Balzac’s Genius & Other Paradoxes

Balzac: A Life

by Graham Robb
Norton, 521 pp., $35.00

Arthur Waley said that he preferred to read Dickens in Chinese translation (Dickens’s first Chinese translator was indeed an exquisite writer). I wonder if Balzac does not also belong to the category of writers who actually benefit from being translated: I suspect that his visionary imagination would remain unaffected by the transposition into another language, whereas it would be relatively easy for tactful translators to soften the jarring notes and straighten the blunders that, in the original, frequently jolt the reader or threaten, at the most dramatic moments, to set off anticlimactic laughter.

Balzac’s prose is littered with ludicrous conceits, mixed metaphors, clichés, and various manifestations of naiveté and bad taste. Mere haste and negligence cannot fully account for so much awkwardness: although his first drafts were often dashed off at astounding speed and in enormous creative bursts, Balzac was also a painstaking, obsessive—and notorious—re-writer; his revisions, corrections, re-corrections, and corrections of re-corrections that swelled into the margins of his galley-proofs, smothering the printed text under their exuberant growth, famously drove typesetters to fury and to despair.

That such a great writer should have written so badly was a source of puzzlement for some of the best connoisseurs (who were also his warmest admirers), from Baudelaire to Flaubert. The paradox was aptly summed up by Flaubert himself: “What a man Balzac would have been had he known how to write! But that was the only thing he lacked. After all, an artist would never have accomplished so much, nor had such breadth.”

French literary taste always finds it difficult to deal with those aspects of genius that do not readily fit within a classical frame. An early illustration of this tendency was provided by Voltaire when he apologized for having foolishly introduced Shakespeare on the French stage: “I first showed the French a few pearls I had retrieved from his huge heap of dung… I did not realize at the time that I was actually trampling upon the laurels of Racine and Corneille in order to adorn the head of this barbaric play-actor.”1 Later on, native literary giants did not fare much better. Victor Hugo who was Balzac’s junior by only three years (but whose career lasted nearly twice as long) came to enjoy even greater popularity; yet, for all his triumphs, he never fully succeeded in disarming the reservations of the purists. In our own time, two comments which summarize with cruel wit the critical ambivalence that still persists toward Hugo would fit Balzac much better. On being asked who was the greatest French poet, André Gide replied: “Victor Hugo—alas!” And Jean Cocteau added: “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo” Both in greatness and in lunacy, Balzac certainly scaled heights that were at least as spectacular.

Balzac’s claim to the title of Greatest French Novelist of All Time can hardly be disputed: he simply bulldozed his way into that unique position, propelled by the sheer mass and energy of his production. The…

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