Arthur Waley said that he preferred to read Dickens in Chinese translation (Dickens’s first Chinese translator was indeed an exquisite writer). I wonder if Balzac does not also belong to the category of writers who actually benefit from being translated: I suspect that his visionary imagination would remain unaffected by the transposition into another language, whereas it would be relatively easy for tactful translators to soften the jarring notes and straighten the blunders that, in the original, frequently jolt the reader or threaten, at the most dramatic moments, to set off anticlimactic laughter.

Balzac’s prose is littered with ludicrous conceits, mixed metaphors, clichés, and various manifestations of naiveté and bad taste. Mere haste and negligence cannot fully account for so much awkwardness: although his first drafts were often dashed off at astounding speed and in enormous creative bursts, Balzac was also a painstaking, obsessive—and notorious—re-writer; his revisions, corrections, re-corrections, and corrections of re-corrections that swelled into the margins of his galley-proofs, smothering the printed text under their exuberant growth, famously drove typesetters to fury and to despair.

That such a great writer should have written so badly was a source of puzzlement for some of the best connoisseurs (who were also his warmest admirers), from Baudelaire to Flaubert. The paradox was aptly summed up by Flaubert himself: “What a man Balzac would have been had he known how to write! But that was the only thing he lacked. After all, an artist would never have accomplished so much, nor had such breadth.”

French literary taste always finds it difficult to deal with those aspects of genius that do not readily fit within a classical frame. An early illustration of this tendency was provided by Voltaire when he apologized for having foolishly introduced Shakespeare on the French stage: “I first showed the French a few pearls I had retrieved from his huge heap of dung… I did not realize at the time that I was actually trampling upon the laurels of Racine and Corneille in order to adorn the head of this barbaric play-actor.”1 Later on, native literary giants did not fare much better. Victor Hugo who was Balzac’s junior by only three years (but whose career lasted nearly twice as long) came to enjoy even greater popularity; yet, for all his triumphs, he never fully succeeded in disarming the reservations of the purists. In our own time, two comments which summarize with cruel wit the critical ambivalence that still persists toward Hugo would fit Balzac much better. On being asked who was the greatest French poet, André Gide replied: “Victor Hugo—alas!” And Jean Cocteau added: “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo” Both in greatness and in lunacy, Balzac certainly scaled heights that were at least as spectacular.

Balzac’s claim to the title of Greatest French Novelist of All Time can hardly be disputed: he simply bulldozed his way into that unique position, propelled by the sheer mass and energy of his production. The total cast of his Comédie humaine amounts to some 3,500 characters (including a few animals)—in all of Western literature, only Shakespeare and Dickens approached such a bewildering fecundity.

To engage in a complete reading of the Comédie humaine is akin to embarking on a raft and attempting the descent of a huge wild river: once you start, you cannot get off, you are powerless to stop, you are carried away into another world—more exciting, more intense, more real than the dull scene you left ashore. Everything is larger than life, loaded with energy. In Balzac’s novels, Baudelaire observed, even doorkeepers have genius, and Oscar Wilde added:

A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent, fiery colored existence. They dominate us and defy skepticism…. Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it.

If the ride is exhilarating, it can also be rough: at times you will surge and soar, but you will also be bumped about and struck by absurdities: “Children, said the old marquess, as he took all three of them by the hand.” You will have to swallow a ration of indigestible, insipid or silly images: “She was more than a woman, she was a masterpiece!” “Socrates, the pearl of mankind.” Sometimes, however, the tastelessness is relieved by grotesquerie: “The Countess’s breasts which were lightly veiled by a translucid gauze were devoured by the charmed eyes of the young man, who could, in the silence of the night, hear the murmur of these ivory globes.” (Actually, women’s breasts seem to have fed some of Balzac’s oddest inspirations: elsewhere, he describes the visual impact produced by a young beauty’s “lowcut dress”: “Mlle Cormon’s treasures were violently thrust out of their jewel-cases.”) In some passages the gap that usually separates literature from cheap sentimental fiction is boldly bridged, for instance in the description of a loose actress falling passionately in love with a handsome young poet:


Coralie took advantage of the darkness to bring to her lips Lucien’s hand, and she kissed it, and wetted it with her tears. Lucien was moved, down to the very marrow of his bones. The humility shown by a courtesan in love sometimes presents a moral splendor that could teach a lesson even to the angels.”

Yet even popular women’s magazines have their editorial standards, and one doubts if they would ever have been willing to publish the passage in which Lucien is in his loge and Coralie is on stage, behind the curtain which is still down, and “suddenly the amorous light flowing from her eyes, pierced the curtain and flooded into Lucien’s gaze.”

These quotations (which I have translated directly from the French)2 all come from Balzac’s mature masterpieces. If an aspiring writer were to show such samples of his prose to a competent critic, publisher, or editor, the only sensible advice that could be given him would be to renounce forever any literary ambition, never again to touch a pen; any activity would be preferable—instead of writing fiction, let him start a pineapple farm, or go into the grocery business, sell manure, import railway sleepers from the Ukraine, dredge the Tiber for lost Roman antiquities, or dig for gold in Brazil. In fact, these were some of the many enterprises that Balzac seriously contemplated; had he achieved a measure of success in any of them, he himself believed that he would have devoted his creative imagination entirely to business, and that he would have forsaken all literary endeavors. Or would he?

In his hugely entertaining new biography of Balzac (certainly the best of all those I have read) Graham Robb does not directly address the central paradox of Balzac’s prodigious achievement: How was it possible that the greatest monument of European fiction was built by a man singularly devoid of literary taste? Although Robb takes a purely biographical and nonliterary approach (the novels are not analyzed, but merely mentioned, as chronological stages in Balzac’s career), he eventually provides most of the clues that may help to solve this riddle.

Balzac’s mother was a cold and frivolous woman, who denied him her affection. This childhood wound never healed. He himself was later to say: “All my misfortune came from my mother: she destroyed me purposefully, for the fun of it.” Georges Simenon—the poor man’s Balzac of our time—recognized here his own predicament and commented:

From the example of Balzac, I wish to show that a novelist’s work is not an occupation like another—it implies renunciation, it is a vocation, if not a curse, or a disease…. It is sometimes said that a typical novelist is a man who was deprived of motherly love…. The fact is that the need to create other people, the compulsion to draw out of oneself a crowd of different characters could hardly arise in a man who is otherwise happy and harmoniously adjusted to his own little world. Why should he so obstinately attempt to live other people’s lives, if he himself were secure and without revolt?3

Balzac’s first mistress, who considerably contributed to the refinement of his sensibility, was a few years older than his mother, and subsequently all the women who mattered in his life were, to some extent, substitute mothers. In an early letter, he wrote: “I have only two passions: love and glory”—and the purpose of the latter was to secure the former. He confessed that the primary motivation of his writing was to win the love of women, and in this he succeeded remarkably well: after his death, more than ten thousand letters from female admirers were found among his papers. Countess Hanska was to become his last and greatest love—greatest, because it was essentially imaginary and literary, and was conducted for sixteen years mostly by correspondence. When they finally succeeded in getting back together and marrying, Balzac was a dying man.

She first entered Balzac’s life as an anonymous correspondent: her passion was originally aroused simply by reading his novels in the backwoods of the Ukraine. The seduction exerted by the great novelist’s prose was so powerful that it could work even by proxy: it was once rumored that “several men had obtained the favors of respectable women at the Opéra ball, by pretending to be Balzac.” This might have seemed fairly easy, since he was short and fat, with common and vulgar looks, like a Daumier shopkeeper or butcher. But it would also have been difficult: his enormous head, beautiful and blazing eyes, generous laughter and boisterous spirits set him apart from the crowd. Perhaps Rodin caught best his paradoxical appearance: a sort of gigantic dwarf, a coiled-up spring of pure energy. By a cruel contradiction, however, if he wrote novels to win women, he also had to forsake women in order to write novels: he firmly believed that every man had at birth a finite store of vital fluid and that the secret of creative life was to hoard one’s energy. Sperm was for him an emission of pure cerebral substance—once, after having spent the night with an enchanting creature, he turned up at the house of a friend, crying: “I just lost a book!”4


Another central experience of Balzac’s childhood was his exile to a Spartan boarding school at the tender age of eight. The brutalities of boarding school can routinely maim sensitive children for life; occasionally they may also breed a genius. Numbed by sorrow and fear, the child Balzac fell into a stupor; his teachers, unable to draw any intelligent response out of their lethargic pupil, bombarded him with punishments. Detention meant being locked for hours or even days on end in a tiny cell, and the little boy ended up spending up to four days a week in the solitary gloom of the school prison. To escape from this desolation, mere dreaming was not enough: he had to invent for himself another world, more real than this unbearable environment. Relying on his memory, he began to re-create in his mind scenes he had read about in books; he developed a visionary imagination that enabled him to conjure entire worlds with near-hallucinatory power.

Later in life, he explained: “Whenever I like, I draw a veil over my eyes. Suddenly I go back into myself, and there I find a dark room in which all the accidents of Nature reproduce themselves in a form far purer than the form in which they appeared to my outer senses.” He had learned to cultivate visions which fed not on fantasy but on truth, the truth of his own memory and observation, which he could summon up and modify at will.5 Balzac would constantly resort to these “willful hallucinations,” not only to find material for his books, but also as a refuge against unhappiness, or as an emergency escape whenever he found himself cornered by reality.

Of course, when the frontier between the mind’s vision and reality becomes blurred, one may reach the edge of madness, but Balzac believed that this danger could be overcome if the vision was transformed into knowledge, through the mediation of writing. His faith in the power of the written word to become objective truth was repeatedly confirmed by eerie experiences; his fiction contained startling premonitions. At times, events unfolded in his life as if they had already been mapped out in his writing; the printed word was producing reality instead of reflecting it. In his case, as Robb puts it, “the experience came after the writing.” There was a complete inversion of roles between invention and reality, which culminated on his deathbed, when he deliriously called for Dr. Bianchon, the fictional doctor of the Comédie humaine, who alone, he believed, would be able to save him. (The anecdote may be mythical, but myths can hint at a deeper truth.)

The story of Balzac’s literary beginnings is amazing: his must be the only example of a man who successfully willed himself into genius, without any apparent talent at the start. At the age of sixteen, Robb tells us, he firmly set his mind on becoming Great and Famous; at twenty, he decided that literature should be the field where he would reap glory, love, and wealth. The next ten years were dismal: he virtually chained himself to his desk, producing a long series of ridiculous tragedies and unreadable novels (for some of which he wrote no fewer than sixteen different beginnings). As Baudelaire described it:

Nobody could ever possibly imagine how clumsy, silly and STUPID that great man was in his youth. And yet he managed to acquire, to get for himself so to speak, not only grandiose ideas but also a vast amount of wit. But then he NEVER stopped working.

Finally, when he was thirty-one, he had a breakthrough with his first accomplished work, La Peau de chagrin, which was also an immediate commercial success. For the next twenty years—until he died, in fact—his great creations were to follow at a breathtaking pace (though even in his purest masterpieces, he never entirely succeeded in pruning his style of its original clumsiness). Literary success, however, proved to be a curse: in order to create, he virtually renounced living—it was as if to inject life into the Comédie humaine, he had to die. Quite literally, his writing killed him.

At first, writing was for him a sort of asceticism. A passage in La Muse du département could be read as a manifesto for his method:

There is no great talent without great willpower. These twin forces are needed to build the huge monument of an individual glory. Superior men keep their brains in a productive state, just like the knights of old kept their weapons in perfect condition. They conquer laziness, they deny themselves all debilitating pleasures…. Willpower can and should be a just cause for pride, much more than talent. Whereas talent develops from the cultivation of a gift, willpower is a victory constantly won again over instincts, over inclinations that must be disciplined and repressed, over whims and all kinds of obstacles, over difficulties heroically surmounted.6

Soon, however, the discipline turned into an all-consuming obsession. Although he wore a monk’s robe when writing, his frantic work had little in common with the quiet and regular pace of cloister life: it became an addiction, an orgy in reverse. At times he only slept two hours a night. He ate no solid food, fearing that digestion might slow down his mind, and sustained himself only with gallons of strong coffee. On finishing a novel, he would collapse, sleep continuously for some twenty hours, and then gorge himself like a camel arriving at an oasis. He had originally a powerful constitution but with such a regimen he already began to have alarming symptoms of physical decay in his late thirties; since he never eased the pace of his demented activity, his health continued to deteriorate. He turned into a premature invalid, and died at fifty-one.

It was not simply in order to meet publishers’ deadlines that Balzac worked in such a suicidal fashion. His life was a long and desperate race to keep one step ahead of a pack of creditors. From an early age, he had gone heavily into debt; later on, the more money he earned (his novels achieved considerable commercial success, some even sold out the very day they appeared), the worse his financial situation became. His megalomaniacal appetites, wastefulness, and recklessness cannot alone explain his state of chronic bankruptcy. (His basic theory was that spending money was the best way of paying off debts: when the tailor presents his bill, instead of paying, one should immediately order another dozen waist-coats.) Balzac was widely thought to be afflicted with acute financial ineptitude, but Robb shows that the reality was much more complex: “The schemes he came up with can be divided into two categories: practical ideas which he never seriously thought of putting into practice, and impractical ones, which he did.” In pursuing the impractical schemes he ensured his own ruin, but he allotted the practical ones to some of his characters, thus making plausible their fabulous fortunes. Robb writes:

Certainly a contemporary reader using La Comédie humaine as an investment guide would probably have made a handsome profit… Balzac steered his banker, Baron Nucingen, and the money-lender Magus to undreamt-of wealth by having them invest, for example, in the Orléans Railway, while he lost his own money on the Northern Railway.

There is no escaping the radical difference between the capacity for conception and that for execution: imagination and action are often at opposite poles. That is why novelists usually do not become millionaires, whereas millionaires do not even read novels. Serious people involved in weighty affairs have no time for the puerile games of artistic creation. A man who is entirely “adult” and totally healthy (the latter state, as Sterne warned us, is a most abnormal condition, one that should warrant constant caution) would certainly never contemplate playing the flute all day long, or telling idle tales, or acting and singing on a stage, or playing with clay, paints, and brushes. “Genius,” Baudelaire said, “is childhood recalled at will.”

The paradox by which Balzac could be financially wise in his fiction while losing all his money in life was duplicated in various other matters. For instance, the very women who had been drawn to him by the penetrating intuition of the female heart which he showed in his novels were appalled to discover how insensitive, naive, and awkward the real man could be. (The same contradiction has characterized many creative people: for example, Mozart in his operas composed what is perhaps the only music endowed with acute psychological perception—and yet he was notoriously inept at handling, or even at understanding, the most basic human relations in his life.)

Balzac presents one of the purest examples of the creative genius: “pure” in the sense that he was largely free of extraneous virtues. What enables great artists and writers to create is not intelligence (theirs can sometimes be average, or even mediocre: Balzac, for instance, often had ideas of startling absurdity; not only was he lacking in elementary common sense, but at times he verged on insanity). It is not sensitivity (many people can “feel” with utter intensity without being necessarily able to express themselves). It is not a matter of education and taste (in the decor of his lodgings, Balzac displayed the aesthetic sense of a prosperous Caribbean pimp). The real source of all creation (as Baudelaire again pointed out) is imagination. Balzac’s fiction originally sprang from an intuition he first discovered as a wretched little schoolboy locked in a dark closet of his boarding school—an intuition to which he remained faithful until death, and which enabled him immeasurably to enlarge the world of countless readers: life is a prison, and only imagination can open its windows.

This Issue

January 12, 1995