“She would not, she said, disturb the cream on the pans full of milk from which butter was to be made. The officer overcame this objection by undertaking to repay her amply for the wasted cream, and then tied up his horse at the door, and went inside the cottage.”
- Honoré de Balzac, The Country Doctor (1833)
French Playwright and novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was one of earliest developers of the literary style we now call Realism. The term “realism” is difficult to define, but generally describes an artist’s attempt to render life as accurately as possible. In the nineteenth century, an increased interest in science, the scientific method, and systematizing documentation contributed to the popularity and use of the realistic style in literature. Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are among the many writers whom are said to be indebted to Balzac’s literary experiments with realism.
Balzac is best known for La Comédie humaine (translated as “The Human Comedy,” the title was intended to invoke Dante’s Divine Comedy), a long series of novels and short stories that aimed to portray all aspects of French life in the years after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815: the first work of the series, Les Chouans, focuses on the French peasants who revolted against the Revolutionary government. At Balzac’s death, 90 novels and novellas comprised the project, which included more than 2,100 characters that linked the works together by their recurrent appearance across multiple texts. Like Tolstoy and Proust, many of his works were serialized before they were published in novel form. Balzac left no territory undiscovered: while most of the works are set in Paris, the provinces also see generous representation, with long passages describing the settings being a characteristic feature of his work. Balzac’s contemporary readers were excited to read about his fictional worlds that often resembled a version of their own. Balzac’s friends’ anecdotes about the writer’s relationship to his characters reveal that the author often had a difficult time separating his imaginary world with the real one and often referred to the lives of his fictional characters in casual conversation. Not that these slips weren’t believable: in his stories, Balzac’s characters tend to be multifaceted and devoid of moral consciousness. Essentially, they are realistically human.
In The Country Doctor, from which the passage above is excerpted, the story begins with a military commander named Genestas searching in the Grande Chartreuse Mountains for a doctor named Monsieur Benassis. He finds the physician practicing medicine and serving as mayor in a village called Voreppe: after an affair in Paris turned sour, the lovesick Benassis had decided to devote his life to serving a poor rural community. As the story progresses, we learn that soon after his arrival, the doctor discovered a small colony of individuals affected by cretinism living with their families outside of the village, and decided that it was in the village’s best interests to have the “cretins” transferred to a distant asylum (now known as congenital hypothyroidism, cretinism is a thyroid condition caused by an iodine deficiency that slows or halts hormone production). Benassis moves the other inhabitants of the community to a new location near the village and installs an irrigation system for them so that the can sustain themselves. The soldier is moved by the doctor’s story and decides to leave his illegitimate son with him. At the novel’s end, Benassis has a stroke and dies, leaving readers with a complex moral tale of redemption and a questionable portrayal of government that seems to distrust democracy and herald the benefits of benevolent dictatorship.
Irish cream usually consists of cream and Irish whisky, often additionally flavored with coffee or mint: I used a coffee-based irish cream for this recipe. It is usually served on its own over ice but is often mixed with more whiskey or bourbon to strengthen the alcohol content (although the liquor tends to be quite alcoholic on its own). This week, I whipped up boozy cheesecake brownies using this recipe as my base but tripling the Irish cream called for in the cheesecake mix (due to the additional fluid, I also added an extra egg to the mix to maintain consistency). The result? An indulgent, moist, delicious, mudslide meets cheesecake meets brownie confection. I’ve done my best to capture an accurate image, but I suspect that neither a picture nor a thousand words will do this dessert justice.