Balzac, by Frederick Lawton

Chapter VIII

Letters to “The Stranger,” 1837, 1838

By the agreement which farmed out Balzac’s future production, Werdet was implicitly sacrificed. The final breach did not occur until the middle of 1837, but no fresh book was given him after the November of 1836. There was one unpublished manuscript that he then had in his possession — the first part of Lost Illusions, and this appeared in the following spring. The novelist was intending at the time to bring out a new edition of the Country Doctor, of which Werdet held the rights. His idea was to present it for the Montyon prize of the Academy, and, if successful, to devote the money to raising a statue at Chinon in memory of Rabelais. Lemesle was one Sunday at Werdet’s place, engaged in revising the book, when Balzac arrived in an excited state of mind, and sprang on the astonished publisher the demand that their respective positions should be legally specified in writing, and a clean sweep made which should leave him perfectly free. Previously their business relations had been carried on by verbal understandings, which, as a matter of fact, did not bind the novelist overmuch, since he never sold either a first or a subsequent edition of any of his novels for more than a comparatively short period — usually a year — at the end of which he recovered his entire liberty, whether the edition were exhausted or not. Werdet acquiesced, though grievously offended and disappointed; but asked that certain accounts outstanding from the year before should be settled on the same occasion. The promise was given, and everything was put straight, except the reimbursement of the money Werdet had advanced. Instead of acquitting this debt, the ingenious author endeavoured to squeeze a little more cash out of his long-suffering publisher. For once, Werdet lost his temper, and sent the great man off with a flea in his ear. It would almost look as if Balzac had provoked the quarrel, since, on the very evening after the tiff, he returned to Werdet’s and offered to redeem all existing copyrights that the publisher held for the price of sixty-three thousand francs. His proposal was accepted, and Bethune, who was acting on behalf of the novelist’s syndicate, paid over the amount.

The transaction was the best possible for Werdet, who was too poor to continue playing Maecenas to his Horace. Against such incurable improvidence, and such little regard for strict equity in money dealings, nothing but the impersonality of a syndicate could stand. Nevertheless, one cannot help regretting that the intercourse of the two men should have ceased. Having so great a personal regard for his hero, and having besides his share of the observant faculty, Werdet, could have supplied us with biographical details of the last twelve years of the novelist’s life much more interesting than those of Gozlan, Gautier, and Lemer. His naive narrations, which are well composed and have humour, carry with them a conviction of their sincerity, whatever the errors of chronology.

Werdet’s prosperity finished with Balzac as it had commenced with him. He was ultimately compelled to file his petition in bankruptcy, and, abandoning business on his own account, to take up travelling for other firms. His creditors were not tender towards the novelist, and used to the utmost the lien they had upon the few unterminated engagements that involved him in the liquidation. A letter addressed by Balzac to the Marquis de Belloy, his former secretary, testifies to the annoyance the creditors caused him:—

“MY DEAR CARDINAL” (he wrote, calling the Marquis by a nickname) — “Your old Mar” (a familiar appellation applied to Balzac by his friends) “would like to know if you are at Poissy, as it is possible he may come and request you to hide him. There is a warrant out against him on Werdet’s account, and his counsellors recommend him to take flight, seeing that the conflict between him and the officers of the Commercial Tribunal is begun. If you are still at Poissy, a room, concealment, bread and water, together with salad, and a pound of mutton, a bottle of ink, and a bed, such are the needs of him who is condemned to the hardest of hard literary labour, and who is yours.

“LE MAR.”

The last occasion on which Werdet forgathered with his favourite author was at his house in the Rue de Seine, where, in February 1837, he gave a dinner. Some young members of the fair sex were present; and Balzac, whether to produce a greater impression upon these or because he had been making some society calls, arrived nearly an hour late. Nothing very special occurred during the evening, but the soiree had its conclusion disturbed by a thunderbolt. On rising to depart, Balzac sought his wonderful stick — an inseparable companion — which was nowhere to be found. Every nook was explored without result. The great man yielded to a veritable fit of despair. A suspicion crossed his mind: “Enough of this trick, gentlemen,” he cried to the male guests. “For Heaven’s sake, restore me my stick. I implore you!” and he tore at his long hair in vexation. But the guests assured him they were as ignorant as himself of the stick’s whereabouts. Werdet then said he would take a cab and inquire at all the places the novelist had visited in the course of the afternoon. Two hours later he came back, announcing that his jaunt had been useless. At this news, Balzac fainted outright. The loss of his talisman was overwhelming. When he was brought round again, Werdet suggested what ought to have been suggested in the first instance, namely, that they should proceed to the livery stables and see whether the stick had been left in the carriage which the novelist had used while on his peregrinations. The proposal was jumped at. He went thither, accompanied by Werdet, and had the ineffable joy of discovering the missing bauble quietly reposing in a corner of the vehicle.

During the year of 1836, he had had the unique experience of corresponding for some months continuously with an unknown lady, who called herself Louise, and to whom, in remembrance of their epistolary intercourse, he dedicated his short tale Facino Cane. Whether he really had the opportunity of learning who she was — as he asserted — and refrained from availing himself of it through deference to her wishes, is doubtful. Some, if not all, of the letters he received from “Louise” were written in English; and at least one water-colour painting was sent him which had been executed by the lady’s own hand. From the tone of his own epistles, which grew warmer onwards till the end, one may conjecture that the dame was a second Madame Hanska, smitten with the novelist’s person through reading his works; and Balzac, whose heart was made of inflammable stuff and whose brain was always castle-building, indulged for a time the hope of meeting with another ideal princess to espouse. Like the Orientals, he was quite capable of nourishing sentiments of devotion towards as many beautiful and fortuned women as showed themselves amenable. The sudden cessation of Louise’s letters, towards the end of 1836, freed him from the risk of Eve’s learning of these divided attentions; and it may be presumed that the latter divinity was kept in ignorance of his worshipping elsewhere.

Facino Cane was a blind old violinist who encountered Balzac, if there is any truth in the story, one evening at a restaurant where he was playing for the members of a wedding-party. Something in the old man’s dignified aspect moved the novelist deeply, and, accosting him, Balzac drew forth gradually the narration of his life. Facino was, in reality, a Venetian nobleman, at present reduced to dire poverty and obliged to dwell in the Hospice of the Quinze-Vingts.11 In his youth he had been imprisoned within the Doge’s Palace, and, while there, had accidentally come upon the secret treasures it contained. After his escape from confinement, his dream had been to meet with some one who would help him to gain possession of this wealth, without taking advantage of his blindness. And now he confided his plan to Balzac with undiminished faith in the possibility of its accomplishment. The pathos of the old man’s situation is created with sober touches. Among the novelist’s minor tales, this is one of the simplest and best.

11 Hospital founded by Saint Louis for three hundred noblemen whose sight had been destroyed by the Saracens.

In his reminiscences, Theophile Gautier mentions, apropos of Facino Cane, that Balzac himself was persuaded he knew the exact spot, near the Pointe-a-Pitre, where Toussaint Louverture, the black dictator of Santo Domingo, had his booty buried by negroes of that island, whom he then shot. To Sandeau and Gautier the novelist explained, with such eloquence and precision, his scheme for obtaining the interred wealth that they were wrought up to the point of declaring themselves ready to set out, armed with pick-axe and spade, and to put into action Edgar Allen Poe’s yarn of the Gold Bug. When money was the theme, Balzac’s tongue was infinitely persuasive.

One is tempted to wonder whether his returning to Italy in the spring of 1837, and his visit to Venice, after Florence and Milan, were not an indirect consequence of his Facino Cane story. It is certain that he regarded the ancient land of the Caesars as a possible El Dorado; and, curiously enough, he came back this time, if not with Sindbad’s diamonds, yet with some prospect of becoming a Silver King. Throughout the remainder of the twelvemonth, a plan, connected with this prospect, was simmering in his head, a plan which, we shall see, was less chimerical than most of those that he concocted.

While he was at Milan, the Italian sculptor Puttinati modelled his bust, which pleased him so much that he gave him a order for a group representing Seraphita showing the path heavenward to Wilfrid and Minna. At Venice, he began Massimilla Doni, one of his philosophic novels, in which the love episode is interwoven with mysticism and music, and Rossini’s Mose is analysed with skill. His best production of the year was Cesar Birotteau. The subject he had borne in his mind for a long while, but had feared to start on it on account of the difficulty of treating it imaginatively. At last, tempted by an offer of twenty thousand francs if he would complete it by a fixed date, he sat down to the task and wrote the novel in three weeks.

The Grandeur (or Rise) and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, to give the book its fuller title, has neither plot nor progress of love-passion. Its value — which is great — is almost entirely dependent on a number of little things that make up an imposing whole. The subject is a commonplace one. Birotteau, who is a dealer in perfumes, and has invented a Sultana cosmetic and a Carminative Water, has reached a position of influence and substance. Urged by his wife’s desire to shine in society, he allows himself to be inveigled into an expenditure that compromises his fortune and reduces him to insolvency. Although retaining the esteem of his fellow-citizens, who are convinced of his integrity, Cesar is stricken to the heart, less by the loss of his money than by his failure to meet his engagements. In vain, his wife and daughter hire themselves out in order to aid in remedying the disaster for which they are largely responsible. In vain, friends rally round him, until, little by little, the debts are paid, the perfumer is rehabilitated, and is honoured even by the King. On the very evening when, in the society of his family and friends and his daughter’s betrothed, he regains the feeling of independence and freedom, death overtakes him. Joy succeeding to the strain is too much for him.

In the background of the novel is a tableau of the Restoration epoch which is admirable; and the intricacies of finance and law, which form so considerable a part of the story, are handled with an ease and fancy that no other writer of fiction has quite equalled. We have a romance of ledgers and day-books, in a business atmosphere that amazingly well reveals the bent and moral worth of the various characters. Cesarine, Villerault, Popinot have traits which one smiles to recognize. And Birotteau’s development both of qualities and foibles is free from caricature, yet pleases much.

As was the case with Eugenie Grandet, Balzac does not seem to have cared for this masterpiece. The rapidity with which he composed it, and the fatigue he had undergone, caused him to regard it with some irritation. He did not realize that it was all elaborated in his brain before he put in on paper. Probably also he spoke of it under the disappointment he experienced from his continued failures in play-writing. Twice, during the twelvemonth, he tackled pieces which he described to Madame Hanska. One of them, the Premiere Demoiselle, refashioned as the School for Husbands and Wives, treated the unsavoury theme of an adulterous husband who keeps his mistress in his own house; and the other, Joseph Prudhomme, much better in conception, dealt with the not uncommon incident of a girl’s making a respectable marriage after a first betrayal, and her bringing up in secret the child born out of wedlock. Certain situations arising from the plot were both original and affecting. But in neither undertaking did he manage to go on to the end. Heine, whom he consulted in his difficulties, advised him to abandon further efforts in writing for the stage. “You had better remain in your galleys,” he said. “Those who are used to Brest cannot accustom themselves to Toulon.”

The advice was not palatable to a man of his temperament. He wanted all domains to open before him; and poured out his soul in lamentations, even while exhausting himself in fresh attempts. Now that Madame de Berny was dead, his Eve was the chief recipient of these jeremiads. “Are you not tired of hearing me vary my song in all moods?” he asked her. “Does not this unceasing egotism of a man struggling in a narrow circle bore you? Tell me, for, by your letter, you appear to me inclined to throw me over as a sorry pauper that knows only his paternoster, and always says the same thing.”

To him, as to ambitious men in every century, reflection came now and again, whispering what folly it was to spend life in the sole pursuit of glory. Just now the whisperings must have been more insistent, for he had thoughts of going to live in some sylvan retreat on the banks of the Cher or the Loire, right away from Paris. A visit to Sache, after an illness, afforded him the excuse for searching; and, as he still proposed to write — for his pleasure — it was congruent he should meditate a sort of Heloise and Abelard idyll — two lovers drawn to the cloister, and telling in epistles to each other the history of their vocation.12

12 This novel was never written, or at least completed. The Sister Marie des Anges, so often spoken of in the novelist’s correspondence, may have been the one here alluded to.

As a preliminary step towards carrying his determination into execution, he dismissed his servants, with the exception of Auguste, finally got rid of his lease in the Rue Cassini, whence he had removed his furniture in the preceding year; and then, feeling still a sneaking kindness for the city in which he had triumphed, he compromised by retreating to Sevres, there to study the ways and means of dwelling secure from pestering military summonses addressed to Monsieur de Balzac, alias Madame Widow Brunet, Man of Letters, Chasseur in the First Legion, and also, if not secure from, at least not so accessible to the calls of dunning creditors. The flat in the Rue de Chaillot, however, was retained till the year 1839; and, from time to time, he made short stays in it. But, in case any of his friends wished to see him during these sojourns, they needed to know the pass-words, which were not infrequently changed. On arriving at the outside door, the visitor must announce, for instance, that the seasons of plums had arrived. Then, if he could further announce that he was bringing lace from Belgium, he would be permitted to enter. But, before it was lawful for him to cross the threshold of the novelist’s sanctum, he must be prepared to state that Madame Bertrand was in good health.

At Sevres, Balzac soon hit upon a site that pleased his fancy. It was a plot of land on a steep slope, about forty perches in area.13 This he bought by using his credit, and forthwith busied himself with builder’s estimates, since he intended to have his hermitage inhabitable some time in the following spring.

13 More land was subsequently bought.

Meanwhile his project of retiring — to a distance of twenty minutes — from Paris society did not hinder him from occasionally putting in an appearance at one or another of the aristocratic houses where he had his entries, among them that of Madame de Castries, whom he continued to see, although she confined her worship to his talent, and merely patronized the man. Either from sheer mischievousness, or to revenge herself for some real or fancied slight — perhaps, indeed, to mock at his talk of refinement — she perpetrated upon him the practical joke of getting her Irish governess, a Miss Patrickson, to send him notes in English, signed Lady Neville, in one of which an appointment was made to meet him at the Opera. He went to the rendezvous; but no one was there waiting for him. This drew from him a sharp letter of reproach; and Miss Patrickson, who was, in her private life, a humble admirer of the great man, and had on one or two occasions translated some of his fiction, was so smitten with remorse for her trick that she revealed to him the name of the one who had invented it.

Les Jardies, where Balzac had decided to take up his residence, was built on the further side of the hill of Saint Cloud, facing the south, and with Ville d’Avray to the west. In front, there was the rising ground of the forest of Versailles; to the east, the outlook was down on Sevres and, beyond it, on Paris, with the city’s smoky atmosphere fringing the uplands of Meudon and Bellevue. In the direction of these last places, a glimpse was obtainable of the plains of Montrouge and the road leading away to Tours. In summer weather especially, the landscape here presented charming contrasts, being a wealth of woodland and verdure in a miniature Switzerland.

The architecture of the would-be hermit’s house was rather primitive. Three rooms, one over another, composed the main building. The ground floor served as drawing-room; above it was the anchoret’s bedroom; and the top story was used as a study. Sixty feet away, rose a second building containing kitchens, stables, and servants’ rooms. The whole stood in its own grounds, fenced in with walls, half of which, being situated on the steepest portion of the declivity, persisted in tumbling. One curious feature of the house was its outside staircase. Wags pretended that the owner had forgotten it in his plans, and been obliged to add it as an after-thought. The truth was that an inside staircase would have compelled him to build with less simplicity. “Since the staircase wants to be master in my dwelling, I will turn it out of doors,” he said. And this was done, the said staircase being a sort of broad ladder.

Had the novelist stayed long enough in this rural retreat, he would have beautified the interior in accordance with his fanciful tastes. Friends who were invited out there were astonished to see scrawled in chalk on the walls:

“Here, a covering of Paros marble; here, a ceiling painted by Eugene Delacroix; here, a mosaic flooring formed of rare wood from the isles; here, a chimney-piece in cipolin marble.”

Jokingly, Leon Gozlan one day himself inscribed on a convenient space:

“Here, a picture by Raphael, of priceless value, such as was never yet seen.”

Of course, in the early days of his rusticating, he was enthusiastic about his Italian-looking brick cottage, with its covered platform or gallery running round the first floor and supported on slender pillars, Its value, he was sure, would double when he had created the garden of Eden round about it, planted with poplars, birches, vines, evergreens, magnolias and sweet peas. His humour-barometer went up to “set fair.” For the moment, no pessimism clouded his sky. Here he would abide, here he would work or muse until the long-expected and at last approaching fortune should deign to enter beneath his roof; and then — well then, he believed he should have had enough of ambition’s spoils, and should be content under the shadow of his vine, and watch from afar — just twenty minutes or half-an-hour at most — the march of events without seeking to mingle in them.

The original cost of the homestead was about forty thousand francs. Other expenses were incurred before the whole of the building and installation was completed, which made the total cost very considerably larger; and, as hardly any of the amount had been paid cash down, Balzac’s liabilities, which were heavy enough without this extra charge, very soon introduced a disturbing element into his Arcadian existence. Within the twelvemonth, a distraint was levied upon him for non-payment of moneys that were owing. Lemer, one of his biographers, narrates that, paying a visit to Les Jardies at this date, for the purpose of soliciting the novelist’s collaboration in an international album, he not only received a promise of help but an invitation for himself and a companion to remain and dine off a leg of mutton. As the two visitors declined, Balzac said: “Ah! you think, perhaps, I am an ordinary host who invites his guests gratis. On the contrary, I intend to make you pay for your meal. Aha! You shall aid me afterwards to flit. To-morrow, the bailiffs are coming to seize my furniture; and I don’t mean them to find anything to carry away. So, to-night, I am going to put everything in my gardener’s cottage. The gardener will transport all the bigger articles of furniture; but, for the books, manuscripts, and valuables, I shall be glad to have the co-operation of men of letters like you.”

And the owner of Les Jardies was inconsolable when his visitors again expressed their inability to comply with his request.

Himself a guest once more of the Carrauds at Frapesle in February 1838, he took advantage of his proximity to Nohant to go and see George Sand; and spent two or three days with her. On his arrival, he surprised her clad in her dressing-gown, and smoking a cigar after dinner, beside the fire, in a huge, solitary room. Beneath the gown, she had on some red trousers, which allowed her smart stockings and yellow slippers to be seen. Since he used to meet her in the house of the Rue Cassini, she had grown stout, and now had a double chin; but her hair was still unbleached, and her bistre complexion preserved its tinge as of old. Working hard, she went to bed at six in the morning, and got up at noon. During the time he was at Nohant, Balzac adopted her habits. They talked from five in the evening all through the night and till five o’clock in the morning; and he learnt to know her more truly in these hours of familiar converse than in the four years of her liaison with Jules Sandeau. He summed her up as a tomboy, an artist, a mind great, generous, devoted and chaste (this last term would need explanation); her characteristic traits were those of a man, not a woman. She had, so he opined, neither force of conception, nor gift of constructing plots, nor faculty of reaching the true, nor the art of the pathetic. The French language she used she did not thoroughly know, but she had style. Of her glory she made little account, and despised the public. Her fate was to be duped — and duped she had been by Bocage, by de Lamennais, by Liszt, by Madame d’Agoult. Together they discussed the future revolution in manners and morals, and the influence their books might have in bringing it about. She suggested to him some subjects that he might develop, and taught him — up to then opposed to the weed — how to smoke latakia tobacco in a hookah pipe. Imagining the hookah to be something Russian, he asked Madame Hanska, to whom he related all this, to purchase him one, telling her that he would have his wonderful stick-knob, with its jewels, adapted to it, since he no longer bore the stick about with him as a fetish.

From Frapesle he returned with the plan matured which he had been preparing since his excursion to Italy. When at Genoa, in the previous year, a merchant had talked to him of the existence of huge hills of refuse metal left in the island of Sardinia by the Romans, who had worked silver mines there. Aware how defective the Roman methods of extraction were, Balzac thought there might be profit in treating this slag by some process that would cause it to yield whatever precious metal it contained; and he requested the merchant to procure him some specimens of the slag, and to forward them to Paris for examination, promising, if the tests were satisfactory, to include the Genoese in the company which he was sure of being able to float for the exploitation of the concern. Although the merchant did not forward the specimens, Balzac consulted some specialists in Paris, Monsieur Carraud amongst others, who all concurred in pronouncing the enterprise feasible. Finally, the novelist decided to proceed to the spot and investigate the matter personally. If success awaited him, he would gain enough to pay off all his debts; and these he estimated to be about two hundred thousand francs — a Falstaffian exaggeration, of course, but the real figures were large. At present, he had no ready money at all; and had to borrow from his mother, a cousin, and other friends, in order to get his travelling expenses.

Experience proved that he was correct in his theory. The slag yielded ten per cent of lead by a first treatment, and the lead ten per cent of pure silver. Unfortunately, the Genoese merchant had availed himself of Balzac’s hint, and had sold the scheme to a Marseilles firm, who were already applying for the monopoly to the rulers of the island, when, in the spring if 1838,14 he started on his journey thither; and, before he could do anything, they had obtained the concession. Once more, he had imprudently thrown out an idea, and lost his claim on it.

14 Madame Surville wrongly places the date of the journey in 1833.

On his way south he saw much that was new and novel to him. Passing through Corsica, he went over the house where the Emperor Napoleon was born; and, according to his habit of seeking information, he ferreted out several things that contradicted received history. The Petit Caporal’s father he discovered to have been a fairly rich landowner, not a sheriff’s officer, as tradition said. Moreover, when the Emperor arrived at Ajaccio from Egypt, instead of being acclaimed and having a triumphal reception from his countrymen, he was outlawed, a price put upon his head, and he escaped only through the devotion of a peasant who hid him in the mountains.

Corsica he considered one of the finest places in the world, with mountains like those of Switzerland, and needing only the latter country’s lakes. Completely undeveloped, and practically unexplored, it was inhabited by people that cultivated the dolce far niente to the utmost. Its population of eight thousand vegetated rather than lived, ignorant of everything beyond the simplest necessities of existence. The women disliked strangers, and the men did nothing but walk about all day, clad in their threadbare velvet coats, smoking to beguile the hours.

His account of Sardinia is equally curious. It was a wilderness, he says, with savannas of palm-trees, inhabited by savages. On horseback, he traversed a virgin forest, obliged to bend over his horse’s neck to avoid the huge branches of holm-oaks and cork-trees, and laurels and heather that were thirty feet high. In one canton he found people naked, except for a waist-cloth, and living on coarse bread made from acorns mixed with clay. Their mud hovels had no chimney, the fire being lighted on the ground in the middle. There was no agriculture in the island, and the only work done by the men was tending their flocks of goats and other animals.

A tour through Genoa, Florence, and Milan made up the rest of this interesting trip, which lasted from March till June. Disappointed in the object for which he left home, it furnished him with leisure to gather fresh subjects for his pen, and even to begin one — the Diaries of Two Young Wives. What he wished to describe in this book was stated in the following remarks to Madame Hanska: “I have never seen a novel in which happy love, satisfied love, is depicted. Rousseau puts too much rhetoric in his attempt, and Richardson too much preaching. The poets have too many flourishes; the novelists are too much the slaves of facts. Petrarch is too exclusively occupied with his images of speech and his concetti; he sees the poetry more than the woman. Pope has given perhaps too many regrets to Heloise; he wanted her to be better than nature; and the better is an enemy to the good. In fine, God, who created love with humanity, has alone understood it; for none of his creatures has described, so as to please me, the elegies, fantasies, and poems of this divine passion of which each speaks and which so few have really known.”

Did Balzac himself ever know it? By his own confession, never in his youth. In the years of his adolescence there is no sign of such a feeling having agitated his breast, where ambition reigned to the exclusion of everything else. If, then, he thought of marriage, its prosaic, advantageous side only appears to have entered into count; and the liaison, which stood him in lieu of it, stirred, beyond sense, nothing but sentiments of common gratitude. In riper age, his attachment to Madame Hanska was a bizarre medley of flattered vanity, artistic appreciation of beauty, and cold calculation. His epistles reek with each and all of these; and his eternal complaints of financial embarrassment not infrequently read like the expressions of a pauper’s whining.

That they ultimately wearied out the recipient of them is evident from the remonstrances he drew upon himself. Eve blamed his lightness of character, the facility with which he let himself be tempted, his tendency to waste in travelling the funds he would have done more wisely to employ in reducing his obligations or avoiding them. At such moments he defended himself sharply, his tone savouring less of the boudoir than the forum. Any and every excuse was pressed into service; everything and everybody were responsible but himself. Even his mother he accused of causing his indebtedness — his mother who had ruined herself for him, and from whose remaining pittance he took in this self-same year the wherewithal to go to Sardinia, although earning many thousands of francs annually. The truth is that Balzac exploited all the women that loved him, himself incapable of loving any one of them with that entire devotion which, if roused, is unique in a man’s life; and, as he was ignorant of it, so he has never described it adequately, faithfully. In one or two instances, he obtains a glimpse of it — as Moses obtained a vision of the promised land — from afar; when he tries to get nearer, he presents us with mere sensualism.

What Madame Hanska probably enjoyed most in his letters were the obiter dicta which he was never tired of pronouncing on his contemporaries. Scribe, whose Camaraderie he had been to see, he summed up as a man who was conversant in his trade but had no veritable art, who possessed talent but not the higher dramatic genius, and who, moreover, was altogether lacking in style. Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas was to him an infamy in verse, and the rest of this author’s pieces miserable melodramas. Theophile Gautier’s poetry was decadent, his style sparkling with great wit; yet the man was wanting in force of ideas. When, however, he added that Gautier would do nothing that would last because he was engaged in journalism, he spoke with all his hatred of a profession that refused him the honour he deemed his due. Eugene Sue, also, he looked upon with jaundiced eyes, as being a rival whose material success amazed him — a rival, indeed, whom no less a critic than Sainte-Beuve erroneously declared to be his equal. Sue, he informed Madame Hanska, was a man of narrow bourgeois mind, perceiving merely certain insignificant details of the vulgar evils of French contemporary society. To Balzac, besides, it was blasphemy in Sue that he spoke slightingly of the century which to this Legitimist was the grandest epoch in French history, slightingly of Louis XIV., who, in the said Legitimist’s opinion, was France’s premier king.

The latter half of 1838 was spent at Les Jardies, where the novelist was busy either with his pen or in improving the interior and exterior of the property. A scheme for cultivating a pine-apple orchard in his grounds kept him from fretting over the sorry termination of his Sardinian dream. He intended to set five thousand plants, and sell the fruit at five francs a piece, instead of twenty which was the ordinary price. After deducting the expenses of the undertaking, he reckoned he could gain twenty thousand francs a year out of his pine-apples. If they had been willing to grow in the open air, he would undoubtedly have gone from theory into practice. But, as this difficulty presented itself in the initial stage, he threw up incontinently his market-gardening; and, since he was in urgent want of cash, he bethought himself that, lying by him, he had a collection of Napoleon’s sayings, which he had been making for the past seven years, cutting them out of books that dealt with the Emperor’s life. The number was just then five hundred. For a sum of five thousand francs he disposed of the fruits of his industry to a retired hosier named Gandy, who published them subsequently under the title Maxims and Thoughts of Napoleon, the preface being also supplied by the novelist.

Besides Gambara, a second study of the musical art, containing a lyrically expressed analysis of Robert le Diable, Balzac produced in 1837 and 1838 two longer works, the Employees or the Superior Woman and the Firm of Nucingen. The former, with its criticism of the bureaucratic system, depicted a state of things which has survived several changes of regime in France, in spite of much in it that contradicts common sense. Rabourdin, the head clerk in a government department, seeks to simplify the useless machinery that clogs rather than advances the administration of the country. Having a practical mind, he believes that a hundred functionaries at twelve thousand francs a year would do the same work better than a thousand employees at twelve hundred francs, and cost no more. As in other of the novelist’s books that preached reform, there are parts in this one where the main thread of the story disappears like a river in a canyon; and readers of the Presse, in which it came out as a serial, railed at the author, called his contribution stupid, and threatened to cease subscribing if it were not withdrawn. Yet, perused in volume form, it reveals comedy in abundance. The portraits are limned with master hand; and Celestine Rabourdin, the wife of the head clerk, has, together with her grace and taste, the gift of amusing by the skill with which she bamboozles the dissolute des Lupeaulx.

The Firm of Nucingen is a scathing satire of the world of stock-jobbing, where the money of the small investor is robbed with impunity under cover of legality. Balzac’s Jewish banker, who thrives on others’ ruin is a type that exists to-day, as then, without any adequate effort made by law to suppress him. Less happy in indicating a remedy than in branding an evil, the novelist naively held that France had only to adopt his doctrine of absolute rule for the suppression to become a fact. An unprejudiced reading of history should have informed him that regimes have always so far existed for the benefit of their creators, and that, although constitutional monarchies and republics have not yet found out a system capable of defending the interests of all individual citizens, and perhaps never will, absolute monarchy has shown to satiety its inability to defend the interests of more than a few.

In perusing such a book as the foregoing, one is led to ask why it was so inoperative on the life of the country. One reason perhaps is that Balzac wrote from his head rather than from his heart. Whatever may be, in other respects, the superiority of the Realistic over the Romantic school of fiction, it is inferior in this, viz., that its emotiveness tends to the negation, not to the affirmation, of action. One cannot but recollect to the novelist’s disadvantage, as applying to this reference, the following statement he made to Madame Hanska for another purpose: “I have never in my life confused the thoughts of my heart with those of my head, and, excepting a few lines written only for you to read (for instance, Madame de Chaulieu’s jealous letter), I have never expressed in my books anything of my heart. It would have been the most infamous sacrilege.” Unconsciously insincere, like the majority of people in their justificative confessions, Balzac often allowed his heart to intrude where it had no business to be present. Nevertheless in his realist pictures he exercised himself with all the cold delight of the anatomist, and with none of the warm emotion that might have become communicative. This Brunetiere implicitly admits when he says that most of Balzac’s novels are, so to speak, inquiries — collections of documents.

The year 1838 closed questioningly for the hermit at Les Jardies. The yoke of his treaty with the publishing syndicate was hardly twelve moons old; and, however, it galled his neck to the extent of his cogitating how he might pay off the earnest money he had received, and be his own man again. And how was he to do it unless by increasing his earnings? All his actual revenue was swallowed up by his debts and habits of living. Ah! if only he could become a successful dramatic author! Alone, he did not for the moment feel equal to trying. But there was the possibility of collaboration. His late secretary, the Marquis de Belloy, had recently seemed disposed to come and help him again. But de Belloy desired some acknowledgment in coin; and Balzac, on the contrary, judged that the honour of collaborating with a novelist of his celebrity ought to be sufficient wage.

“My dear de Belloy,” (he wrote back)—“Not a halfpenny; much work, your six hours a day, in three shifts, that’s what awaits you at Sevres, if you are in the mind to come and realize things which are not vague plans but definite arrangements, and the relative result of which will depend on the brilliant wit that you have had the fatal imprudence to cast to the winds. I am at the grindstone, and forswear any one that will not tackle it. I have put my neck in the big collar because the other one was irksome. Your devoted

Mar / tyr
" / ine
" / ried man
" / about”

he concluded, punning on his nickname. Like his fellow mortals, he was often most merry when he was most sad.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/balzac/b19zl/chapter08.html

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