Friday, 21 October 2016
The Alkahest by Honore de Balzac
The Alkahest by Honoré de Balzac
First published in France in 1834. English translation by Katharine Prescott Wormeley.
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How I got this book:
Downloaded from ForgottenBooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I downloaded Balzac's Comedie Humaine novella, The Alkahest, together in a volume with Seraphita, another his stories. Set in Flemish Belgium, The Alkahest concerns a well-heeled family who are driven to the brink of poverty when the father develops an all-consuming passion for chemistry, specifically alchemy. Perpetually convinced that he is at the threshold of a discovery to bring glory and untold riches to his family, he squanders generations of accumulated wealth and possessions to fund his quest.
Balzac's portrayal of the father, Balthazar, is wonderfully written and convincing throughout. His obsession with science did seem an odd choice to me, but as his behaviour deteriorates, obvious parallels can be seen to drug addictions such as to heroin and I would be interested to know if Balzac had any experience of friends or relatives drawn into addiction because he seems to understand the predicament so well. The actions of Balthazar's wife, Josephine, and eldest daughter, Marguerite, are painful to read but also totally realistic. Initially swept up in his enthusiasm for his project, Josephine schools herself in chemistry in order to understand, but is then repeatedly shattered at being cast aside in favour of the obsession. Marguerite finally gains the strength and financial power to stand between Balthazar and his laboratory, but fails to fully comprehend the insidious hold under which Balthazar exists.
The Alkahest is slow to start and it took me a couple of goes reading the first thirty or so pages before I got into the story proper. Balzac feels he needs to explain the family history and their roots within their community in detail. I got the gist pretty quickly! However, I think it was worth ploughing through all the early description as, once done, the plot continues at at swifter pace and was a good read. Perhaps the repetition of rise and fall of circumstance could have been more tightly edited, but Balzac is not a writer who felt the need to economise on word counts! I was surprised by how relevant The Alkahest is to twenty-first century living and would actually recommend it to a wider readership than Seraphita as it does not mire itself in doctrine and dogma.
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Books by Honore De Balzac / Novellas / Books from France