used to hide from his creditors and even escaped from home to run away from them. One of the first novels from The Human Comedy series, Les Chouans, appeared in 1828. It was set in the post-French revolution period in which young men fought against the republic. Balzac’s was a sociological approach to writing. He wrote about society as he saw it.

Mr Hussain said despite the fact that Balzac lived a life of debt he had a big number of admirers. He had a couple of love affairs. Sadly, he got married in March 1850 and died in August. There’s recurrence of characters in his 91 finished works and 46 unfinished ones. He was called a portraitist because he depicted strong characters in his stories but his portraits merged with the social landscape of the country. It was his aim to portray the customs of 19th century France.

Mr Hussain said Balzac showed the wealthy classes of Paris in a post-revolution setting. It was a time when the aristocracy, after being defeated, was experiencing a brief revival, leading artificial lives. Money was the foremost ‘value’ in society.

Mr Hussain then informed the audience that the discussion would now focus on two of Balzac’s novels Le Pere Goriot (Father Goriot) and Eugenie Grandet, the only two of his books which had been translated into Urdu. He said Father Goriot is about early 19th century Paris where there are poverty, beggars, dilapidated houses and the people belonging to the upper class segment. There’s a boarding house in the novel in which people of all ages and different strata of society live. Goriot has two daughters. Two of the other important characters in the story are a law student Restignac and a criminal Vautrin.

At that point development manager Alliance Francaise Marion Rolland read out a very small passage from the novel in Urdu. She read the lines carefully and in a rather cute manner, which the attendees liked very much.

After that cultural and EFL learning manager of Alliance Francaise Eric Touze took over and talked about the character of Vautrin for a few minutes. He said he’s one of the recurrent characters in Balzac’s stories, a convict, somewhat like Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean. He manipulates people and always dreams of wealth and power. He promises young men, like Restignac, wealth and women but eventually they become subservient to him. Vautrin is also the first homosexual character in French literature.

Mr Hussain then turned to the second novel Eugenie Grandet, which is not based in Paris but in the small town of Saumur. It’s about an old man Pere Grandet who resides in a sad, run-down house. He loves money and even on his deathbed looks fondly at the gold coins he’s gathered. His daughter Eugenie is not a particularly beautiful girl but the spiritual side to her personality makes her attractive. Her father, like Goriot, was never a rich man from the beginning. It was after the revolution that he found an opportunity to buy property and become rich. The story takes a significant turn when a cousin comes into her life with whom she falls in love.

The presentation was aided by scenes from the films based on the two novels.