Like Dickens, Balzac contained his age, and again like Dickens he had an immediate sense of his public. When later on he was criticized for potboiling he said hotly that an artist who has no private means and who is not supported by some sinecure in his government has to pay attention to popular taste and the demands of editors. The young Balzac first reached a large public with a very hot boiler. There was a passing craze for revaluations—what were called physiologies; and in 1829, Balzac dashed off a Physiologie du mariage—“by a Bachelor.” He was thirty. The book was not only wittily topical; it drew on something central and quite serious in Balzac’s nature. The cynical bachelor did really think that marriage ought to be made more agreeable among the rising middle classes. The book made him notorious if not famous, and established him in the minds of a large number of women readers. They might be angry, they might be admiring, they wrote hundreds of arguing, confessional, or ecstatic letters to the writer who was so much on their side and who had the gift of intimacy. For the rest of his life women were his chief correspondents.

For if there was one thing the “celestial” Balzac family knew all about it was domestic love. Not the cold campaigns of seduction in Les Liaisons dangereuses; not the crystalizing of the varieties of the passion which Stendhal had examined in De l’amour only a few years before, for Balzac lacked that psychological fineness; but love in the married state, love in the household. Indeed he might have quoted Sterne:

Love, you see, is not so much a Sentiment as a Situation, into which a man enters, as my brother Toby would do, in a corps—no matter whether he loves the service or no—being once in it, he acts as he did….

He had listened to his father’s “utterances” drawn from Tristram Shandy and Rabelais, as the father sat at home with a restless wife who had presented him with another man’s child. He had seen one sister die early in a marriage that had become wretched. His first two mistresses, Mme de Berny and the Duchesse d’Abrantès, were married women, both older than his mother and more than twenty years older than himself—so that at this time he could be said to be a young man with three mothers, all on the worst of terms with one another. He had listened to the unhappy life stories of the tender Mme de Berny, who had been brought up as a girl at the court of Versailles; and in the company of the Duchesse heard confidences of the somewhat businesslike attitude to love at Napoleon’s court. The Duchesse had even been the mistress of Metternich. One can hear these voices mixed with his in the Physiologie.

Balzac had the journalist’s talent for having it all ways. Blatantly imitating Stendhal, he spiced his confection with anecdotes and aphorisms, and with satirical gambols, like his praise of the female headache:

O migraine, protectrice des amours, impôt conjugale, bouclier sur lequel viennent expirer tous les désirs maritaux…. Honte au médecin que te trouverait un préservatif.

That might have come from Molière. The book is genial, frank in its sexuality, and has a streak of the vulgar. Its conclusion is very moral: a plea for sincere love. The fact is that the roving bachelor liked even his loose women to be settled among their household goods. The hope for the married woman lies in the art of becoming the mistress-wife. La Physiologie du mariage owed its success to Balzac’s adroit perception of a change in women’s attitudes since the eighteenth century. In its defense of married women in their virtues, sufferings, or in their delinquencies, it caught a tide that was running for female emancipation which had become powerful.

For the Napoleonic wars had made love sudden and short, and marriages desperate and unstable; but now two impulses appeared in the mind of the “new” middle-class woman. In one she was tempted by a longing to revive the illicit intrigues of the aristocracy of the ancien regime; but, with inborn respectability, she required a moral veil to be cast over what went on under the system of the arranged marriage and the dowry. She required an appropriate hypocrisy: vice was eager to pay its tribute to virtue. (In La Cousine Bette, Balzac notes the change when Mme Marneffe, the new courtesan, puts on sentimental, religious, and moral airs, and always speaks of her “fall” as she skillfully bleeds her lovers.)

The second impulse was more elevated. It was directed to a mystical emancipation; concentrated in the Saint-Simonist movement and particularly in the figure of Enfantin, who held that “the definite moral law can only be revealed by Man and Woman, and that its application must be the result of their harmonious association.” Another cult, directed to the emancipation of women, was called Evadaisme—the word combines the names Adam and Eve. The status of women was raised, according to this doctrine, by putting Eve’s name first. The leader of this cult was called Le Mapah. He wrote innumerable pamphlets, one of which contains the verse quoted by Enid Starkie in her book on Petrus Borel:


Mary is no longer the Mother. She is the wife.
Jesus Christ is no longer the son. He is the husband.
The old world (confession) is coming to an end.
The new world (expansion) is about to begin.

The noisy man-woman who wore trousers, smoked cigars, and was popularly known as the lionne appeared in the imitations of George Sand and was a by-product of this new theology. If Balzac’s common sense leaves such speculations aside in the Physiologie he had his own quasi-scientific interest in androgynous beings.

In the meantime Balzac had found a public. He turned to writing feuilletons for the new reviews like La Revue de Paris, Le Charivari, which published Daumier’s drawings, and the gossipy Caricature. And in one series of stories, La Femme de trente ans, he strengthened his hold on his readers. He had shrewdly noted one more change in social wishes. The conventional notion was that after her marriage by the time she was twenty, a woman ceased to be interesting; yet at thirty she was still young. Women who had been forced into marriage and were isolated, betrayed, took lovers, and were abandoned, were forced to come to terms with circumstance: it is Mme de Berny’s story. The joke that went around Paris was that a clever new writer of light novelettes had extended the age of love for women by ten years.

The Balzac we know begins to appear. His hand as a writer of “black” romance is seen in the terrible drama of El Verdugo, in which a Spanish father tells his son to execute the whole family to save it from the dishonor of being executed by the French invaders. But after this Balzac abandons fashionable romance for the daily life he knows best. In the collection of stories he eventually assembled under the title of Scènes de la vie privée, there are stories of the sentiments: the wife deceived by her husband; the woman abandoned by her lover; the old age of a woman whom marriage has deceived and whose lover is in conflict with her daughter. And, more important and coherent, there is the portrait of Gobseck, the moneylender; the delightful study of a rebellious girl—from an incident in the early life of his sister Laure—in the Bal de Sceaux; Le Curé de Tours with its portrait of the innocent old Abbé who is destroyed by making an enemy of his landlady; and Colonel Chabert.

The last two are very fine short stories, and although Balzac came to despise the form in time, he showed an absolute mastery in it. He moved with discursive ease among stories that depended on exact observation of circumstance, moved on to the changes of feeling and behavior of men and women brought up under different dispensations: the old survivors of the ancien régime in their châteaux in Touraine; the people who had known the Revolution and the wars; and the people of the restored monarchy. Again and again we hear his explaining voice, with his sudden eager phrase “voici pourquoi—that is why” such and such an event emerged from the circumstances he has set out.

“That is why” is at the heart of his stories. His characters are items of social history, but warm and alive. He had, up till now, spent his time listening to everyone—above all listening to women, lawyers, returned soldiers. He had met many veterans at the house of his brother-in-law at St. Cyr, and there were thousands in Paris anyway. The story of Colonel Chabert comes from one of those encounters, and its content is worth examining for it already shows Balzac as more than a raconteur or conventional realist. The story opens with a minute but vivacious description of a lawyer’s office and its bumptious, slangy clerks—“puddle jumpers”—who are shooting pellets of bread at an old man dressed in a coachman’s coat passing in the street below. Balzac is a master of office slang.

The old man comes into the office and stands, monosyllabic, before the mocking clerks, who treat him as an idiot. His skin is transparent, he is a motionless, shabby, living corpse with the air of a tragic idiot.


“I am Colonel Chabert,” he says.

“Which Colonel Chabert?” the clerk says.

“The one who was killed at Eylau,” he replies.

We are at once in the middle of a terrifying story of how the Colonel has groped back to life from under the bodies of a mass grave on the battlefield and has managed after a year or two to crawl back to France. He is a man who is officially “dead” and therefore has no identity. He has come to the lawyers to establish that he is living and to trace his wife who has married again and, of course, has inherited his money. The struggle to recover an inheritance is a theme to which Balzac continually returned. Where Balzac shows his mastery is in setting the central part of the story in a lawyer’s office, for this establishes that the dead man’s return to life is really a return to a world dominated by greed; and it enables Balzac to make two reflections that bear not only on the surface of the tale, but on its moral theme.

Of the lawyer’s dirty office, with its clerks who jeer at the poor wretches who come to get justice or revenge there, he writes:

After the second-hand clothes shop, a lawyer’s office is the most horrifying of street markets our society has to offer. It is on a par with the gambling house, the courts, the lottery office and the brothel. What is the explanation? Because perhaps they place dramas of the human soul in a scene which is utterly indifferent to their hopes.

In how many scenes in Balzac are we struck by the indifference of the environment which has been realistically recorded. But in his comments on the Colonel’s decision to return to beggary because of his contempt for the vulgar meanness of his wife, the honest lawyer seems to be speaking for Balzac’s pessimism. In our society, the lawyer says, the priest, the doctor, and the lawyer are the people who stand apart because they are bound to lose all respect for the world as it is.

I have seen a father die penniless in a garret abandoned by his daughters to whom he gave 40,000 francs a year. I have seen wills put on the fire; mothers robbing their children, wives reducing their husbands to madness, so that they can live in peace with their lovers. I have seen women corrupting the tastes of their legitimate children so that these destroy themselves, in order that the mother can give everything to a love child.

Such tales are pure Balzac—one notices for example the plot of Le Père Goriot in that list—and one begins to see that he is himself the observant lawyer of the passions before he is their psychologist. But upon his definitions he always imposes something else: the quality of dramatic vision. This visionary insight turns Colonel Chabert into something more than a wronged soldier. Coming back from the dead, he looks dead to this world, a ghost, a creature to be mocked and disbelieved. His false death becomes a resource—a fierce decision to remain a ghost rather than to accept life as it is now lived by others.

In all Balzac’s characters there is not only the physical man or woman shown exactly in feature and in the clothes they wear, but there is also this gleam of a vision, sordid or strange, by which they live. Like the characters of Dickens, they live by a self-imagination. Balzac was an exhaustive user of his life. He will tell a story; in the next he will reverse it, playing variations on his themes. At the time when he was telling these tales of circumstance, he turned from time to time to the visionary or allegorical stories, and these open up the way into his inner life as a man: the Contes philosophiques.

What is inside this shrewd, warm, meaty, well-organized, and distinctly opportunist novelist in his early thirties? Fundamentally, underlying the common sense, there is the outstanding characteristic of the whole Balzac family—monomania, a power that drives them all to the single consuming passion. It makes its appearance in the first long work he published and which lifted him out of promise into achievement: La Peau de chagrin.

Balzac had written a good deal of the topical book on marriage when in his late twenties he was being taken about by the Duchesse d’Abrantès, and the worldly voice in many pages of that book must have come, as I have said, from her. Now he went back obediently, embarrassed by his ties, to appease Mme de Berny. He was dodging his debts and choked with the journalism by which he had to live. He had agreed to write a monograph on Virtue and, being a good trencherman, a Physiologie gastronomique. Mme de Berny sadly appealed to him to take her on a holiday in Touraine and—we can surmise—though she admired his appetite for life, she may have warned him. He began to write his first memorable philosophical tale.

They traveled over the bad roads by diligence and arrived at a pretty little cottage outside Tours on the banks of the Loire, called La Grenadière, on the water’s edge. With her, and back in the country of his boyhood, he always recovered the lost and buried life that reawakened his imagination. There is a touching account of the young man in his thirties rowing the woman in her fifties on the river: she is wearing a pretty gray dress and a cape with blue ribbons in it. She takes off her gloves and trails her hand in the water. They take a steamboat all the way to Nantes and another to Saint-Nazaire. The sea air blows the staleness of Paris out of him.

If you only knew what Touraine is like! One forgets everything there. I don’t mind that the people there are stupid; they are happy. Happy people generally are stupid. Glory, politics, the future, literature are just pellets for killing lost dogs. Virtue, happiness, life—it’s 600 francs a year on the banks of the Loire. Put your foot in La Grenadière, my house at St. Cyr…

(He was thinking of his childhood and the house where his nurse, the gendarme’s wife, had lived)

…beside a marvellous river, the banks covered with honeysuckle…. Touraine has the effect of foie gras on me and one is in it up to the chin: the wine is delicious. It does not make one drunk: it beatifies. I have gone down to the sea by river at three or four sous a league. I have felt my mind widen as the river widens. I have swum in the sea, breathed pure air and sunshine. How I understand pirates and adventurers and rebels! My dear friend, literature at the moment is nothing but a trade for prostitutes who sell themselves for 100 sous; it leads nowhere…. My idea is to drift, discover, risk my life—sink an English ship!

The artist is reawakened. As usual more than one book came into his head: once he had started La Peau de chagrin, the idea of writing a series of Rabelaisian tales in concocted medieval French came to him. He began on those as well. Behindhand with his journalism, he sent Mme de Berny up to Paris to deliver a third of an article he had written. She ran into the Revolution of 1830—the three violent days which put Louis Philippe on the throne. Balzac was indifferent to that. He ended a letter to a friend:

When at night one sees the beautiful skies here, one just wants to unbutton one’s flies and piss on the heads of all the royal houses.

Later in the year he went to Mme de Berny again. She was now living with her children at La Bouleanière, a house she had taken on the Fontainebleau road near Nemours. There he finished La Peau de chagrin. It is one of Balzac’s torrential pieces of writing. Appropriately for a book written in the nineteenth century, it is a book about the nature of power: it defines his life and is prophetic of his own fate. Like the work of all novelists, Balzac’s novels are diffused autobiography; but, in certain books, Balzac draws on his youth directly again and again. In long portions of Louis Lambert, in Le Lys dans la vallée, in Illusions perdues he presents revised, transposed versions of the same experience. He is obsessed by the past, by projecting the sources of his inner life, by self-explanation. In La Peau de chagrin there is not only his literal experience as the poor young man of the rue Lesdiguières, but there is the impelling inner fantasy that will shape, sustain, and in the end destroy him.

The story might come out of the fantastic tales of Hoffmann or the Arabian Nights; also it has an amusing connection with Balzac’s early follies as a reckless buyer of bric-à-brac. We see in Raphael, the poor student, the young Balzac dreaming of love and wealth, buying the magic skin in the notorious wooden galleries of the Palais Royal, torn between a humble love and the adolescent dream of a luxurious mistress, moving toward the scene where he will grasp the magic skin and have his first wild desire granted. He has been warned that desire burns us up and that the will to enact it destroys us.

The plot is too well known to need further description, but we see that the fantasy is a diagnosis. It is Balzac’s first exposure of the cynical and ruthless individualism that is corrupting and will go on corrupting a materialist society that worships money and power. The nasty little crimes of the lawyer’s office are now transposed into a romantic key: in glorifying the lust for gold, society is being denatured. Raphael’s personal adventure shows the spiritual consequence of conforming to the spirit of the times. He desires the female idol of the city, Foedora, the woman who allures and maddens by the coldness of her heart and never satisfies. She plays with the intellect of the young man, for she knows that to listen to the fevered young intellectual is to enslave him. He hides in her bedroom to watch her going to bed, and he hears her groan, “Oh God,” in apparent weariness with the sterile life she is leading. He is quite wrong.

“Yes, I remember,” says Foedora, “I was thinking of my broker when I said it. I had forgotten to ask him to convert my fives into threes, and during the day the threes have gone down in price.”

The moral is that Raphael’s intellect has made him a dreamer, the dream realized enslaves him, and he is never satisfied. He now desires great wealth, the skin shrinks; he shuts himself away but disaster follows. His hiding place is discovered by Pauline, the humble girl who loves him, and he dies in one last bout of sexual excess.

The allegory has its moments of melodrama: Balzac will always be prone to that, but it is, on the whole, absorbed by eloquence and invention. The tradition of Molière is powerful enough to allay the absurdities of the Hoffman-like romance, and the construction has the skill of dance and counterdance. It is a brilliant coup of Balzac’s irony—for he never quite surrenders to his own extreme ideas—that, in his bitter withdrawal from temptation, Raphael infects the cautious old antique seller from whom he bought the skin with a desire for the debauches he has so prudently avoided and so brings him to destruction.

When the book was published in 1831, critics complained that the eloquence was commonplace. As Gautier, the aesthete, and other friends agreed, Balzac “appeared not to know his own language”; but it flowed, it had the spell of the voice of a talker who is carried away and who depends on the presence of his personality. Balzac is always felt as a sanguine presence in his writing, breathless with knowledge, fantasy, and things seen. He likes a strong outline. He admired Monnier, the cartoonist; and the coarse line of caricature is often used to carry him across the large, argued panorama he is drawing. But Gautier, who believed in Balzac’s greatness, also said that no other great writer was so humble about his prose or struggled more to improve it. Naïvely he asked advice; his revisions and rewritings show the trouble he took with his awkward sentences.

With all its defects, even with the confusion about the content of the parable, La Peau de chagrin made him a famous and important figure in Paris. He was no longer an apprentice. Women tried to find out if he had ever known the icy and luxurious Foedora. About Raphael’s love for her he wrote what was true of all his love affairs, even his love for Mme de Berny when he wrote his declaration to her: that, at the beginning, love was an idea in his head before it was in his heart or even his senses; that he was moved by the will to dominate and make himself loved; and then suddenly he lost control of himself and found that what had begun in the head turned into a love that enslaved.

As for Foedora, he said in a letter, “The total of the women who have had the impertinence to recognize themselves as Foedora now stands, to my knowledge, at 72.” She is obviously a belle dame sans merci, an adolescent’s dream. There is a rumor, all the same, that once Balzac hid in the bedroom of Olympe Pélissier, a courtesan of the time who was the mistress of Eugène Sue, the dandy and enormously successful writer, whom Balzac envied. Olympe could have made that remark about her investments, for she had been left a small fortune by an American lover and on it had risen from poverty to prudent wealth. But she was noted for warm-heartedness.

Balzac, when accused by his Polish mistress at the end of his life of having been Olympe Pélissier’s lover, gave a denial that is so elaborate as to be unbelievable. He claimed that he had been no more than her confidant during one of her quarrels with Sue; and it is a fact that Balzac and Sue were lifelong friends. But Mme de Berny was very jealous of her. “I shall not be able to come and see you today,” she wrote in a note, “but I’m afraid you are not going to fulfil your promise to get rid of Olympe…. All this chasing after other women has left too many stains on our love….”

In the next two or three years he turned many times from his realistic studies to other revealing philosophic tales: L’Elixir de longue vie, Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu. But above all La Recherche de l’absolu contains the theme of a destiny that is the directing force in his imagination.

Our passions, vices, our inborn extremism, our pleasures and our pains are torrents of the mind flowing through us. When a man concentrates on violent ideas at any given point, he is destroyed by them as if he had been pierced by a dagger.

In this sense, all Balzac’s characters have a core of monomania: that is to say, from the Romantics he rejected he retained the notion that the driving force in life is something disconnected from social circumstance. Balthazar Claes will willingly burn all the furniture in his house in order to keep his furnace going—the furnace that is required by his obsession with the discovery of the quintessential metal or substance out of which matter and spirit are made.

In his own life Balzac was to burn himself out. He was about to pour out books like Louis Lambert, Eugénie Grandet, and Le Père Goriot, the stories of a secret society, L’Histoire des treize, Le Médecin de campagne, and Le Lys dans la vallée. To say that he worked is inadequate: he seemed to have a ceaseless engine in his brain. At eight in the evening he would go to bed and be awakened at midnight by Auguste, his valet, and what he called his monastic life began. He put on the monk’s robe of white cashmere, with its golden chain, and sat down by the light of his candles at the small table. He said of this table:

It has seen all my wretchedness, knows all my plans, has overheard my thoughts. My arm almost committed violent assault upon it as my pen raced along the sheets.

The paper was in small sheets with a bluish tint so as not to irritate the eyes. He wrote hour after hour, and when he flagged and his head seemed to burst, he went to the coffee pot and brewed the strongest black coffee he could find made from the beans of Bourbon, Martinique, and Mocha. He was resorting to a slow course of coffee poisoning, and it has been estimated that in his life he drank 50,000 cups of it. When dawn came he stopped writing and, imitating Napoleon, lay for an hour in a hot bath. At nine, messengers brought him proofs from the printers and he began the enormous task of altering almost everything he had written, and in that handwriting that drove printers mad: the completed novel might run only to 200 pages, but in its successive stages the manuscript might run to 2,000. This was work for the morning. He broke off for a light lunch of an egg or a sandwich. Back to proofs and letters in the afternoon; at five he saw a few friends, and after dinner, by eight o’clock, he was in bed once more.

Copyright © 1973 by V. S. Pritchett.

This Issue

February 22, 1973