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 whenever feasible—made friends in their quiet village outside Paris with a former aristocrat, Madame de Berny. Balzac was sexually timid with and indifferent to young girls, but he was bold enough with women twenty-five years or so older than himself. Madame de Berny became his mistress, and for the rest of her life looked after him and lent him money in collaboration with his real mother; she died both poor and neglected, for Balzac’s continued fondness for her stood no chance in the face of his innumerable other obsessions and commitments. She was deeply jealous of his third mother, the Duchesse d’Abrantès, a slatternly beak-nosed lady of literary pretensions, who had been married to General Junot, and who in return for Balzac’s help with her memoirs was able to supply him with invaluable material about high life and intrigue under Napoleon.

For yesterday in France, as Balzac realized, was already history in the grand Scott style. In his first serious novel, Les Chouans, he treated the Breton insurrection of 1800 in Scott’s manner, but one remembers that Waverley, Scott’s first novel, is subtitled “‘Tis sixty years since” and offers Bonnie Prince Charlie as a bygone romance. History for Balzac was what was still in progress, and although years were to pass before he found the title for his great work, the conception of it was already in his head. He was no longer “Lord R’Hoone,” the grotesque would-be English pen name he had concocted out of an anagram of his own. Gigantic projects were hatching in his head, in business no less than in literature. He bought a printing works on credit, which under his management promptly went bankrupt, and he had to be bailed out by his mother and Madame de Berny.


From then on the pattern was set: an immense and increasing load of debt arising from extravagance and speculation—Balzac only had to touch a stock for the bottom to drop out of the market—against which were mortgaged the plans and profits of novel after novel. He turned his hopes and disasters into fiction as he lived through them, becoming, in turn, César Birotteau, Père Goriot, Vautrin, Grandet, Gobseck, and Nucingen. Edmund Wilson’s premise, that the novelist creates his characters merely out of different aspects and impulses of his own nature, is in fact generically true of Balzac, and his most obvious point of contact with early nineteenth-century romanticism.

Such creation is far from being the Shakespearean one of “negative capability,” and indeed nothing could be further from the imaginative process of most novelists, including Dickens, with whom Balzac is so often compared. But Dickens was both worldly and adroit: where Balzac’s Paris paper lost money spectacularly, Dickens’s Household Words prospered: Dickens’s fantastics are extrapolated from a deep level of his unconscious, whereas Balzac’s are an aspect of his day-to-day life; one cannot imagine Dickens confusing reality with invention as Balzac is reported to have done, calling out in his last illness for Bianchon, the doctor he had created in the Comédie Humaine.

Yeats, as I have said, adored Balzac, but nothing could be less Balzacian than his edict that “the intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work.” Like a madman writing about madmen, a man on the run dreaming up tales of men on the run, Balzac compelled life to behave to him in the style in which he imagined his own creations.

The great and final love of his life, Madame Hanska, was a case in point. Rich, passionate, and vivacious, with an ailing husband and an estate in the Ukraine as large as a French department, she seemed the answer even to megalomania on his scale. But the scope of the allure turned out to be—as his fiction required it should—a tragic mirage. She encouraged and rebuffed him; summoning him to Russia and to the life of a prince and potentate, and dispatching him back to France still deeper in debt and unable even to find the ready money for coach hire. Her husband dead, she only gave in and married him when she saw that he himself was a dying man. On their last homecoming to Paris they found Balzac’s house a shambles—his butler had gone mad and refused to admit them—and when, a few weeks later, Balzac was on his deathbed, Madame Hanska withdrew from the scene: only his own mother, reduced to poverty by his endless demands on her, was with him at the end.

V.S. Pritchett is another novelist and storyteller who has come under Balzac’s spell, and he writes about him in a manner suited to the subject—Balzac would have enjoyed his book. The derogatory epithet “coffee table” is often applied to illustrated biographical studies of this type, but I cannot see why a great number of prints and portraits, admirably chosen and reproduced, should be assumed to diminish the value of a serious work, or why it should be taken for granted that people who put books on coffee tables look at nothing but the pictures. In any case, Balzac loved display, and nothing could be less literary than his hold over his original clientele; his appeal was to their sentiment and curiosity, their snobbery, greed, and sensationalism—all the things be wrote about himself.

On the face of it there could hardly be a greater contrast than between V.S. Pritchett’s straightforward and pragmatic relish in his subject and the approach of Roland Barthes in S/Z, a structuralist critique of Balzac’s story Sarrasine, which appeared a couple of years ago in the Paris critical series Tel quel. But the two are really not so dissimilar: both are trying to reanimate Balzac’s image for the modern reader, Pritchett by British empirical methods, Barthes by the latest style of Gallic formalistic analysis.

Why should Balzac need this treatment? Largely because of the defects of his own virtues. Where Dickens will reveal considerable depths, both of conscious sophistication and unconscious meaning, in the context of a normal critical discussion, Balzac’s great effects are always on the surface. His very energy and flamboyance make him the most obvious of writers; he has no buried riches for the critic to harvest and for the modern student to rediscover. That, again, is why other novelists have loved him: they can deepen and equivocate his graphic situations of power and the will. Henry James did it in The Aspern Papers, that most Balzacian of tales, metamorphosing his hero from the adventurer who fails—if fail he does—in the external power struggle, into the no less unscrupulous and determined would-be possessor who is undone by a growing inner awareness of what his conduct implies, an awareness which James converts into dramatic narrative.


Pritchett’s task, well accomplished, is to remind us that Balzac is an extraordinary man, worth reading for the sake of himself and his characters (Pritchett is very good on the device of the recurring figure in the Comédie Humaine). Barthes uses Balzac as a “texte ancien, très ancien,” for explication on a linguistic basis. He segments and categorizes the Balzacian cliché to show what stock response was expected, and, by liberating us from any collusion with the historical unselfconsciousness of the author, ends up with what he calls a “théorie libératrice du Signifiant.”

This process of transforming our consciousness of the past in order to surprise us into a consciousness of the present is very much in the French critical tradition and at its best Barthes’s manipulation justifies itself by giving us an image of Sarrasine both as a historical phenomenon, a story composed at a certain epoch by Balzac, and as a timeless artifact of language, whose internal logic and effect can be deduced by an equally enclosed and quasi-mathematical analysis.

The results are certainly illuminating, but they will afford most profit and pleasure to that numerous class of persons who have no instinctive enjoyment of literature and yet feel they ought to get something out of it. This is certainly a way of getting something, and I suppose that support should not be withheld from any techniques today which encourage the precise examination of verbal structure and a discriminating sense of words and meaning. Unfortunately Barthes’s style is portentous and his build-up of jargon formidable beyond necessity. In this context as in others, linguistic and critical discrimination calls for the use of Occam’s razor, not for the deployment of a new para-language.

This Issue

October 4, 1973