Honore de Balzac, by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet

Chapter 3. His Apprenticeship.

The precious hours of liberty, in the mansarde garret, had taken flight. After fifteen months of independence, study and work, Honore returned to the family circle, summoned home by his mother. She desired, no doubt, to care for him and restore his former robust health which had been undermined by a starvation diet, but she also wished to keep him under strict surveillance, since privation had failed to bend his will and the disaster of his tragedy had not turned him aside from his purpose. Honore, unconquered by defeat, had asked that they should assure him an annual allowance of fifteen hundred francs, in order that he might redeem his failure at an early date. This request was refused, and nothing was guaranteed him beyond food and lodging, absolutely nothing, unless he submitted to their wishes.

What years of struggle those were! Honore de Balzac refused to despair of his destiny, and he valiantly entered upon the hardest of all his battles, without support and without encouragement, in the midst of hostile surroundings. He used to go from Villeparisis to Paris, seeking literary gatherings, knocking at the doors of publishers, exhausting himself in the search for some opening. And how could he work under the paternal roof? Nowhere in the house could he find the necessary quiet, and he was practically looked upon as an incapable, an outcast who would be a disgrace to his family. He himself felt the precariousness of his present situation, and in consequence became taciturn, since he could not communicate to the others his own unwavering faith in the future, and he was forced to admit that, at the age of twenty-two, he had not yet given them any earnest of future success.

In order to demonstrate that it is not impossible to live by literature, and more especially for the sake of establishing his material independence, he was ready to accept any sort of a task whatever. And all the more so, since his mother had not given up hope of making him accept one of those fine careers in which an industrious young fellow may win esteem and fortune. The “spectre of the daily grind” stared him in the face, and although he had escaped a notary’s career, through the death of the man to whose practice he was to have succeeded, they gave him to understand that the sombre portals of a government position might open to him.

“Count me among the dead,” he wrote to his sister Laure, who, since her marriage, had resided at Bayeux, “if they clap that extinguisher over me. I should turn into a trick horse, who does his thirty or forty rounds per hour, and eats, drinks and sleeps at the appointed moment. And they call that living! — that mechanical rotation, that perpetual recurrence of the same thing!”

In spite of a few short trips, and occasional brief sojourns in Paris, in the one foothold which his father had retained there, he was constrained by necessity to remain beneath the family roof-tree. They gave him his food and his clothing, but no money. He suffered from this, and groaned and grumbled as if he were in a state of slavery. Nevertheless, his unquenchable good humour and his determination to make his name famous and to acquire a fortune saved him from the impotence of melancholy. He drew spirited sketches of the family and sent them to Laure, to prove to her that he was resigned.

He admired his father’s impassiveness in the midst of all the confusion of the household, like an Egyptian pyramid, indifferent to the hurricane. The fine old man who expected to live upwards of a hundred years and share with the State, as last survivor, the profits of a Lafarge tontine policy in which he held a share, a sum amounting to millions, studied the writings of the Chinese because they were famous for their longevity. He had lost nothing of his serenity nor of his caustic wit, and Honore confessed that he himself had very nearly choked, laughing at some of his jests. Nevertheless he was not a father in whom one could confide, and the son, isolated and forced to conceal his feelings, found relief only in his brief periods of work in Paris, and in observing the habits and manners of the family circle. He witnessed the preparations for the marriage of his sister, Laurence, to M. de Montzaigle, visiting inspector of the city imposts of Paris, and he drew this picturesque portrait of his future brother-in-law: “He is somewhat taller than Surville; his features are quite ordinary, neither homely nor handsome; his mouth is widowed of the upper teeth, and there is no reason for assuming that it will contract a second marriage, since mother nature forbids it; this widowhood ages him considerably, but on the whole he is not so bad — as husbands go. He writes poetry, he is a marvellous shot; if he fires twenty times, he brings down not less than twenty-six victims! He has been in only two tournaments, and has taken the prize both times; he is equally strong in billiards; he rhymes, he hunts, he shoots, he drives, he . . ., he . . ., he . . . And you feel that all these accomplishments, carried to the highest degree in one and the same man, have given him great presumption; that is the trouble with him up to a certain point, and that certain point, I am very much afraid, is the highest degree in the thermometer of self-conceit.”

Honore admitted, however, that his sister Laurence would be happy in her marriage and that M. de Montzaigle was a thorough gentleman; but it was not after this fashion that he himself understood marriage and love: “Presents, gifts, futile objects, and two, three or four months of courtship do not constitute happiness,” he wrote; “that is a flower which grows apart and is very difficult to find.”

Meanwhile Honore de Balzac, tired of the discomfort of trying to work at Villeparisis, between his ever-distrustful mother and his indulgent but sceptical father, hired a room in Paris, no one knows by what means. There he shut himself in, and there he composed the novels of his youthful period, having for the time being put aside his dreams of glory. To earn money and to be free, that was his immediate necessity. Later on, when he had an assured living, he would be able to undertake those great works, the vague germs of which he even then carried within him.

His repeated efforts at last bore fruit; he found collaborators, namely Poitevin de Saint-Alme, who signed himself “Villargle,” Amedee de Bast, and Horace Raisson, and then a publisher, Hubert, who undertook to bring out his first novel. It was issued in 1822, in four volumes, under the somewhat cumbrous title of The Heiress of Birague, a Story based upon the Manuscripts of Don Rage, Ex-Prior of the Benedictines, and published by his two Nephews, A. de Villargle and Lord R’Hoone. This work brought him in eight hundred francs in the form of long-period promissory notes, which he was obliged to discount at a usurious rate, besides sharing the profits with his collaborator. Nevertheless the fact that he had earned money renewed his faith in his approaching deliverance, and he uttered a prolonged and joyous shout. He informed Laure of his success, and suggested that she should recommend his novel as a masterpiece to the ladies of Bayeux, promising that he would send her a sample copy on condition that she should not lend it to any one for fear that it might injure his publisher by decreasing the sales. Straightway he began to build an edifice of figures, calculating what his literary labours would bring him in year by year, and feeling that he already had a fortune in his grasp. This was the starting point of those fantastic computations which he successively drew up for every book he wrote, computations that always played him false, but that he continued to make unweariedly to the day of his death.

From this time on, Honore de Balzac devoted himself for a time, with a sort of feverish zeal, to the trade of novel-maker for the circulating libraries. He realised all the baseness of it, but, he argued, would he not be indebted to it for the preservation of his talent? The Heiress of Birague was followed by Jean-Louis, or the Foundling Girl, published by Hubert in four volumes, for which he received thirteen hundred francs. His price was going up, and his productive energy increased in proportion. Still working for Hubert, he followed Jean-Louis with Clotilde de Lusignan, or the Handsome Jew, “a manuscript found in the archives of Provence, and published by Lord R’Hoone,” in four volumes. It brought him in two thousand, a princely sum!

Henceforward, nothing could stop him on his road to success, and he had no doubt that he would soon earn the twenty thousand francs which were destined to form the basis of his fortune. He changed publishers and, in 1822, he brought out through Pollet, within the space of a few months, The Centenarian or the Two Beringhelds, by Horace de Saint-Aubin, in eight volumes, and The Vicar of the Ardennes, which appeared over the same pseudonym, and for which he had requested the collaboration of his sister and his brother-in-law, Surville.

This was a year of unbridled production. Honore lived in a state of exaltation; one of his letters to Laure was signed, “writer for the public and French poet at two francs a page.” He had almost realised his dream of liberty. But when this fever of writing chapter after chapter, novel after novel, had cooled off, he realised what wretched stuff they were, and he regretted the precious hours of his youth that they were costing him, because of his impatience to prove his talent by results. He admitted this to his sister, frankly and with dignity, in the full confidence of his inborn gift.

“At all events, I am beginning to feel and estimate my strength. To know what I am worth, and yet sacrifice the first flower of my ideas on such stupidities! It is heart-breaking! Oh, if I only had the cash, I would find my niche fast enough and I would write books that might last a while!

“My ideas are changing so fast that before long my whole method will change! In a short time the difference between the me of today and the me of tomorrow will be the difference between a youth of twenty and a man of thirty. I think and think, and my ideas are ripening; I realise that nature has treated me kindly in giving me the heart and brain that I have. Believe in me, dear sister, for I have need of some one who believes, though I have not given up the hope of being somebody one of these days. I realise now that Cromwell did not even have the merit of being an embryo; and as to my novels, they are not worth a damn; and, what is more, they are no incentive to do better.”

This letter was dated from Villeparisis, on a certain Tuesday evening, in the year 1822; Honore de Balzac was twenty-three years old; he read his destiny clearly, but he was fated to achieve it only after surmounting the hardest obstacles, by “the sweat of toil,” to borrow his own vigorous phrase. While waiting for that desired epoch, when he would be able to be himself and nothing else, he was forced to continue to turn the millstone that ground out the worthless grain. In 1823, his productive power seems to have fallen off, either because he had exhausted the patience of his publishers, or for some other reason. During that year he published nothing excepting The Last Fairy or the New Wonderful Lamp, brought out by Barba.

After the hopes begotten in 1822 and his amazing effort of rapid production, Balzac once more encountered his old difficulty of placing his stories, and for nearly three years he waged a fruitless fight. In order to disarm his mother and give proof of his good will, he gave lessons to his brother Henri and to young de Berny, the son of a neighbouring family in Villeparisis; he exhausted himself in efforts that for the most part were in vain. Nothing, however, broke down his courage. He succeeded in 1824 in publishing through Buissot Annette and the Criminal, in four volumes, which was a continuation of The Vicar of the Ardennes, and was confiscated by the police, and then through Delongchamps an Impartial History of the Jesuits. Finally Urbain Canel bought his Wann-Chlore in 1825, and that was the last of the novels of his youth.

It is interesting to ask, how much headway Honore de Balzac had made since the days of his vast enthusiasm over Cromwell, in his garret in the Rue Lesdiguieres. Had he drawn any nearer to fame, that “pretty woman whom he did not know,” and whose kisses he so eagerly desired during his long nights of labour and of dreams? He has descended into the literary arena with valiant heart, as a soldier willing to serve in the ranks, yet cherishing the legitimate hope of earning promotion. He had not shrunk from the humblest tasks, and yet, after three years of struggle, he found himself back at the starting point. His novels had brought him neither fame nor fortune, and he had not even acquired the leisure that was necessary to him before he could achieve those works which seethed and teemed within his brain, filling it with the nebulous and confused elements of an unborn world. What was he to do?

Honore de Balzac refused to admit defeat, and, with a promptness of decision which belongs rather to men of action than to the contemplative type, he turned his attention to business and commercial enterprises. He had none of the prejudices of men of letters, who refuse to recognise that there are any employments worthy of their faculties outside of literature. Little he cared as to the means, provided he could lay the foundation of his fortunes, and assure his independence. Novels had not brought him material emancipation. Very well then! he would abandon them without regret. Nevertheless, he would preserve the memory of them, and recognise that they had been useful as a literary exercise. In fact, he said to Champfleury, in 1848, “I wrote seven novels, simply as a training. One to break myself in to dialogue; one to learn how to write description; one to learn how to group my characters; one as a study in composition, etc.” Although Balzac never publicly acknowledged these works of his youth, they had their share in his intellectual development; and, because of this claim, they should not be wholly set aside from the rest of his gigantic work. In any case, they are by no means destitute of merit.

Relinquishing his career as man of letters, from which he could not make a living, Honore de Balzac flung himself into business with the same activity that he had applied to the production of novels. As early as 1822, he had entertained various business schemes, and he would have accepted the appointment of deputy supervisor of the construction work on the Saint-Martin canal, under his brother-in-law, Surville, if he had been able to give the required security. But he had at his command only five hundred francs, which was an inadequate sum. The attraction of business, which was one of the characteristics of his temperament, enticed him into the most chimerical adventures, although the first business connection which he formed, and which was in the nature of publishing and bookselling, resulted in giving him the financial start which he so ardently desired.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31