Balzac Possessed


by V.S. Pritchett
Knopf, 272 pp., $15.00


by Roland Barthes
Editions du Seuil, 280 pp., 21 F

The greatest propriétaire in literature has always made a contradictory appeal to those who travel light. And to a remarkable extent he has become an author’s author. Proust and Gide adored him; Yeats was an addict of the Comédie Humaine; it was certainly the greatest single influence on the oeuvre of Henry James. What fascinates other writers about Balzac is probably the way in which he identified creation with greed, art with acquisitiveness; he made no distinction between inspiration and appetite, seizing everything that lay about him with infantile abandon, For him art was no problem, and this in itself makes him the artists’ hero. Though the contemporary Hegelian consciousness, the spirit developing in alienation and solitude, is in a sense his own, it is surrounded today with every kind of formal block and impediment, often self-created, every barrier which the ironies of extreme self-consciousness can put in its way. Balzac’s is the ego uninhibited by alienation: possession was all, and to possess he had only to put pen to paper.

Balzac had a typically Napoleonic upbringing; the carrière ouverte aux talents exemplified in him its most characteristic paradox: that the talented ones become rapacious beyond anything dreamed of by the old regime. His subject is the madness of those who are liberated by revolution into the possibilities of an infinite takeover—“mad in pursuit and in possession so.” His father, born into a large peasant family in the Tarn district in the south of France, came to Paris just before the revolution to seek his fortune. Oddly enough he was a Royalist by conviction (his son of course was an instinctive absolutist, like all fundamentally apolitical people) and was in some danger under the Terror. But he soon managed to make himself necessary in the new world of buying and selling, married a draper’s daughter with a small fortune, and got a steady job in Tours as a military supplier. His son always liked to think of himself as a Tourangeau, from the most fecund and Rabelaisian district of France.

Young Balzac was sent away to school with the Oratoriens, a priestly seminary run on Spartan lines, where for five years he was totally miserable. But the fathers had an excellent library, bought up cheap from the revolutionary mobs who had looted the great châteaux of the area, just the kind of transaction that Balzac was to take such pleasure in detailing in his own novels. He spent the time in a dream, soaking himself in literature and particularly in the English novel, from Defoe and Fielding to the trashiest Gothic romances. By the time the family moved to Paris he was well equipped to find employment in a pulp fiction workshop, reeling out melodrama and near pornography anonymously and by the yard.

V.S. Pritchett points out that Balzac had three mothers. They all adored him, and he returned their affection while exploiting them shamelessly and without scruple. The Balzacs—they were by this time calling themselves the de Balzacs…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.