The historical novel that Balzac had set himself to write was the Chouans, this name being given to the Vendee Royalists who, under the leadership of the Chevalier de Nougarede, combated the Revolution and Napoleon. The scene being laid in Brittany, it was natural that, apart from health reasons, the author should wish to inspire his pen by a visit to the places he intended to describe.
His hostess at Fougeres has left us a description of her guest: “He was a little, burly man, clad in ill-fitting garments that increased his bulk. His hands were magnificent. He wore a most ugly hat; but, as soon as he took it off, one remarked nothing else besides his head. . . . Beneath his ample forehead, on which seemed to shine the reflection of a lamp, there were brown, gold-spangled eyes which expressed their owner’s meaning as clearly as his speech. He had a big, square nose, and a huge mouth, which was perpetually smiling in spite of his ugly teeth. He wore a moustache, and his long hair was brushed back. At the time he came to us he was rather thin, and appeared to be half-starved. He devoured his food, poor fellow! For the rest, there was so much confidence, so much benevolence, so much naivete, so much frankness in his demeanour, his gestures, his ways of speaking and behaving that it was impossible to know him and not love him. . . . His good humour was so exuberant as to be contagious. Notwithstanding the misfortunes he had just passed through, he had not been with us a quarter of an hour before he made the General and me laugh till tears came into our eyes.”
The Chouans, which his two or three months’ sojourn at Fougeres enabled him to get on with rapidly, was completed after his return to Paris, and was published under his own name in 1829. Charles Vimont, who accepted and brought it out, paid him no more than a thousand francs. The book, although it was not badly written, and contained plenty of incident, very fair characterization, of the minor personages especially, and local colouring imitated from Walter Scott, made no great impression. For the ordinary reader it differed too little from the Romanticism with which he was familiar. Moreover, the action savoured too much of the melodramatic; and the character of Mademoiselle de Verneuil, and that of the Chouan chief, whom she had promised to deliver up to the emissaries of Fouche, were too nebulous to gain general sympathy, even with the heroine’s tragic devotion. There is, however, a fine sketch of Brittany and of its spirit of revolt; the numerous figures of the background are vigorously executed, and nearly all the episodes of the drama are skilfully presented. A perusal of the Chouans makes us regret that there was hardly any return to this kind of composition in the author’s after-work.
When embarking on his publishing enterprise, Balzac went to live in an apartment of the Rue Tournon, No. 28 close to the Luxembourg. He abandoned it for the Rue des Marais in 1826; and, this latter abode being given up in 1828, he removed on his return from Brittany to No. 4, Rue Cassini, where he remained for some years. A friend of his, Latouche — soon to become an enemy — helped him to liven up the walls of his study with the famous blue calico that had adorned his room over the printing office. Certain busybodies spread the report that he was furnishing his new apartment extravagantly; and Laure, to whose ear the tattle had come, ventured to allude to it in a letter reproaching him with remissness in writing home and to her. The accusation of extravagance, which later he really merited, was at this moment a trifle previous, money being scarce and credit also. “Stamps and omnibus fares are expenses I cannot afford,” he assured his sister; “and I abstain from going out in order to save my clothes.”
8 Some early biographers state that the novelist went to the Rue Tournon after his bankruptcy. This is a mistake.
However, he was now on the point of scoring a literary success. In the same year as his Chouans appeared his Physiology of Marriage, a book of satire and caricature having a distinct stamp of his maturer manner. Werdet, for a number of years his publisher and friend, relates in his Portrait Intime that Balzac, while still in the Lesdiguieres Street garret, had gone one day to Alphonse Levavasseur and offered, in return for a royalty and a cash installment of two hundred francs, to supply him with a book to be entitled: Manual of the Business Man, by a former Notary’s Clerk. It was agreed that the manuscript should be handed in at the end of the month; and the two hundred francs were paid down. In vain the publisher waited for his Manual. Ultimately he hunted out his debtor; and the latter had to confess that the long-promised manuscript had never been written. In order to calm the creditor’s indignation, Balzac read to him some fragments of another book which he was really engaged upon. After listening for a while, Levavasseur’s countenance grew serene: “I will pay you two thousand francs for this production when finished, Monsieur,” he said; “and we will cancel the old transaction. Come with me. I will give you the first thousand francs now. The rest you shall have as soon as I get the last corrected proofs.” “Dear publisher, your speech is golden,” cried Balzac; “I accept.” Nevertheless, the proofs were not delivered until 1829. The book immediately became popular. “From the day of its appearance,” comments Werdet, “literature counted another master and France another Moliere.”
The verdict is exact only if the Physiology is regarded in conjunction with the novelist’s after achievement in the domain of realistic fiction. Alone it would not rank so high. Flippant, cynical, immoral — these epithets, which were freely applied to it, all have their justification when one looks at the work from any other standpoint than that of its being a very amusing and clever exposition of sex relations governed by interest and passion. Both facts and philosophy are confined within an exceedingly narrow horizon, one in which the writer was most thoroughly at home, which explains why they bear the imprint of a mind already blase.
From a letter Balzac sent to Levavasseur, while finishing the last pages of the manuscript, it appears that he commenced his task as a jest and completed it with more serious purpose: “I intended to dash off a pleasantry,” he told him, “and you came one morning and asked me to do in three months what Brillat-Savarin took ten years to do. I haven’t an idea which is not the Physiology. I dream of it, I am absorbed by it.”
The sale of the book was in a measure due to the sort of scandal it provoked. Ladies especially bought the volume to find out for themselves how far they had been maligned; and Levavasseur, who was pleased with his profits, introduced Balzac to Emile de Girardin, then chief editor of the Mode, to which paper he now began to contribute light articles, not to speak of other journals, which were only too glad to receive something from his pen. The extent to which the fair sex read the Physiology and were affected by it is illustrated by a story that Werdet tells of a hoax perpetrated at Balzac’s expense by a number of his society friends, who had cause to complain of his uppishness towards them, a treatment based not merely on the belief he entertained in his literary superiority, but on his pretensions to aristocratic descent. The story belongs more properly to the middle thirties, when he had been using the prefix “de” before his name already for some years, justifying himself on the ground that his father claimed issue from an old family that had resisted the Auvergne invasion and had begotten the d’Entragues stock. His father, moreover, so he said, had discovered documents in the Charter House establishing a concession of lands made by a de Balzac in the fifth century; and a copy of the transaction had been registered by the Paris Parliament.
Between 1833 and 1836 one of the most celebrated Paris “sets” was that of the Opera “lions,” seven young aristocratic sparks composing it, or, to be precise, six, together with the Chevalier d’Entragues de Balzac, as his friends jokingly dubbed him — he being an elder. It was the period of his first flush of prosperity, when he drove about in a hired carriage resplendent with the d’Entragues coat of arms, which cost him five hundred francs a month; had a majestic coachman in fine livery and a Tom Thumb groom; sported himself in gorgeous garments and strutted about in the Opera foyer, amidst the real or feigned admiration of his fellows.
To revenge themselves for their mentor’s superciliousness towards them, the six other lions induced a dancer at the Opera to play the part of a supposed Duke’s daughter smitten with the great man’s writings and person, a role she undertook the more willingly as, being well acquainted with the former, she was anxious to prove to him that he was not so perspicacious as he deemed himself. An Opera ball was chosen for the adventure; and Balzac was duly baited and taken in tow by the lady, whose mask only half concealed her beauty. Thus began a flirtation, with subsequent clandestine meetings, allowing the fair unknown to fool him to the top of her bent. The author wanted to propose for her hand to the Duke her father; but, cleverly using her knowledge of his books, the sly jade showed him that he would have no chance of being accepted. At last she hinted she would like to visit him in his author’s sanctum; and the delighted novelist went to most lavish expense in fitting up a boudoir to receive her. The visit was presumably a secret one. Protected by a young man employed at the Opera, to whom she was engaged, and who accompanied her in the disguise of a negro, she went to the Rue des Batailles one evening and graciously listened to the enraptured conversation of her victim till towards midnight, when her mother, who was in the plot, came to fetch her. The novelist’s fury and humiliation were extreme on his learning how neatly he had been tricked, and it was some time before he ventured to reappear in his accustomed haunts. As narrated by Werdet, the story is a good deal embellished, and some of the details that he gives were probably invented; but the main outline he vouches to be true.
Among the editors of journals who sought Balzac’s collaboration after the publication of the Physiology were Buloz of the Revue de Paris and Victor Ratier of the Silhouette. To the latter of them, in 1831, he wrote from La Grenadiere, where he had gone to recruit, a letter revealing a curiously mixed state of mind in this dawning period of fame. He would seem to have been under a presentiment of the long years of struggle and incessant toil he was about to be involved in, and to have felt a shrinking of his physical nature from them.
“Oh! if you knew what Touraine is like,” he exclaimed. “Here one forgets everything else. I forgive the inhabitants for being stupid. They are so happy. Now, you know that people who enjoy much are naturally stupid. Touraine admirably explains the lazzarone. I have come to regard glory, the Chamber, politics, the future, literature, as veritable poison-balls to kill wandering, homeless dogs, and I say to myself: ‘Virtue, happiness, life, are summed up in six hundred francs income on the bank of the Loire. . . . ’ My house is situated half-way up the hill, near a delightful river bordered with flowers, whence I behold landscapes a thousand times more beautiful than all those with which rascally travellers bore their readers. Touraine appears to me like a pate de foie gras, in which one plunges up to the chin; and its wine is delicious. Instead of intoxicating, it makes you piggy and happy. . . . Just fancy, I have been on the most poetic trip possible in France — from here to the heart of Brittany by water, passing between the most ravishing scenery in the world. I felt my thoughts go with the stream, which, near the sea, becomes immense. Oh, to lead the life of a Mohican, to run about the rocks, to swim in the sea, to breathe in the fresh air and sun! Oh, I have realized the savage! Oh, I have excellently understood the corsair, the adventurer — their lives of opposition; and I reflected: ‘Life is courage, good rifles, the art of steering in the open ocean, and the hatred of man — of the Englishman, for example.’ (Here Balzac is of his time.) Coming back hither, the ex-corsair has turned dealer in ideas. Just imagine, now, a man so vagabond beginning on an article entitled, Treatise of Fashionable Life, and making an octavo volume of it, which the Mode is going to print, and some publisher reprint. . . . Egad! At the present moment literature is a vile trade. It leads to nothing, and I itch to go a-wandering and risk my existence in some living drama. . . . Since I have seen the real splendours of this spot, I have grown very philosophic, and, putting my foot on an ant-hill, I exclaim, like the immortal Bonaparte: ‘That, or men, what is it all in presence of Saturn or Venus, or the Pole Star?’ And methinks that the ocean, a brig, and an English vessel to engulf, is better than a writing-desk, a pen, and the Rue Saint-Denis.”
About the events of the 1830 Revolution the novelist was apparently but little concerned. True, the change was one of dynasty only, not of regime, albeit Louis-Philippe posed rather as a plebiscitary monarch. Balzac’s clericalism and royalism, which ultimately became so crystallized, were at this date in a position of unstable equilibrium. At one moment his criticisms have an air of condemning the monarchic principle, at another they point to his being a pillar of the ancient system of things. On this occasion he was twitted by Madame Zulma Carraud, his sister’s friend, with whom his relations grew more intimate as his celebrity augmented; and he defended himself by a confession of faith which forecast his endeavours — less persistent than his desires — to add the statesman’s laurels to those of the litterateur. His doctrine, following the Machiavellian tradition, was that the genius of government consists in operating the fusion of men and things — a method which demonstrated Napoleon and Louis XVIII. alike to be men of talent. Both of them restrained all the various parties in France — the one by force, the other by ruse, because the one rode horseback, the other in a carriage. . . . France, he continued, ought to be a constitutional monarchy, with an hereditary Royal Family, a House of Lords extraordinarily powerful and representing property, etc., with all possible guarantees of heredity and privilege; then she should have a second, elective assembly to represent every interest of the intermediary mass separating high social positions from what was called the people. The bulk of the laws and their spirit should tend to enlighten the people as much as possible — the people that had nothing — workmen, proletaries, etc. — so as to bring the greatest number of men to that condition of well-being which distinguished the intermediary mass; but the people should be left under the most puissant yoke, in such a way that the individual units might find light, aid, and protection, and that no idea, no form, no transaction might render them turbulent. The richer classes must enjoy the widest liberty practicable, since they had a stake in the country. To the Government he wished the utmost force possible, its interests being the same as those of the rich and the bourgeois, viz. to render the lowest class happy and to aggrandize the middle class, in which resided the veritable puissance of States. If rich people and the hereditary fortunes of the Upper Chamber, corrupted by their manners and customs, engendered certain abuses, these were inseparable from all society, and must be accepted with the advantages they yielded.
This conception of the classes and the masses which he afterwards set forth more fully in his Country Doctor and Village Cure, partly explains why all his best work, besides being impregnated with fatalism, has such a constant outlook on the past. It was a dogma with him rather than a philosophy, and was clung to more from taste than from reasonable conviction. He believed in aristocratic prerogative, because he believed in himself, and ranked himself as high as, or rather higher than, the noble. This was at the bottom of his doctrine; but he was glad all the same to have his claim supported by such outward signs of the inward grace as were afforded by vague genealogy and the homage of the great. Duchesses were his predilection when they were forthcoming; failing them, countesses were esteemed.
The Duchess d’Abrantes — one of his early admirers — to whom he dedicated his Forsaken Woman, was herself a colleague in letters; and he was able to render her some service through his relations with publishers. Their correspondence shows them to have been on very friendly terms. In one of his letters to her, he insisted on his inability to submit to any yoke, and rebutted her insinuation that he permitted himself to be led — possibly the Duchess’s hint referred to Madame de Berny. “My character,” he said, “is the most singular one I have ever come across. I study myself as I might another person. I comprise in my five feet two every incoherence, every contrast possible; and those who think me vain, prodigal, headstrong, frivolous, inconsistent, foppish, careless, idle, unstable, giddy, wavering, talkative, tactless, ill-bred, impolite, crotchety, humoursome, will be just as right as those who might affirm me to be thrifty, modest, plucky, tenacious, energetic, hardworking, constant, taciturn, cute, polite, merry. Nothing astonishes me more than myself. I am inclined to conclude I am the plaything of circumstances. Does this kaleidoscope result from the fact that, into the soul of those who claim to paint all the affections and the human heart, chance casts each and every of these same affections in order that by the strength of their imagination they may feel what they depict? And can it be that observation is only a sort of memory proper to aid this mobile imagination? I begin to be of this opinion.”
Balzac appears to have been introduced to the Duchess d’Abrantes about the year 1830, when he was engaged in writing his Shagreen Skin, which, out of the numerous pieces of fiction produced within this and the next twelve months, added most to his notoriety, though inferior to such stories as the House of the Tennis-playing Cat, and even to the Sceaux Ball in the more proper qualities of the novel.
The Shagreen Skin is the adventure of a young man who, after sowing his wild oats and losing his last crown at the gaming table, goes to end his troubles in the river, but is prevented from carrying out his intention by being fortuitously presented with a piece of shagreen skin, which has the marvellous property of gratifying its possessor’s every wish, yet, meanwhile, shrinks with each gratification, and in the same proportion curtails its possessor’s life. On this warp of fairy tale, the author weaves a woof of romance and reality most oddly blended. The imitations of predecessors are numerous. The style is turgid, the thought is shallow, the sentiment is exaggerated. But very little of the sober characterization soon to be manifested in other books is displayed in this one. The best that can be said is that the thing has the same cleverness as the Physiology, with here and there indications — and clear ones — of the novelist’s later power. He himself grossly overestimated it, as, indeed, he overestimated not a few of his poorer productions — maybe because they cost him greater toil than his masterpieces, which generally, after long, unconscious gestation, issued rapidly and painless from him.
An amusing expression of this self-praise has come down to us in the puff he composed on the occasion of a reprint of the Shagreen Skin by Gosselin in 1832. “The Philosophic Tales of Monsieur de Balzac,” it announced, “have appeared this week. The Shagreen Skin is judged as the admirable novels of Anne Radcliffe were judged. Such things escape annalists and commentators. The eager reader lays hold of these books. They bring sleeplessness into the mansions of the rich and into the garret of the poet; they animate the village. In winter they give a livelier reflection to the sparkling log, great privileges to the story-teller. It is nature, in sooth, who creates story-tellers. Vainly are you a learned, grave writer, if you have not been born a story-teller, and you will never obtain the popularity of the Mysteries of Udolpho and the Shagreen Skin, the Arabian Nights, and Monsieur de Balzac. I have somewhere read that God created Adam, the nomenclator, saying to him: You are the story-teller. And what a story-teller! What verve and wit! What indefatigable perseverance in painting everything, daring everything, branding everything! How the world is dissected by this man! What an annalist! What passion and what coolness!
“The Philosophic Tales are the red-hot interpretation of a civilization ruined by debauch and well-being, which Monsieur de Balzac exposes in the pillory. The Arabian Nights are the complete history of the luxurious East in its days of happiness and perfumed dreams. Candide is the epitome of an epoch in which there were bastilles, a stag-park, and an absolute king. By thus taking at the first bound a place beside these formidable or graceful tale-tellers, Monsieur de Balzac proves one thing that remained to be proved; to wit, that the drama, which was no longer possible to-day on the stage, was still possible in the story — that our society, so dangerously sceptical, blase, and scornful, could yet be moved by the galvanic shocks of this poetry of the senses — full of life and colour, in flesh and blood, drunk with wine and lust — in which Monsieur de Balzac revels with such delight. Thus, the surprise was great, when, thanks to this story-teller, we still found among us something resembling poetry — feasts, intoxication, the light o’ love giving her caresses amidst an orgie, the brimming punch-bowl crowned with blue flames, the yellow-gloved politician, scented adultery, the girl indulging in pleasure and love and dreaming aloud, poverty clean and neat, surrounded with respectability and happy hazard — we have seen all this in Balzac. The Opera with its lemans, the pink boudoir and its flossy hangings, the feast and its surfeits; we have even seen Moliere’s doctor reappear, such need has this man of sarcasm and grotesqueness. The further you advance in the Shagreen Skin — vices, lost virtues, poverties, boredom, deep silence, dry-as-dust science, angular, witless scepticism, laughable egotism, puerile vanities, venal loves, Jewish second-hand dealers, etc. — the more astonished and pained you will be to recognize that the nineteenth century in which you live is so made up. The Shagreen Skin is Candide with Beranger’s notes; it is poverty, luxury, faith, mockery; it is the heartless breast, the brainless cranium of the nineteenth century — the century so bedizened and scented, so revolutionary, so ill-read, so little worth, the century of brilliant phantasmagorias, of which in fifty years’ time nothing will be seizable except Monsieur de Balzac’s Shagreen Skin.”
On account of its sensationalism, the Shagreen Skin had a success of curiosity equal, and, if anything, superior to that of the Physiology. The author, however, had to defend himself against the charge of copying foreign literature — Hoffman’s tales in particular. One of his correspondents, the Duchess de Castries, who subsequently flattered him and flirted with him, wrote to him incognito, taking exception to certain statements he had made in each of his two popular works. Replying to her, he for the first time spoke of his desire to develop his fiction into a vast series of volumes destined to make known to posterity the life of his century.
Great schemes were always to be Balzac’s day-dreaming, one chasing the other in his fancy. They filled his thoughts, and in his heart were his constant aim, far more than to be loved, for all he asserted of this last desire. If literature was the one means he resorted to in his efforts to attain them, this was because every other means deceived his expectation, and not because he deliberately preferred it to all others. He owned the fact without reservation. In the case of a man whose literary achievement was so high, such slighting of letters has its significance, and is curious. Taken in conjunction with other evidence furnished by his letters, it proves that genius, though sometimes clearly the pure, simple moving of a spirit that cannot be resisted, is also — and perhaps as often — a calculating partnership, and that the work of art is a compromise. Would Balzac have written better if his motive had been single? It is not certain.
During these early days of his popularity, a seat in the Chamber of Deputies was his will o’ the wisp. Aided by the Dilecta’s friends, he offered himself as a candidate in two constituencies, Angouleme and Cambrai, after publishing his pamphlet: An Inquiry into the Policy of Two Ministries. With a view to shining in the future Parliament, he sharpened his witticisms, rounded his periods, polished his style, exercised himself in opposing short phrases to others of Ciceronian length, endeavouring the while to put poetry and observation into a new subject. At least these things were in his mind, as his communication to Berthoud of the Cambrai Gazette testified. His intention was to become an orator, he said. Had he been elected, he might have become the rival of Thiers. They were about the same age. Then France might have had two “little bourgeois” instead of one, unless one of the two had knocked the other out. But whether conquering or conquered, Balzac the politician would have swallowed up Balzac the novelist, and Eugenie Grandet would never have been written. Why he failed at the polls is not clear. Probably he did not possess enough suppleness to please his party. To tell the truth, we do not learn definitely to which party he belonged. He was quite capable of constituting one by himself.
These preoccupations hindered him somewhat in carrying out his engagements with publishers and editors, so that he did not always get the money he counted on. Yet he worked hard. His habit, at this time, was to go to bed at six in the evening and sleep till twelve, and after, to rise and write for nearly twelve hours at a stretch, imbibing coffee as a stimulant through these spells of composition. What recreation he took in Paris was at the theatre or at the houses of his noble acquaintances, where he went to gossip of an afternoon. It was exhausting to lead such an existence; and even the transient fillips given by the coffee were paid for in attacks of indigestion and in abscesses which threw him into fits of discouragement. When suffering from these, he poured out his soul to his sister or Madame Carraud, complaining in his epistles that his destiny compelled him to run after fame and deprived him of his chance to meet with the ideal woman. Madame de Berny, with all her devotion, did not satisfy him now. “Despairing of ever being loved and understood by the woman of my dreams,” he tragically cried, “having met with her only in my heart, I am plunging again into the tempestuous sphere of political passions and the stormy, withering atmosphere of literary glory.” But the “she” of his dreams, he added, must be wealthy. He could not conceive of marriage and love in a cottage. It must be admitted that from his sources of affection as from his sources of ambition there was a gush which was rather muddy.
Altogether, the year of 1832 was an irritating one for Balzac. A rich match he had hoped to make fell through. A second attempt of his to enter the Chamber of Deputies ended in defeat. His books, after their first season or two of favour, were selling but poorly in France, although pirated editions were issued and had a large circulation abroad. Impatiently he meditated plans for doubling and tripling his revenue. He would emigrate — he would recommence publishing — he would turn playwright. Amid these three solicitations he moved in a circle without reaching a conclusion. And fortune, while he was hesitating, did not come to his door. In default of her visit, not all the flattering epistles he received from ladies in Russia and Germany — three and four a day, he asserted — were an adequate compensation. A journey undertaken for the benefit of his health to Sache, Angouleme, and Aix forced him to borrow from his mother again, instead of paying back the capital he owed her. His unfinished manuscripts he had taken with him, but he found it difficult to get on with them: “I was going to start work this morning with courage,” he wrote to her, “when your letter came to upset me completely. Do you think it possible for me to have artistic thoughts when I see all at once the tableau of my miseries displayed before me as you display them? Do you think I should toil thus, if I did not feel it?”
The novelist’s relations with his mother force the attention of any one that studies his life. Their two natures were contrary; there were often conflicts between them. As a child, he seems not to have comprehended the affection underlying the maternal severity, and to have entertained a dread of the latter which never entirely left him. According to his friend Fessart, he used to confess he always experienced a nervous trembling whenever he heard his mother speak; and the effect was in some sort the numbing of his faculties when he was in her presence. Her generous abnegation at the time of his bankruptcy was a revelation to him; his gratitude for it was sincere; and from that date onwards, during a number of years, his letters to her evinced it, yet not consistently; the old distrust recurs, and also a growing tendency to utilize her as a servant in his concerns. Having once dipped in her purse, he did not hesitate to hold out his hand, on each occasion that his needs, real or fancied, prompted him, being confident of requiting her in the future. His refrain was ever the same: “Sooner or later, politics, journalism, a marriage, or a big piece of business luck will make me a Croesus. We must suffer a little longer.” And he finished by exhausting her last penny of capital, and reduced her to depend on an allowance he gave her, irregularly — an allowance which, when he died, had to be continued to her from the purse of another. Madame Balzac was sacrificed to his improvidence and stupendous egotism; nor can the tenderness of his language — more frequently than not called forth by some fresh immolation of her comfort to his interests — disguise this unpleasing side of his character and action. While he was recouping his strength and spirits, on the 1832 holiday, she was in Paris negotiating with Pichot of the Revue de Paris, with Gosselin and other publishers, arranging for proofs, and also for an advance of cash. Even his epistolary good-byes were odd mixtures of business with sentiment. After casting himself — through the post — on her bosom and embracing her with effusion, he terminated by: “Pay everything as you say. On my side, I will gain money by force, and we will balance the expenses by the receipts.”
The book that cost him the greatest efforts during the year of 1832 was his Louis Lambert, already mentioned in the second chapter. Writing about it to his family from Angouleme he explained that he was attempting in it to vie with Goethe and Byron, with Faust and Manfred. It was to be a conclusive reply to his enemies, and would make his superiority manifest. Some day or other it would lead science into new paths. Meantime it would produce a deep impression and astonish the Swedenborgians. Whether the members of this sect were astonished, history does not record. Those who were most so were the novelist’s friends, and Madame de Berny among the number. But their wonder was not a eulogium. First of all, the hero — his alter ego — is a very poor replica of Pascal; and the exalting of Lambert’s intelligence, which was mere self-praise, jarred on them the more, as they truly loved him. The Dilecta, whom he had asked to pass her frank opinion on it, did not hesitate to tell him some hard truths: “Goethe and Byron,” she said, “have admirably painted the desires of a superior mind; when reading them, one aggrandizes them by all the space they have perceived; one admires the scope of their view; one would fain give them one’s soul to help theirs to cover the distance that separates them from the goal they aspire to reach. But, if an author comes and tells me he has attained this goal, I no longer see in him, however great he may be, more than a presumptuous man; his vanity shocks me, and I diminish him by all the height to which he has tried to raise himself. . . . I would therefore beg you, dearest, to cut out of your Lambert everything that might suggest these singular ideas; for instance: ‘The admirable combat of thought arrived at its greatest force, at its vastest expression’ . . . ‘The moral world, whose limits he had thrown back for himself,’ cannot be tolerated. Write, dearest, in such a manner that the whole crowd may perceive you from everywhere, by the height at which you will have placed yourself; but do not cry out for people to admire you; for, on all sides, the largest magnifying-glasses would be directed towards you; and what becomes of the most delicious object seen by the microscope!”
The lesson was a severe one. Though it did not cure Balzac of his author’s vanity — nothing could cure him of that — it did, for a while at least, direct his endeavours towards fiction of a more objective kind.
What he was now capable of in characterization treated objectively he showed in his Colonel Chabert and the Cure of Tours, both of which were published in the same twelvemonth as Louis Lambert. These stories are exceedingly simple in construction. The Cure is a priest whose joys and ambitions are modest and innocent. Having reached the age when indulgence in ease and comfort is excusable, he finds himself suddenly deprived of them through unwittingly offending his landlady. She, an old maid, as inwardly shrewish as outwardly pious, utilizes the Abbe Birotteau and another clergyman, who both lodge with her, to attract the good society folk of Tours to her evening receptions. After due experience of these gatherings, the Abbe plays truant, finding it more agreeable to spend his leisure with friends elsewhere. His absence causes the landlady’s guests to grow remiss and finally to desert her; so, to revenge herself, the slighted dame, proceeding by petty pin-pricks, makes the Abbe’s life a burden to him, and, ultimately enlisting the brother clergyman in her schemes of annoyance, works on his jealousy with such cleverness that their victim’s career is blasted and blighted. Dependent on the development of the characters, the plot is adroitly and naturally elaborated. Nowhere is there any forcing of the note; and, in alternate flow, humour and pathos, of a saner sort than in some of the author’s previous work, run and ripple throughout. With deeper pathos the novelist tells in Colonel Chabert the virtues of a man of obscure origin, whose nobleness meets with but scanty recognition, since it conducts him to the almshouse in his old age. So vivid is the sober realism of this fine story that the public believed the relation to be plain, unvarnished facts, and were astonished at the writer’s daring to reveal them in all their detail.
Balzac’s autumn trip was prolonged as far as Annecy and Geneva. He had intended going on to Italy in company with the Duke de Fitz-James. The latter journey, however, was ultimately abandoned, as he did not succeed in raising the thousand crowns it required. Travelling on the top of a coach, he had rather a serious accident when going to Aix. He was climbing up to the front seat just as the horses set off, and, having missed his footing, fell with all his weight against the iron step. The strap, which he clutched in his fall, saved him from coming to the ground; but the impact of his eighty-four kilograms caused the sharp iron to enter the flesh of his leg pretty deeply. This wound took some time to heal, and the annoyance it cause him was aggravated by an additional malady in his stomach which he tried to deal with by consulting a mysterious quack in Paris, sending him through his mother, two pieces of flannel that he had been wearing next his skin. The doctor was to examine No. 1 flannel, and by it to determine the seat and the cause of the affection, as well as the treatment to be followed; then he was to examine No. 2, and to give certain instructions as to its further use. Balzac asked his mother to touch the flannels only with paper, so as not to interfere with their effluvia. This belief of his in magnetism of an occult kind was an inheritance. His mother, it has already been said, was a mystic. Her books of this doctrine comprised more than a hundred volumes of Saint-Martin, Swedenborg, Madame Guyon, Jacob Boehm, and others. All these writers he was familiar with. Throughout his life, the influence of their teaching and his mother’s firm belief remained with him. On his conduct and practice their effect was harmless; but in his literary work they were a disturbance, and, wherever they intruded, detracted from its quality.
Happily, he was beginning to be tempted more and more by the artistic side of things in his daily experience. Of the lesser novels composed before the end of 1832, several were directly inspired by incidents brought to his knowledge. The Red Inn was related to him by a former army surgeon, a friend of the man that was unjustly condemned and executed. An Episode under the Terror was narrated by the hero himself. A Desert Attachment was the outcome of a conversation with Martin, the celebrated tamer of wild beasts. On the other hand, Master Cornelius was written to correct the false impression of Louis XI. which he considered Walter Scott had given to his readers in Quentin Durward, this making him very angry. His curiosity concerning facts and realities of every description led him to seek an interview with Samson the executioner. Calling one day to see the Director of Prisons, he found himself in presence of a pale, melancholy-looking man of noble countenance, whose manners, language, and apparent education were those of one polished and cultured. It was Samson. Entering into conversation with this strange personage, the novelist listened to the particulars of his life. Samson was a royalist. On the morrow of Louis XVI.‘s execution he had suffered the utmost remorse, and had paid for what was probably the only expiatory mass said on that day for the repose of the King’s soul.
Like other litterateurs, Balzac took up many subjects which he did not go on with. He had this peculiarity besides, that he often asserted some book to be completed which was either not begun at all or was in a most unfinished condition. While on the Angouleme and Aix excursion, he spoke especially of The Three Cardinals, The Battle of Austerlitz (afterwards often alluded to simply as the Battle), and The Marquis of Carrabas. Not one of these was ever written. They were abandoned perhaps on account of other work, or else because the execution was less easy than the conception. Napoleon, who would have been a central figure in the Battle, is incidentally introduced in the Country Doctor, which was begun in 1832.
Probably, also, to this same date should be assigned the bizarre and even comical expression of hopes and fears for the future which Balzac confided to his sister Laure. In order to force himself to take exercise, he used to correct his proofs either at the printer’s or at her house. Sometimes the weather, to the influence of which he was very susceptible, sometimes his money-tightness, or his fatigue from protracted work would cause him to arrive with lack-lustre eyes, sallow complexion, glum expression and irritable temper. Laure essayed to console and brighten him.
“Now don’t try to comfort me,” he answered on one occasion. “I’m a dead man.”
And the dead man began to drawl out his tale of woe, gradually rousing up as he talked, and, at last, speaking excitedly. But the dolent accents returned as he opened his proofs and read them.
“I shall never make a name, sis.”
“Nonsense! with such books, any one could make a name.”
He raised his head; his features relaxed; the sombre tints vanished from his face.
“You are right, by Jove! . . . these books must live. . . . Besides, there is Chance. It can protect a Balzac as well as it can a fool. Indeed, one has only to invent this chance. Let some one of my millionaire friends (and I have a few), or a banker not knowing what to do with his money, come and say to me: ‘I am aware of your immense talent and your anxieties; you need such and such a sum to be free; accept it without scruple; you will pay it back some day or other; your pen is worth my millions!’ That’s all I require, my dear sister.”
Laure, being accustomed to the appearance of these illusions which brought back his cheerfulness, never exhibited any surprise at such soaring notes. Having created the fable, her imaginative brother continued:
“Those people spend such sums on whims. . . . A handsome deed is a whim, like any other, and gives joy perpetually. It is something to say: ‘I have saved a Balzac.’ Humanity has good impulses of the sort; and there are people who, without being English, are capable of like eccentricities. ‘Either a millionaire or a banker,’ he cried, thumping on his chest, ‘one of them I will have.’”
By dint of talking he had come to accredit the thing, and gleefully strode about the room, lifting and waving his arms.
“Ah! Balzac is free! You shall see, my dear friends, and my dear enemies, what his progress is.”
In fancy, he entered the Academy! From there it was only a step to the House of Peers. He beheld himself admitted thither. Why shouldn’t he be a member of the Upper Chamber? This and that person had been created a peer. Then he was appointed a minister. There was nothing extraordinary about it. Presidents existed. Were not people who had boxed the compass of ideas the fittest to govern their fellows? A programme, a policy was evolved and carried out; and, as everything was going on smoothly, he had time to think of the millionaire friend or banker who had assisted him. The generous Maecenas should be rewarded. He understood the novelist, had lent him money on the security of his talent, had enabled him to obtain his well-deserved honours. The benefactor should now have his share in the honour, a share in the immortality.
After a peregrination of this magnitude and dreams to match, he alighted from his Pegasus, and spoke as an ordinary mortal — he had enjoyed himself, and his fit of the dumps was exorcised. Putting the last touch to his proof-correcting, he left the house with his face wreathed in smiles.
“Good-bye,” he said to his sister, at the door; “I am off home to see if the banker is there, waiting for me. If he isn’t, I shall find some work to do all the same; and work is my real money-lender.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05