Honore de Balzac, by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet

Chapter 5. The First Success.

Misfortune, far from discouraging Balzac, strengthened all his powers of resistance and exalted his will and his energy. He had a healthy and strongly optimistic nature, upon which chagrins, reverses and sorrows acted like so many stimulants; he was never so resolute as after a defeat. M. Sedillot had barely begun the liquidation of his business affairs, the printing house and foundry, when he gave himself up passionately and exclusively to his literary work, apparently having forgotten all his troubles, save the necessity of paying his debts. He had a habit of prompt decisions and quick action. Eager to break at once all the remaining fetters that bound him to his assignee, he wrote to the General Baron de Pommereul, at Fougeres:

“For the past month I have been busy over some historical researches of great interest, and I hope that in the absence of talent, which in my case is altogether problematic, our national manners and customs may perhaps bring me good luck. I have realised that, no matter how industrious I am, my efforts will not bring me in anything like a living wage before the first of next January; and meanwhile the purest chance has brought to my attention a historic incident of 1798 relating to the war of the Chouans and the Vendeans, which gives me a subject that is very easy to handle. It requires no research, except in regard to the localities.

“My first thought was of you, and I decided to ask you to grant me an asylum for a matter of twenty days. My muse, her trumpet, a quire of paper and myself will surely not be greatly in your way.” (Balzac in Brittany, published letter by R. du Pontavice de Heussy.)

The general’s father had been a friend of Francois Balzac, who had rendered him some financial service; accordingly the son hastened to reply to Honore that his house was open to him. No sooner was the letter received than the latter set forth, such was his haste to leave Paris, collect the material for his story, and find the necessary tranquillity for writing it. He left Paris without change of linen and with his toilet all in disorder, intoxicated with his sense of liberty, “to such an extent,” writes M. de Pontavice, “that he presented himself to his provincial friends wearing such a piteous hat that they found it necessary to conduct him forthwith to the only hatter in Fougeres. That honourable tradesman went to infinite pains before he succeeded in discovering any headwear large enough to shelter the bony casket which contained the Human Comedy.”

Honore de Balzac was exuberant with joy. He took his hosts by storm through his wit and good humour. He questioned M. de Pommereul as to the main facts about the Chouans; he jotted down in his notebook, which he afterwards came to call his larder, a host of original anecdotes preserved by oral tradition; and he roamed the whole countryside, fixing in his mind the landscapes and the gestures, attitudes and physiognomies of the peasants, and saturating himself with the atmosphere of the region in which he was to place the chief scenes of his drama.

Those were happy hours during which Honore de Balzac withdrew to his first-floor room, seated himself before a little table placed close to the window, and wrote with feverish elation of the heroic acts of the Blues and the Chouans, of Commander Hulot, Marche-a-Terre and the Abbe Gudin, and wove tangled threads of the adventures of Fouche’s spy Mlle. de Verneuil, who set forth to save the young stripling and allowed herself to be caught in the divine snare of love.

On some evenings he remained in the drawing-room in company with his hosts, and entered into controversies with Mme. de Pommereul, who, being very pious herself, tried to persuade him to make a practice of religion; while Balzac, in return, when the discussion was exhausted, endeavoured to teach her the rules of backgammon. But the one remained unconverted and the other never mastered the course of the noble game. Occasionally he helped to pass the time by inventing stories, which he told with all the vividness of which he was master.

The days slipped away, as fruitful as they were happy; but Balzac’s family became troubled over his prolonged absence. They feared that he was wasting his time amid the pleasures of the country, after all the sacrifices they had made for him, and when he ought to be hard at work, clearing off his debts. They summoned him home, and he left Fougeres at the end of October, regretting the interruption to his task. But he had no sooner arrived in Paris than he set to work again, and he did not fail to keep his provincial friends informed of the progress of his novel. The first thing he did was to change its title from The Stripling, to which Mme. de Pommereul had objected, to The Chouans or Brittany Thirty Years Ago, and finally settled definitely on The Last Chouan or Brittany in 1800. This work, the first that he signed with his own name, was finished in the beginning of 1829, and was published by Urbain Canel. On the eleventh of March he announced to the Baron de Pommereul that he was sending him a set.

“Between four and six days from now,” he wrote, “you will receive the four 12mo volumes of The Last Chouan or Brittany in 1800.

“Did I call it my work? . . . It is partly yours also, for as a matter of fact it is built up from the precious anecdotes which you so ably and so generously related to me between glasses of that pleasant and mild vin de Grave and those crisp buttered biscuits.”

The Last Chouan proved a success. It was criticised and its merit was admitted. L’Universel shows the tone of most of the articles devoted to it: “After all, the work is not without interest; if reduced to half its length, it would be amusing from one end to the other. In general, the style is pretentious in almost all of the descriptive parts, but the dialogue is not lacking in naturalness and frankness.”

In 1829, after the publication of The Last Chouan, Honore de Balzac plunged boldly, under his own name, into the turmoil of literature. He pushed ahead audaciously, elbowing his way, and he made himself enemies. He went his own road, indifferent to sarcasms, mockeries, and spiteful comments called forth by his tranquil assurance and certainty of his own strength, which he did not try to hide. At a period when it was the fashion to sigh and be pale and melancholy, in a stage-setting of lakes, clouds and cathedrals, and when one was expected to be abnormal and mediaeval, Balzac displayed a robust joviality, he was proud of his stalwart build and ruddy complexion, and, far from looking to the past for literary material, his observing and clairvoyant eyes eagerly seized the men of his own time and transformed them into heroes.

All day long he went the rounds of publishers and editors, of papers and reviews, and sought connections with other writers of repute. Returning in the evening to his study, he would write throughout the entire night, until long after the dawn had come, with feverish regularity and energy and without fatigue, ready to begin again the next day. When he gave up his printing house he went to live at No. 1, Rue Cassini, in a quarter which at that time was almost deserted, between the Observatory and the Maternity Hospital. He brought his furniture with him and fitted up his rooms in accordance with his own tastes and resources. This had called forth some bitter comments from his parents: What right had he to comfort and to something approaching luxury before he had cleared off his debts? “I am reproached for the furnishings of my rooms,” he wrote to his sister Laure, “but all the furniture belonged to me before the catastrophe came! I have not bought a single new piece! The wall covering of blue percale which has caused such an outcry was in my chamber at the printing house. Letouche and I tacked it with our own hands over a frightful wall-paper, which would otherwise have had to be changed. My books are my tools and I cannot sell them. My sense of good taste, which enables me to make all my surroundings harmonious, is something which cannot be bought (unfortunately for the rich); yet, after all, I care so little for any of these things that, if one of my creditors wants to have me secretly imprisoned at Sainte-Pelagie, I shall be far happier there; for my living will cost me nothing and I shall be no closer prisoner than my work now keeps me in my own home.”

In spite of this apparent and wholly circumstantial disinterestedness, Balzac loved artistic surroundings, rugs, tapestries and silver ware. He detested mediocrity, and could enjoy nothing short either of glorious poverty, nobly endured in a garret, or wealth and the splendour of a palace. Balzac shared his apartment with Auguste Borget, a painter and traveller, who was one of his most faithful friends. From a window in their parlour they could look across some gardens and see the dome of the Invalides. Ever since his childhood Balzac had made a sort of worship of Napoleon. He was his model and his great ambition was to equal Napoleon’s exploits in the realm of the intellect. Mme. Ancelot relates in the Salons of Paris that Balzac had erected a sort of altar, surmounted by Napoleon’s bust, on which he had inscribed: “What he began with the sword I shall achieve with the pen.” This anecdote is confirmed by Philarete Chasle, who saw the statue in the Rue Cassini apartment, a plaster statue representing the emperor clad in his redingote and holding his celebrated lorgnette in his hand.

Napoleon’s influence upon Balzac was profound, or rather there was a sort of parallelism between their two ambitions, each of a different order, but equally formidable. Balzac was essentially a conqueror and legislator. But he wished to establish his empire in the intellectual domain, for he believed that the time for territorial conquest was past; yet he wished to prescribe laws for the people and govern them himself. He was a born ruler, whether he turned to literature or politics, and he appointed himself “Marshal of Letters,” just as he might have aspired to be prime minister to the king.

After the publication of The Last Chouan, Balzac’s literary activity became prodigious. Shutting himself into his workroom and seated before a little table covered with green cloth, under the light of a four-branched candlestick, dressed in his monkish frock, a white robe in which he felt at ease, with the cord tied slackly around his waist and his shirt unbuttoned at the collar, he turned out, in a dizzy orgy of production, The Physiology of Marriage, the short stories constituting the Scenes of Private Life, At the Sign of the Cat-and-Racket, The Ball at Sceaux, The Vendetta, A Double Family, Peace in the Household, Gobseck and Sarrasine, besides studies, criticisms and essays for newspapers and magazines.

The Physiology of Marriage appeared at the end of December, 1829, and caused quite a little scandal. The public did not understand Balzac’s ideas, they recoiled from the boldness of his themes, which sounded like sheer cynicism, and remembered only the crudity of certain anecdotes, without trying to penetrate their philosophy. He was attacked in the public press, and even his friends did not spare him their reproaches. Balzac defended himself against the criticisms of Mme. Zulma Carraud, whom he had met at Versailles at the home of his sister Laure, and whose esteem and affection he was anxious to keep. Mme. Carraud was a broad-minded and discerning woman, of delicate sensibility and an upright nature. Her husband was Commander Carraud, director of studies at the Military School of Saint-Cyr, and later inspector of the powder works at Angouleme. Balzac loved her as a confidential friend — who, at the same time, did not spare him the truth — and he made frequent visits to the towns where she lived, especially to Issoudun, at her chateau of Frapesle, after the Commander had gone into retirement.

The Physiology might seem to have been an abnormal work for a man of Balzac’s years if it was not known that he had two collaborators, Mme. de Berny, who brought him her experience as a woman of the world, and his father, who gave him the greater part of his maxims.

Francois de Balzac believed that he was ordained to live for more than a hundred years, and perhaps he would have attained that age if he had not succumbed to the after-effects of an operation on the liver, June 19, 1829. Honore felt this loss keenly, for, although his father often showed himself sceptical as to the value of his son’s literary efforts, too little attention has been paid to the share that he had in the origin of that son’s ideas.

The Physiology had only just appeared when Balzac published the Scenes of Private Life, on March 10, 1836; and without slackening speed, he contributed to a number of different journals. Emile de Girardin had welcomed him to the columns of La Mode, which he had founded in 1829, under the patronage of the Duchesse de Berry, and he contributed sketches to it regularly: El Verdugo, The Usurer, a Study of a Woman (signed “By the author of the Physiology of Marriage”), Farewell, The Latest Fashion in Words, A New Theory of Breakfasting, The Crossing of the Beresina, and Chateau Life, an essay against the publication of which Balzac protested because his sensitive literary conscience was unwilling that it should be printed until developed into something more than a crude sketch — and lastly came the Treatise on Fashionable Life, a manual which, under the form of pleasantry, was saturated with philosophy and lofty social doctrines.


Portrait of Balzac, age 32.

At the same period, from 1829 to 1830, he collaborated with Victor Ratier on the Silhouette, under his own name and various pseudonyms. For this periodical he wrote phantasies of a festive tone and somewhat broad humour: Some Artists (signed, “An Old Artist”), The Studio, The Grocer, The Charlatan, Aquatic Customs, Physiology of the Toilet, the Cravat considered by itself and in its relations to Society and the Individual, Physiology of the Toilet and Padded Coats, Gastronomic Physiology, etc. In Le Voleur, edited by Maurice Alhoy, he published La Grisette Parvenue, A Working Girl’s Sunday, and Letters on Paris, a series of articles, incisive and farsighted, dealing with French politics. Finally, still in 1830, he was almost one of the accredited editors of La Caricature, for which he wrote fantasies against the government, sketches of Parisian manners, and pictures of the life of the capital, some of which were destined later to find their way into The Magic Skin; namely, Le Cornac de Carlsuhe, Concerning Indifference in Politics, A Minister’s Council, The Veneerer, A Passion in College, Physiology of the Passions, etc.

But, not satisfied with this fecundity — which would have exhausted many another man of letters — Honore de Balzac, in 1830, founded a critical organ, in company with Emile de Girardin, H. Auger, and Victor Varaigne, under the title of Feuilleton des Journaux Politiques.

And there were thousands of pages which Balzac carelessly let fall from his fertile pen, and which he valued so slightly that he never afterwards gathered them together for his collected works. On the other hand, they did not seem to interfere with the composition of his more important writings, and at the very time that he seemed to be scattering his efforts in twenty different papers he was writing The Woman of Thirty, under the guidance of Mme. de Berny, and working on his extraordinary Magic Skin, a dramatic study with a colouring of social philosophy, which he was greatly distressed to hear defined as a novel. He was possessed with a sort of fever of creation, he had already visualised nearly all the characters in his Human Comedy, and, in spite of his driving labours and his marvellous facility at writing, he could not keep pace with his own imagination. Meanwhile, in order to keep himself awake and excite his productive forces, he indulged, at this period, in a veritable orgy of coffee, cup after cup, an orgy which was destined, after twenty years’ continuance to have a disastrous effect upon his health.

Balzac took the most minute precautions in making this coffee; he not only selected several kinds from different localities, in order to obtain a special aroma, but he had his own special method of brewing it, which developed all the virtues of the blend. In his Treatise on Modern Stimulants he has told us how he prepared the coffee and what its effects were upon his temperament. “At last I have discovered a horrible and cruel method,” he writes, “which I recommend only to men of excessive vigour, with coarse black hair, a skin of mingled ochre and vermilion, squarish hands and legs like the balustrades in the Palace Louis XV. It consists in the employment of a decoction of ground coffee taken cold and anhydride (a chemical term which signifies ‘little or no water’) and on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, which, as you have learned from Brillat-Savarin, is a sack with a velvety interior, lined with little pores and papillae; it finds nothing else, so it attacks this delicate and voluptuous lining; it becomes a sort of food which demands its digestive juices; so it wrings them forth, it demands them as a pythoness calls upon her god, it maltreats those delicate walls as a truckman maltreats a pair of young horses; the plexus nerves inflame, they burn and send their flashes to the brain. Thereupon everything leaps into action; thoughts and ideas rush pell-mell over one another, like battalions of the grand army on the field of battle, and the battle takes place. Recollections arrive in a headlong charge, with banners flying; the light cavalry of comparisons advances in a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic hurries up with its gun-carriages and ammunition; flashes of wit arrive like so many sharp-shooters; the action develops; the paper slowly covers over with ink, for the night’s work has begun, and it will end in torrents of black water, like the battle in torrents of black powder.”

In spite of the alarming benefits which Balzac attributes to this regime, one is amazed at the abundance of his productions, for, even though he sacrificed a large part of his days and nights, he none the less frequented certain famous salons, was often absent on vacations at M. de Margonne’s home at Sache; at La Grenadiere, where he rented a house; and at Nemours. Besides, he had to spare some time to his friends, his publishers, and to the adjustment of his already complicated finances.

With his remarkably keen sense of realities, he knew that it did not suffice merely to produce a work in order to have it become known and sell; and, while it was repugnant to him to solicit an article from a fellow craftsman, he excelled in the art of exciting curiosity, and acquiring partisans and women admirers who, upon the publication of each new volume, would loudly proclaim it as a masterpiece. He was on intimate terms with the Duchesse d’Abrantes and Mme. Sophie Gay; he was received by the Baron Gerard and by Mme. Ancelot; he announced to his publisher, Charles Gosselin, that Mme. Recamier had asked him to give a reading from his Magic Skin, “so that we are going to have a whole lot of people to boom us in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.” And he did not content himself with all these benevolent “boomers,” for, according to Philibert Audebrand, he himself wrote a very flattering article on his own work in La Caricature, over one of his three pseudonyms.

The book-collector Jacob sketched a verbal portrait of Balzac in 1831, a little heavy and over-emphasised, yet fairly like him: “He was about thirty-two years old, and seemed younger than his age. He had not yet taken on too much flesh, yet he was far from being slender, as he still was five or six years earlier. He did not yet wear his hair long, nor had he a moustache. His open countenance revealed a character ordinarily kindly and jovial; his high colour, red lips and brilliant eyes were often likely to give the impression that he had just come from the dinner table, where he had not wasted his time.” In order to give a greater degree of truth and life to this sketch, it should be added that Balzac had extremely mobile features, that he was very sensitive, and that, if anything was said that gave him offence, his expression became indifferent, non-committal or haughty. He suffered when he was congratulated on his short stories and tales, for with justifiable pride he wished to be appreciated as a poet, a philosopher and a thinker. It has not been sufficiently recognised how well he understood the essence of his own genius; for, aside from the short recitals in the Scenes of Private Life, his early works are philosophic works, The Magic Skin, Louis Lambert, and The Country Doctor, ranging all the way from the most lofty speculations regarding human intelligence to the details of the social, material and moral organisation of a village.

But, on the other hand, although Balzac had already acquired a massive aspect, he did not have that vulgar outline which Jacob, the book-fancier, suggests. And when he was speaking enthusiastically in a drawing-room his face irradiated, one might almost say, a sort of spirituality, his eyes glowed with a splendid fire, and his lips parted in a laugh of such potent joyousness that he communicated the contagion of it to his hearers. He spoke in a pleasant, well-modulated voice, with fluctuations in tone that accorded nicely with the circumstances of the recital; and his gestures and power of mimicry seemed to conjure up the characters whose adventures he narrated. He was so successful that he gave up telling stories in public, for fear of acquiring the reputation of an entertainer, which might have robbed him of the high consideration which he exacted both for himself and for his writings.


Portrait of Balzac, aged 34, from a sepia drawing by Louis Boulanger.

In the full heat of his literary work Balzac did not forget his political ambitions; and, since the Revolution of July, 1830, had made him eligible, he was anxious to present himself in 1832 at one of the electoral colleges, as a candidate for the supplementary elections. In April he wrote a pamphlet, Inquest into the politics of two Ministries, which he signed “M. de Balzac, eligible elector,” and in which he set forth his criticisms of the government and his own principles. As soon as it was printed he sent off forty copies to General de Pommereul, for the purpose of distribution among his friends in Fougeres; and he wrote him:

“I shall write successively four or five more, in order to prove to the electors who nominate me that I can do them honour, and that I shall try to be useful to the country.

“As for parliamentary incorruptibility, my ambition is to see my principles triumphantly carried out by an administration, and great ambitions are never for sale.” Whether Baron de Pommereul forewarned him of failure at the hands of his fellow citizens, or whether Balzac wished to have two strings to his bow instead of one, no one knows, but at all events in June he asked Henry Berthoud, director of the Gazette de Cambrai, to back him as candidate in his district. In return, Balzac promised to try to get some articles by Berthoud accepted by Rabon for the Revue de Paris. “The coming Assembly,” he prophesied, “is likely to be a stormy one; it is ripe for revolution. It is possible that the people of your district would prefer to see a Parisian representing their interests rather than any of their own men; a town always loves to see itself represented by an orator; and, if I seek election to the Assembly, it is with the idea of playing a leading part in politics and of giving the benefit to the community which supported me and from which I have received the political baptism of election. All my friends in Paris, either rightly or wrongly, base some hope upon me. I shall have as my credentials: Yourself, if that is agreeable to you; the Revue de Paris, the Temps, the Debats, the Voleur, one other minor journal, and my own actions from now on.”

But, in spite of all his projects, Balzac was destined never to be a candidate from any district — and so much the better for the advancement of French thought.

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