Repertory of the Comedie Humaine, by Honoré de Balzac


Are you a confirmed Balzacian? — to employ a former expression of Gautier in Jeune France on the morrow following the appearance of that mystic Rabelaisian epic, The Magic Skin. Have you experienced, while reading at school or clandestinely some stray volume of the Comedie Humaine, a sort of exaltation such as no other book had aroused hitherto, and few have caused since? Have you dreamed at an age when one plucks in advance all the fruit from the tree of life — yet in blossom — I repeat, have you dreamed of being a Daniel d’Arthez, and of covering yourself with glory by the force of your achievements, in order to be requited, some day, for all the sufferings of your poverty-stricken youth, by the sublime Diane, Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, Princesse de Cadignan?

Or, perchance, being more ambitious and less literary, you have desired to see — like a second Rastignac, the doors of high society opened to your eager gaze by means of the golden key suspended from Delphine de Nucingen’s bracelet?

Romancist, have you sighed for the angelic tenderness of a Henriette de Mortsauf, and realized in your dreams the innocent emotions excited by culling nosegays, by listening to tales of grief, by furtive hand-clasps on the banks of a narrow river, blue and placid, in a valley where your friendship flourishes like a fair, delicate lily, the ideal, the chaste flower?

Misanthrope, have you caressed the chimera, to ward off the dark hours of advancing age, of a friendship equal to that with which the good Schmucke enveloped even the whims of his poor Pons? Have you appreciated the sovereign power of secret societies, and deliberated with yourself as to which of your acquaintances would be most worthy to enter The Thirteen? In your mind’s eye has the map of France ever appeared to be divided into as many provinces as the Comedie Humaine has stories? Has Tours stood for Birotteau, La Gamard, for the formidable Abbe Troubert; Douai, Claes; Limoges, Madame Graslin; Besancon, Savarus and his misguided love; Angouleme, Rubempre; Sancerre, Madame de la Baudraye; Alencon, that touching, artless old maid to whom her uncle, the Abbe de Sponde, remarked with gentle irony: “You have too much wit. You don’t need so much to be happy”?

Oh, sorcery of the most wonderful magician of letters the world has seen since Shakespeare! If you have come under the spell of his enchantments, be it only for an hour, here is a book that will delight you, a book that would have pleased Balzac himself — Balzac, who was more the victim of his work than his most fanatical readers, and whose dream was to compete with the civil records. This volume of nearly six hundred pages is really the civil record of all the characters in the Comedie Humaine, by which you may locate, detail by detail, the smallest adventures of the heroes who pass and repass through the various novels, and by which you can recall at a moment’s notice the emotions once awakened by the perusal of such and such a masterpiece. More modestly, it is a kind of table of contents, of a unique type; a table of living contents!

Many Balzacians have dreamed of compiling such a civil record. I myself have known of five or six who attempted this singular task. To cite only two names out of the many, the idea of this unusual Vapereau ran through the head of that keen and delicate critic, M. Henri Meilhac, and of that detective in continued stories, Emile Gaboriau. I believe that I also have among the papers of my eighteenth year some sheets covered with notes taken with the same intention. But the labor was too exhaustive. It demanded an infinite patience, combined with an inextinguishable ardor and enthusiasm. The two faithful disciples of the master who have conjoined their efforts to uprear this monument, could not perhaps have overcome the difficulties of the undertaking if they had not supported each other, bringing to the common work, M. Christophe his painstaking method, M. Cerfberr his accurate memory, his passionate faith in the genius of the great Honore, a faith that carried unshakingly whole mountains of documents.

A pleasing chapter of literary gossip might be written about this collaboration; a melancholy chapter, since it brings with it the memory of a charming man, who first brought Messieurs Cerfberr and Christophe together, and who has since died under mournful circumstances. His name was Albert Allenet, and he was chief editor of a courageous little review, La Jeune France, which he maintained for some years with a perseverance worthy of the Man of Business in the Comedie Humaine. I can see him yet, a feverish fellow, wan and haggard, but with his face always lit up by enthusiasm, stopping me in a theatre lobby to tell me about a plan of M. Cerfberr’s; and almost immediately we discovered that the same plan had been conceived by M. Christophe. The latter had already prepared a cabinet of pigeon-holes, arranged and classified by the names of Balzacian characters. When two men encounter in the same enterprise as compilers, they will either hate each other or unite their efforts. Thanks to the excellent Allenet, the two confirmed Balzacians took to each other wonderfully.

Poor Allenet! It was not long afterwards that we accompanied his body to the grave, one gloomy afternoon towards the end of autumn — all of us who had known and loved him. He is dead also, that other Balzacian who was so much interested in this work, and for whom the Comedie Humaine was an absorbing thought, Honore Granoux. He was a merchant of Marseilles, with a wan aspect and already an invalid when I met him. But he became animated when speaking of Balzac; and with what a mysterious, conspiratorlike veneration did he pronounce these words: “The Vicomte”— meaning, of course, to the thirty-third degree Balzacolatrites, that incomparable bibliophile to whom we owe the history of the novelist’s works, M. de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul! —“The Vicomte will approve — or disapprove.” That was the unvarying formula for Granoux, who had devoted himself to the enormous task of collecting all the articles, small or great, published about Balzac since his entry as a writer. And just see what a fascination this devil of a man— as Theophile Gautier once called him — exercises over his followers; I am fully convinced that these little details of Balzacian mania will cause the reader to smile. As for me, I have found them, and still find them, as natural as Balzac’s own remark to Jules Sandeau, who was telling him about a sick sister: “Let us go back to reality. Who is going to marry Eugenie Grandet?”

Fascination! That is the only word that quite characterizes the sort of influence wielded by Balzac over those who really enjoy him; and it is not to-day that the phenomenon began. Vallies pointed it out long ago in an eloquent page of the Refractaires concerning “book victims.” Saint Beuve, who can scarcely be suspected of fondness towards the editor-in-chief of the Revue Parisienne, tells a story stranger and more significant than every other. At one time an entire social set in Venice, and the most aristocratic, decided to give out among its members different characters drawn from the Comedie Humaine; and some of these roles, the critic adds, mysteriously, were artistically carried out to the very end; — a dangerous experiment, for we are well aware that the heroes and heroines of Balzac often skirt the most treacherous abysses of the social Hell.

All this happened about 1840. The present year is 1887, and there seems no prospect of the sorcery weakening. The work to which these notes serve as an introduction may be taken as proof. Indeed, somebody has said that the men of Balzac have appeared as much in literature as in life, especially since the death of the novelist. Balzac seems to have observed the society of his day less than he contributed to form a new one. Such and such personages are truer to life in 1860 than in 1835. When one considers a phenomenon of such range and intensity, it does not suffice to employ words like infatuation, fashion, mania. The attraction of an author becomes a psychological fact of prime importance and subject to analysis. I think I can see two reasons for this particular strength of Balzac’s genius. One dwells in the special character of his vision, the other in the philosophical trend which he succeeded in giving to all his writing.

As to the scope of his vision, this Repertory alone will suffice to show. Turn over the leaves at random and estimate the number of fictitious deeds going to make up these two thousand biographies, each individual, each distinct, and most of them complete — that is to say, taking the character at his birth and leaving him only at his death. Balzac not only knows the date of birth or of death, he knows as well the local coloring of the time and the country and profession to which the man belongs. He is thoroughly conversant with questions of taxation and income and the agricultural conditions. He is not ignorant of the fact that Grandet cannot make his fortune by the same methods employed by Gobseck, his rival in avarice; nor Ferdinand du Tillet, that jackal, with the same magnitude of operations worked out by that elephant of a Nucingen. He has outlined and measured the exact relation of each character to his environment in the same way he has outlined and measured the bonds uniting the various characters; so well that each individual is defined separately as to his personal and his social side, and in the same manner each family is defined. It is the skeleton of these individuals and of these families that is laid bare for your contemplation in these notes of Messieurs Cerfberr and Christophe. But this structure of facts, dependent one upon another by a logic equal to that of life itself, is the smallest effort of Balzac’s genius. Does a birth-certificate, a marriage-contract or an inventory of wealth represent a person? Certainly not. There is still lacking, for a bone covering, the flesh, the blood, the muscles and the nerves. A glance from Balzac, and all these tabulated facts become imbued with life; to this circumstantial view of the conditions of existence with certain beings is added as full a view of the beings themselves.

And first of all he knows them physiologically. The inner workings of their corporeal mechanism is no mystery for him. Whether it is Birotteau’s gout, or Mortsauf’s nervousness, or Fraisier’s skin trouble, or the secret reason for Rouget’s subjugation by Flore, or Louis Lambert’s catalepsy, he is as conversant with the case as though he were a physician; and he is as well informed, also, as a confessor concerning the spiritual mechanism which this animal machine supports. The slightest frailties of conscience are perceptible to him. From the portress Cibot to the Marquise d’Espard, not one of his women has an evil thought that he does not fathom. With what art, comparable to that of Stendhal, or Laclos, or the most subtle analysts, does he note — in The Secrets of a Princess— the transition from comedy to sincerity! He knows when a sentiment is simple and when it is complex, when the heart is a dupe of the mind and when of the senses. And through it all he hears his characters speak, he distinguishes their voices, and we ourselves distinguish them in the dialogue. The growling of Vautrin, the hissing of La Gamard, the melodious tones of Madame de Mortsauf still linger in our ears. For such intensity of evocation is as contagious as an enthusiasm or a panic.

There is abundant testimony going to show that with Balzac this evocation is accomplished, as in the mystic arts by releasing it, so to speak, from the ordinary laws of life. Pray note in what terms M. le Docteur Fournier, the real mayor of Tours, relates incidents of the novelist’s method of work, according to the report of a servant employed at the chateau of Sache: “Sometimes he would shut himself up in his room and stay there several days. Then it was that, plunged into a sort of ecstasy and armed with a crow quill, he would write night and day, abstaining from all food and merely contenting himself with decoctions of coffee which he himself prepared.” [Brochure of M. le Docteur Fournier in regard to the statue of Balzac, that statue a piece of work to which M. Henry Renault — another devotee who had established Le Balzac— had given himself so ardently. In this brochure is found a very curious portrait of Balzac, after a sepia by Louis Boulanger belonging to M. le Baron Larrey.]

In the opening pages of Facino Cane this phenomenon is thus described: “With me observation had become intuitive from early youth. It penetrated the soul without neglecting the body, or rather it seized so completely the external details that it went beyond them. It gave me the faculty of living the life of the individual over whom it obtained control, and allowed me to substitute myself for him like the dervish in Arabian Nights assumed the soul and the body of persons over whom he pronounced certain words.” And he adds, after describing how he followed a workman and his wife along the street: “I could espouse their very life, I felt their rags on my back. I trod in their tattered shoes. Their desires, their needs, all passed into my soul, or my soul passed into them. It was the dream of a man awakened.” One day while he and a friend of his were watching a beggar pass by, the friend was so astonished to see Balzac touch his own sleeve; he seemed to feel the rent which gaped at the elbow of the beggar.

Am I wrong in connecting this sort of imagination with that which one witnesses in fanatics of religious faith? With such a faculty Balzac could not be, like Edgar Poe, merely a narrator of nightmares. He was preserved from the fantastic by another gift which seems contradictory to the first. This visionary was in reality a philosopher, that is to say, an experimenter and a manipulator of general ideas. Proof of this may be found in his biography, which shows him to us, during his college days at Vendome, plunged into a whirl of abstract reading. The entire theological and occult library which he discovered in the old Oratorian institution was absorbed by the child, till he had to quit school sick, his brain benumbed by this strange opium. The story of Louis Lambert is a monograph of his own mind. During his youth and in the moments snatched from his profession, to what did he turn his attention? Still to general ideas. We find him an interested onlooker at the quarrel of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier, troubling himself about the hypothesis of the unity of creation, and still dealing with mysticism; and, in fact, his romances abound in theories. There is not one of his works from which you cannot obtain abstract thoughts by the hundreds. If he describes, as in The Vicar of Tours, the woes of an old priest, he profits by the opportunity to exploit a theory concerning the development of sensibility, and a treatise on the future of Catholicism. If he describes, as in The Firm of Nucingen, a supper given to Parisian blases, he introduces a system of credit, reports of the Bank and Bureau of Finance, and — any number of other things! Speaking of Daniel d’Arthez, that one of his heroes who, with Albert Savarus and Raphael, most nearly resembles himself, he writes: “Daniel would not admit the existence of talent without profound metaphysical knowledge. At this moment he was in the act of despoiling both ancient and modern philosophy of all their wealth in order to assimilate it. He desired, like Moliere, to become a profound philosopher first of all, a writer of comedies afterwards.” Some readers there are, indeed, who think that philosophy superabounds with Balzac, that the surplus of general hypotheses overflows at times, and that the novels are too prone to digressions. Be that as it may, it seems incontestible that this was his master faculty, the virtue and vice of his thought. Let us see, however, by what singular detour this power of generalization — the antithesis, one might say, of the creative power — increased in him the faculty of the poetic visionary.

It is important, first of all, to note that this power of the visionary could not be put directly into play. Balzac had not long enough to live. The list of his works, year by year, prepared by his sister, shows that from the moment he achieved his reputation till the day of his death he never took time for rest or observation or the study of mankind by daily and close contact, like Moliere or Saint-Simon. He cut his life in two, writing by night, sleeping by day, and after sparing not a single hour for calling, promenades or sentiment. Indeed, he would not admit this troublesome factor of sentiment, except at a distance and through letters —“because it forms one’s style”! At any rate, that is the kind of love he most willingly admitted — unless an exception be made of the mysterious intimacies of which his correspondence has left traces. During his youth he had followed this same habit of heavy labor, and as a result the experience of this master of exact literature was reduced to a minimum; but this minimum sufficed for him, precisely because of the philosophical insight which he possessed to so high a degree. To this meagre number of positive faculties furnished by observation, he applied an analysis so intuitive that he discovered, behind the small facts amassed by him in no unusual quantity, the profound forces, the generative influences, so to speak.

He himself describes — once more in connection with Daniel d’Arthez — the method pursued in this analytical and generalizing work. He calls it a “retrospective penetration.” Probably he lays hold of the elements of experience and casts them into a seeming retort of reveries. Thanks to an alchemy somewhat analogous to that of Cuvier, he was enabled to reconstruct an entire temperament from the smallest detail, and an entire class from a single individual; but that which guided him in his work of reconstruction was always and everywhere the habitual process of philosophers: the quest and investigation of causes.

It is due to this analysis that this dreamer has defined almost all the great principles of the psychological changes incident to our time. He saw clearly, while democracy was establishing itself with us on the ruins of the ancient regime, the novelty of the sentiments which these transfers from class to class were certain to produce. He fathomed every complication of heart and mind in the modern woman by an intuition of the laws which control her development. He divined the transformation in the lives of artists, keeping pace with the change in the national situation; and to this day the picture he has drawn of journalism in Lost Illusions (“A Distinguished Provincial at Paris”) remains strictly true. It seems to me that this same power of locating causes, which has brought about such a wealth of ideas in his work, has also brought about the magic of it all. While other novelists describe humanity from the outside, he has shown man to us both from within and without. The characters which crowd forth from his brain are sustained and impelled by the same social waves which sustain and impel us. The generative facts which created them are the same which are always in operation about us. If many young men have taken as a model a Rastignac, for instance, it is because the passions by which this ambitious pauper was consumed are the same which our age of unbridled greed multiplies around disinherited youth. Add to this that Balzac was not content merely to display the fruitful sources of a modern intellect, but that he cast upon them the glare of the most ardent imagination the world has ever known. By a rare combination this philosopher was also a man, like the story-tellers of the Orient, to whom solitude and the over-excitement of night-work had communicated a brilliant and unbroken hallucination. He was able to impart this fever to his readers, and to plunge them into a sort of Arabian Nights country, where all the passions, all the desires of real life appear, but expanded to the point of fantasy, like the dreams brought on by laudanum or hasheesh. Why, then, should we not understand the reason that, for certain readers, this world of Balzac’s is more real than the actual world, and that they devoted their energies to imitating it?

It is possible that to-day the phenomenon is becoming rarer, and that Balzac, while no less admired, does not exercise the same fascinating influence. The cause for this is that the great social forces which he defined have almost ended their work. Other forces now shape the oncoming generations and prepare them for further sensitive influences. It is none the less a fact that, to penetrate the central portions of the nineteenth century in France, one must read and reread the Comedie Humaine. And we owe sincere thanks to Messieurs Cerfberr and Christophe for this Repertory. Thanks to them, we shall the more easily traverse the long galleries, painted and frescoed, of this enormous palace — a palace still unfinished, inasmuch as it lacks those Scenes of Military Life whose titles awaken dreams within us: Forced Marches; The Battle of Austerlitz; After Dresden. Incontestably, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is an admirable book, but how can we help regretting the loss of the painting of the Grand Army and of our Great Emperor, by Balzac, our Napoleon of letters?


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