Forgotten favourites - The wrong side of Paris. For Henry James, Balzac was the indisputable master. A S Byatt on why this visionary is not as vast and unapproachable as he seems

L'Envers de l'histoire contemporaine

Translated by Jordan Stump <em>Modern Library Classics, 272pp

Balzac isn't read and studied much in Anglo-Saxon cultures, and the French themselves moved away from him through concentrating on Proust's refinements of style, and the later experiments of the nouveau roman. If we do think about him at all he seems unapproachable and vast - the Comedie Humaine contains 81 novels, and the whole world of his fiction is greater than its parts. If we read him we tend to read Eugenie Grandet or Le pere Goriot and to see him as a naive realist who thought describing a material and materialist world was the function of fiction. Not a bit of it - he was a visionary and a religious man, and his materialism and his sense of spiritual order and disorder are two sides of his variegated tapestry.

Henry James thought he was the indisputable Master, and I increasingly think he was unequalled except perhaps by Dostoevsky. Balzac has the freedom of having forged his form as he went along. He includes the absurdities of romantic fiction, the precision of description of workplaces, offices, bureaucracies and conspiracies, the slow pace of very varied provincial boredoms, the hectic pace of post-revolutionary Paris. He gives his world a depth of history - medieval France haunts all the 19th-century bustle and violence, both along the Seine and in distant meadows and cathedrals. He lived through, wrote in, and described a time of huge political shifts and uncertainties, revolts and repressions, ideologies and individual greed, patience, suffering and annihilation. It is true that every novel of the Comedie one reads alters slightly our sense of the whole. Where to begin?

Another problem we have had, in the Anglo-Saxon world, is slightly limp and cautious translations. I once did a broadcast praising Illusions perdues, and looked up in an English translation all the metaphors I wanted to cite - only to discover that most of them had been cut or toned down. The book I want to recommend on this occasion - the last in the Comedie, and rarely discussed, almost certainly rarely read - is just being reissued by the Modern Library in an excellent new translation by Jordan Stump. The French title, L'Envers de l'histoire contemporaine - literally the reverse side, or underside, of contemporary history (seen as a tapestry) - is rendered as The Wrong Side of Paris, which isn't exact, but is evocative and is precisely a good title for this extraordinary tale. Stump's translator's preface expresses an uncommon enthusiasm for Balzac's voice which she characterises as a "distinctive mingling of density, detail and liveliness, to which . . . is conjoined a kind of sombre gravity that verges unashamedly on the grandiose, even the melodramatic". "I feel a great affection for this voice," she writes. I too have come increasingly to love and admire this wild and energetic mixing of tones and speeds, and Stump does create an English equivalent.

It is a very odd and unexpected tale, even for Balzac. It takes place in two boarding houses in Paris in 1836. One house is in the rue Chanoinesse, and one in the rue d'Enfer. The central character, Godefroid, has been buffeted and impoverished - both financially and morally - precisely by recent French history, the revolution of 1830, and the French revolution behind that. He is a liberal disappointed by the new bourgeois government, "frightened by the unbridled ways of the Press, more frightened still by the violence of the Republicans". He takes a room in an austere house in the rue Chanoinesse, deciding to retire from his exhausted ambition and the feverish life of the city. He finds he is in a community centred on an old and dignified lady, Madame de La Chanterie - a community of Catholic contemplation, devoted to the Imitation of Christ. Its members are committed to secret charitable work, to austere and absolute Christian principle in the shrill and shifting and selfish world of the 1830s. The religious house symbolised by the words chantry and canoness is opposed to the house in the road of hell (l'enfer) where an impoverished gentleman and retired judge tries to care for his paralysed daughter, and to keep alive her sense of comfort and elegant living. They become Godefroid's first charitable case when he commits himself to the community.

At one level this is a stringent inquiry into our ideas of good and evil, virtue and vice. At another, it is a tale of real historical vicissitudes, the horrors of the guillotine and human frailty and cruelty, seen from a kind of absolute moral distance. It is a melodrama akin to The Count of Monte Cristo, full of glooms and lurid brightness. It is also a solid and phantasmagoric picture of Paris by a writer who knew the history of its stones and the idiosyncrasies of its alleys and rooftops. The history of the novel in general is in one sense a history of the testing of Christian morality against other structures - socialist, individualist, psychological, nihilist. Part of the power of both Balzac and Dostoevsky is that their conservative religion went with a deep understanding of what threatened it. This isn't a tract - it is a novel in which shared virtue is interesting and possibly credible. There are not many of those.

A S Byatt's most recent book is Little Black Book of Stories (Chatto & Windus)