Prometheus: The Life of Balzac
‘On n’a jamais peint les exigences de la gueule“: the crude, sardonic introduction to the character of le cousin Pons serves Balzac himself. The fat, plebeian, butcher-like figure, shorts legged and larded with the pâtés of Tours, toothless at thirty-two, whose natural openness, goodness, and burning brilliance captivated Paris almost against its will, is the novelist of our appetites. He is Appetite itself—appetite for power, fame, money, things, women, life, mystery, and work. Until the last months of his life he makes nonsense of the moral of Le Peau de chagrin: the skin grows larger with every desire fulfilled. All his desires fed one another and, united, they fed the artist: arresting them by drinking strong coffee killed him. No wonder that at the end of his new biography, M. André Maurois exclaims with emotion, Who would not be Balzac? Any novelist would give his eyes for Balzac’s energy and vitality.
Of course, he was cut out for his period. Appetite was the note of the day:
En somme, voici le jeu que je joue, quatre hommes arront eu une vie immense: Napoleon, Cuvier, O’Connell et je vais être le quatrième.
The first, “inocule des armées” had become the life of Europe; the second had married the natural world—epousé le globe; the third had incarnated a people. Balzac intended to be the fourth by carrying a whole society in his head.
THE EXAMPLE OF BALZAC has often been urged on novelists during the last fifty years but the stimulus we get from reading all the Lives by André Billy, Stefan Zweig, and now M. Maurois is illusory. The first lesson to be learned is that to hold a society in our heads it is first of all indispensable not to be completely of our time. Of Balzac, Lamartine noted: “There was nothing in him of the man of this century.” And André Maurois’s Life, which succeeds as “actualité” in bringing the man and his work together, in the daily process of making each other, leaves one with the same firm conclusion. Balzac belongs to the age of Louis XV and harks even further back to the age of Molière. He could live confidently on the assumption of universal knowledge: what a help that would be to us! Wealth for him was the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century notion of inheritance and Fortune, not the monotonous nineteenth-century system of profit, investment, wages paid, and interest accruing. His extravagances; his strong feeling for aristocracy and practical government; his habit of amassing things of value—“je suis sûr qu’au poids il y aura, dans notre maison, trois mille kilogrammes de cuivres et bronzes dorés—in the manner of the dukes who filled up their chateaux with the loot of Europe generation after generation; his compulsion to pile up debts as if they were a form of capital; all indicate the naif parvenu peasant who preserves in himself the ethos of an earlier age long after that age is there to guide him. His conception of the class war was no more than the eighteenth-century idea of natural categories; he believed in freedom, not equality. His friend Mme. Carraud reproached him for not taking the working classes into account and for being deficient in the passion for justice. And, except in his stories of the domestic lives of shopkeepers and despite the influence of the rhetoric of the Romantic movement, his attitude to love is closest to the skeptical if occasionally fervent tone of the eighteenth-century memoir. The last half of Le Lys dans la vallée is an eighteenth-century anatomy of passion: its final comment is worldly.
It is true that educated people of his volcanic time stood astride two worlds; but in Balzac’s mind we find that the nineteenth century’s urge for the freedom of dramatic action is corrected by the early century’s rationalism and freedom of thought. He could contain a whole society because he knew in his bones its ambivalent relation with its earlier history. For us neither freedom exists: The individual feels he is less-than the society he lives in and believes he is right to do so. We may sign for some theory of the unity of knowledge but we seem unlikely to be able to think of anything resembling the valuable Balzacian short cuts (valuable, that is, to an artist), such as his theory of the vibrations, which he called the “material substance of thought,” sent out by the “inward man”; his theory of the power to be in intuitive contact with the universe; his belief in magnetism. Now, if we could hold views of this kind, would we have the guts to think of them (as he did) as being at once energizing and self-destroying? Would we be attracted—as he was—by the theory that the outward man is destroyed by the inner, because this was dramatic? Balzac’s pessimism, unlike anything we can work up, is positively effusive.
M. ANDRE MAUROIS is a biographer and is not writing a critical study. There is an immense number of such studies available. He is bound to make a few brief judgments and they are sound enough. Louis Lambert does not come to life; the second half of Le Lys dans la vallée is better than the first; Le Cousin Pons is more shapely and economical than La Cousine Bette, and so on. I personally find it difficult to admire anything in Massimilla Doni beyond the brilliant opening portraits of the Venetians, but in that kind of thing Balzac was a master. M. Maurois was faced by the usual problem of holding the balance between a writer’s life and his work; but this is less troublesome in Balzac’s case than it is with other novelists, for Balzac’s life is a Balzac novel and so completely blended with his work that one can pass from one to the other. He wrote not only an enormous number of books, but had also a huge correspondence. Most importantly, it brought the “anarchic” influence of women, nowadays not anarchic at all. His letters are long and explicit; they come either breathlessly, drily, or reflectively out of the moment, and we smell the ink of the story he is writing or is going to write and the perfume—often mentioned—of the latest love affair. The very fact of taking the coach to Aix or going to lawyers about his blackmailing housekeeper or prevaricating to a jealous mistress, is also a novel. When attacked by the chaste Mme. Carraud or his sister for his love affairs, for his expenditure, for wasting himself in dissipations, he may dodge or deny, he may pour out rhetorical excuses, he may be foolish, cynical, realistic, or touchingly open-hearted, but he is always the novelist and in action. If women are mad about him they must understand that he lives for his imagination, that he demands their help, and their persons, but that he is not going to give up his illusions, for they are his capital. The naivety and vanity of authors are too valuable and enlivening to be abandoned at the request of self-interested moralists. It is a strong point; for Balzac was not only endlessly industrious; he was modest. He actually admired his contemporaries.
The answer to the moralists is, quite simply, this emotional capacity for work, for using every minute of his life and experience and transforming it. As his letters show, Balzac was forever pushing into his own future. He scarcely lives in the present, except in his impatient shouts for money, his rows with his mother, and his pressing demands for love to keep him going. His opinions of work just done are as wild as his descriptions of work not done yet. Having just finished Le Médicin de campagne he tells Mme. Hanska the book is “wholly evangelical in its nature and seems to be like a romanticized Imitation of Christ.” Admirable nonsense! There follows a long account of La Bataille. In this book he tells her she will hear the gunfire, see the whole of a battle and every joint and muscle of the body of Napoleon “whom I shall not bring on the scene except perhaps to show him crossing the Danube one evening in a boat.” The passage reads like the enthusiastic hand-out of a film director. He swears he has written one volume of it already; quite untrue; but he sees it all so vividly that he thinks he has. It keeps his pen wet.
As A BIOGRAPHER Maurois has for some time skillfully used portions of the letters of his subjects, not to fill out an argument, but in order to break the narrative and bring forward his people dramatically, speaking their own words. This is very effective and it has checked his earlier habit of novelizing his biographies and smoothing them over with conventional irony. The method has the merit, in Balzac’s case, of showing both his work feeding his relations with people, and his life feeding his work. This feeding process is direct, from person to person, as it is for most novelists, but once fed, Balzac transforms everything by adding his immense, overruling self to it. The women of Le Lys dans la valleé have been his mistresses; it contains their eulogy but they are changed by being established in Balzac’s own sense of historic and psychological depth. They are histories even in their own hearts, not free souls as conceived by the Romantics. He states, and then complicates and re-complicates them, changing the angle of vision; and he finally pushes the whole story back into perfection by a criticism of the narrator’s character. After his long and rather tedious preparations Balzac’s purely novelizing genius always leaps out. One can see him advancing out of real life into literature. In Le Cousin Pons, the vain, impotent, failed musician, gourmet, and collector of bric-a-brac is victimized by a jealous servant. It is a transfiguration of Balzac’s own story when he brought Mme. Hanska home and found himself faced by blackmail. His housekeeper had stolen Mme. Hanska’s love letters. In the most ordinary events of life, Balzac seems to be born for tempting fiction to appear. He unwittingly and naively provokes the grotesque. Having persuaded himself to pursue Mme. de Castries he chooses to see her lyrically as an aristocrat with “the heart of the most noble of harlots under her corset.” He announces this excitedly to his mother and his friends. He must have cash to fulfill the dream but also—it is the real Balzac touch—he must have magical stage properties:
Madame mère received her orders. She was to send him 1200 francs, some top boots, some pomade and a flagon of Portugal water, the latter a weapon of seduction as potent, in the Balzac alchemy, as straw-colored gloves. He further sent her two pieces of flannel that he had been wearing on his stomach. Mme. Balzac was to consult her clairvoyant as to the cause of his trouble, taking the flannel, wrapped in paper, so as not to weaken the emanation.
Balzac believed that clairvoyants were people whose “inner man” could detach itself from the “outer”; the Eau de Portugal always traveled with him and he never departed on an adventure without a large supply of gloves, about which he was obsessional. In this instance the emanations cannot have been propitious, for Mme. de Castries coquetted but did not remove her corset. Snubbed and angry (and later to avenge the matter in print) he brooded in a monastery and was visited by that “evangelical novel like a romanticized Imitation of Christ.”
The contemporary novelist can envy the moment of dilatory expatiation which Balzac was permitted by his time. In a sense, Balzac had a continuous supply of automatic, journalistic writing, which warmed his engines before he could take flight. The idea of the novel as a formal art was, fortunately, not yet born. If it had been would he not have been far less fecund? Chapter after chapter bores, but there is no mistaking the power that has accumulated when he does strike:
A staircase as he saw it was not just the picture of a staircase but the sum of all the causes that had made it what it was. He described the physical appearance of a man or woman with the meticulous exactitude of a disciple of Lavater, but he sought to illuminate the formal image in the reader’s mind by investing it with emotion.
THE GREATNESS OF BALZAC as a novelist lies in this accumulated power to present reality at several depths; and at each successive change the story and the characters are given a new density. One has before one’s eyes the profound truth that human beings create themselves; only the greatest novelists, the Tolstoys and Dostoievskys, the George Eliots and the Dickenses, show us this.
On the main characters of the novel of Balzac’s life André Maurois is always sound and sympathetic. He is, of course, an impressionist and a tolerant moralist. He has no strong feeling for period. He is very good on the delightful Laure, on Mme. de Berny; he fills out the vague picture we have had of the English Contessa Guidonboni-Visconti and the tale of her generosity and sans gêne. He is fair to the moody and suspicious Mme. Hanska, who was difficult but greatly tried. The blackmailing housekeeper, it now turns out, had in fact traveled to Germany with Balzac as his mistress and kept notes. So Mme. Hanska was right to be suspicious; but what was the use in being right where Balzac was concerned? And M. Maurois keeps well in mind throughout that whatever Balzac’s illusion or excess of the moment, he could switch off instantly from it and get back to his reality: the human comedy. For him—and surely he is right—comedy is profoundly pessimistic. He was no Don Juan, his periods of excess were not continuous; writing was the real excess, for it consumed all his life and in it he lived (as he himself often protested) the life of a recluse. The very appetite for wholesale correction of his manuscripts would have ensured that.