Balzac the Great

Prometheus: The Life of Balzac

by André Maurois, translated by Norman Denny
Harper & Row, 560 pp., $10.00

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 …

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