The aim of an author whose writings are intended to please must be ethical as well as aesthetic, if he respects himself and his readers. He wishes the pleasure he can give to do good, not harm. The good he feels capable of producing may be limited to the physical or may extend beyond to the moral; but it will be found in his work in so far as the latter is truly artistic.
Balzac’s prefaces and correspondence are so many proofs that he rejected the pretensions of literature or any other art to absolute independence. The doctrine of art for art’s sake alone would have had no meaning to him. However much his striving to confer on his novels organic unity, and however much the writing against time deteriorated his practice, they did not prevent him from recognizing the ethical claim. What he realized less was the necessity of submitting treatment to the same government of law.
Even if we grant that the plan of the Comedie Humaine existed in the novelist’s mind from the commencement, obscurely at first, more clearly afterwards, the plan itself was not artistic in the sense that an image in the architect’s mind is artistic when he designs on paper the edifice he purposes to construct, or in the painter’s mind when he chooses the subject and details of his picture, or in the sculptor’s mind when he arranges his group of statuary, or in the musician’s mind when he conjures up his opera or oratorio. Balzac’s plan was one of numbers or logic merely. The block of his Comedy was composed on the dictionary principle of leaving nothing out which could be put in; and his genius, great as it was, wrestled achingly and in vain with a task from which selection was practically banished and which was a piling of Pelion on Ossa.
For this reason it is that, regarded as an aggregate, the Comedie Humaine can be admired only as one may admire a forceful mass of things, when it is looked at from afar, through an atmosphere that softens outlines, hides or transforms detail, adds irreality. In such an ambience certain novels that by themselves would shock, gain a sort of appropriateness, and others that are trivial or dull serve as foils. But, at the same time, we know that the effect is partly illusion.
In a writer’s entire production the constant factor is usually his style, while subject and treatment vary. Balzac, however, is an exception in this respect as in most others. He attains terse vigour in not a few of his books, but in not a few also he disfigures page after page with loose, sprawling ruggedness, not to say pretentious obscurity. His opinion of himself as a stylist was high, higher no doubt than that he held of George Sand, to whom he accorded eminence mainly on this ground. Of the French language he said that he had enriched it by his alms. Finding it poor but proud, he had made it a millionaire. And the assertion was put forward with the same seriousness that he displayed when declaring that there were three men only of his time who really knew their mother-tongue — Victor Hugo, Theophile Gautier, and himself. That his conversancy with French extended from Froissart downwards, through Rabelais’ succulent jargon as well as Moliere’s racy idiom, is patent in nearly all he wrote; and that he was capable of using this vocabulary aptly is sufficiently shown in the best and simplest of his works. But it is not so clear that he added anything to the original stock. Such words as he coined under the impetus of his exuberance are mostly found in his letters and have not been taken into favour.
A demur must likewise be entered against his style’s possessing the qualities that constitute a charm apart from the matter expressed. Too many tendencies wrought in him uncurbed for his ideas to clothe themselves constantly in a suitable and harmonious dress. Generally when his personality intruded itself in the narrative, it was quite impossible for him to speak unless affectedly, with a mixture of odd figures of speech and similes that hurtled in phrases of heavy construction. Taine has collected a few of these. In the Cure of Tours we read:—
“No creature of the feminine gender was more capable than Mademoiselle Sophie Gamard of formulating the elegiac nature of an old maid.”
Elsewhere, he speaks of the “fluid projections of looks that serve to touch the suave skin of a woman;” of the “atmosphere of Paris in which seethes a simoon that swells the heart;” of the “coefficient reason of events;” of “pecuniary mnemonics;” of “sentences flung out through the capillary tubes of the great female confabulation;” of “devouring ideas distilled through a bald forehead;” of a “lover’s enwrapping his mistress in the wadding of his attentions;” of “abortions in which the spawn of genius cumbers an arid strand;” of the “philosophic moors of incredulity;” of a “town troubled in its public and private intestines.”
In one of the chapters of Seraphita, he says: “Wilfred arrived at Seraphita’s house to relate his life, to paint the grandeur of his soul by the greatness of his faults; but, when he found himself in the zone embraced by those eyes whose azure scintillations met with no horizon in front, and offered none behind, he became calm again and submissive as the lion who, bounding on his prey in an African plain, receives, on the wing of the winds, a message of love, and stops. An abyss opened into which fell the words of his delirium!”
And the same Wilfred “trusted to his perspicacity to discover the parcels of truth rolled by the old servant in the torrent of his divagations.”
During the years of Balzac’s greatest literary activity, which were also those of his bitterest polemics, his opponents made much capital out of the caprices of his pen. In the lawsuit against the Revue de Paris, Monsieur Chaix d’Est-Ange, the defendant’s counsel, provoked roars of laughter by quoting passages from the Lily in the Valley; and Jules Janin, in his criticism of A Provincial Great Man in Paris, grew equally merry over the verbal conceits abounding in the portraits of persons. And yet the very volumes that furnish the largest number of ill-begotten sentences contain many passages of sustained dignity, sober strength, and proportioned beauty.
Normally, Balzac’s style, in spite of its mannerisms, its use and abuse of metaphor, its laboured evolution and expression of the idea, and its length and heaviness of period, adapts itself to the matter, and alters with kaleidoscopic celerity, according as there is description, analysis, or dramatization. Thus blending with the subject, it loses a good deal of its proper virtue, which explains why it does not afford the pleasure of form enjoyed in such writers as George Sand, Flaubert, Renan, and Anatole France. The pleasure his word-conjuring can yield is chiefly of the sensuous order. The following passage is, as Taine says, botany turned into imagination and passion:—
“Have you felt in the meadows, in the month of May, the perfume which communicates to every living being the thrill of fecundation, which, when you are in a boat, makes you dip your hands in the rippling water and let your hair fly in the wind, while your thoughts grow green like the boughs of the forest? A tiny herb, the sweet-smelling anthoxanthum is the principal of this veiled harmony. Thus, no one can stay in its proximity unaffected by it. Put into a nosegay its glittering blades streaked like a green-and-white netted dress; inexhaustible effluvia will stir in the bottom of your heart the budding roses that modesty crushes there. Within the depths of the scooped-out neck of porcelain, suppose a wide margin composed of the white tufts peculiar to the sedum of vines in Touraine; a vague image of desirable forms turned like those of a submissive slave. From this setting issue spirals of white-belled convolvulus, twigs of pink rest-harrow mingled with a few ferns, and a few young oak-shoots having magnificently coloured leaves; all advance bowing themselves, humble as weeping willows, timid and suppliant as prayers. Above, see the slender-flowered fibrils, unceasingly swayed, of the purply amourette, which sheds in profusion its yellowy anthers; the snowy pyramids of the field and water glyceria; the green locks of the barren bromus; the tapered plumes of the agrosits, called wind-ears; violet-hued hopes with which first dreams are crowned, and which stand out on the grey ground of flax where the light radiates round these blossoming herbs. But already, higher up, a few Bengal roses scattered among the airy lace of the daucus, the feathers of the marsh-flax, the marabouts of the meadow-sweet, the umbellae of the white chervil, the blond hair of the seeding clematis, the neat saltiers of the milk-white cross-wort, the corymbs of the yarrow, the spreading stems of the pink-and-black flowered fumitory, the tendrils of the vine, the sinuous sprays of honeysuckle; in fine, all that is most dishevelled and ragged in these naïve creatures; flames and triple darts, lanceolated, denticulated leaves, stems tormented like vague desires twisted at the bottom of the soul; from the womb of this prolix torrent of love that overflows, shoots up a magnificent red double-poppy with its glands ready to open, displaying the spikes of its fire above the starred jasmine and dominating the incessant rain of pollen, a fair cloud that sparkles in the air, reflecting the light in its myriad glistening atoms. What woman, thrilled by the love-scent lurking in the anthoxanthum, will not understand this wealth of submissive ideas, this white tenderness troubled by untamed stirrings and this red desire of love demanding a happiness refused in those struggles a hundred times recommenced, of restrained, eternal passion. Was not all that is offered to God offered to love in this poesy of luminous flowers incessantly humming its melodies to the heart, caressing hidden pleasures there, unavowed hopes, illusions that blaze and vanish like gossamer threads on a sultry night?”
This last quotation was probably in Sainte-Beuve’s mind when he spoke of the efflorescence by which Balzac gave to everything the sentiment of life and made the page itself thrill. Elsewhere he found the efflorescence degenerate into something exciting and dissolvent, enervating, rose-tinted, and veined with every hue, deliciously corruptive, Byzantine, suggestive of debauch, abandoning itself to the fluidity of each movement. Sainte-Beuve was not an altogether unprejudiced critic of the novelist; but his impeachment can hardly be refuted, although Brunetiere would fain persuade us that the only thing which may be reasonably inveighed against in Balzac’s style is its indelicacy or rather native non-delicacy. If the Contes Drolatiques alone had been in question, this lesser accusation might suffice. But there are the Lost Illusions, the Bachelor’s Household, and Cousin Bette, not to mention other novels, in which the scenes of vice are dwelt upon with visible complacency and a glamour is created and thrown over them by the writer’s imagination, in such a way that the effect is nauseous in proportion as it is pleasurable. The artistic representation of vice and crime is justifiable only in so far as the mind contemplating it is carried out and beyond into the sphere of sane emotion. True, by considerable portions of the Comedie Humaine only sane emotions are roused; but these portions are, more often than not, those wherefrom the author’s peculiar genius is absent. It is in less conspicuous works, or those like the Cure of Tours, the Country Doctor, Cesar Birotteau, Cousin Pons, the Reverse Side of Contemporary History that the eternal conflict of good and evil is so exhibited as to evoke healthy pity, sympathy, admiration, and their equally healthy contraries, and also a wider comprehension of life.
It is difficult to separate the subject-matter of a novel from its treatment. Yet a word should be said of Balzac’s widening the limits of admission. His widening was two-fold. It boldly took the naked reality of latest date, the men and women of his time in the full glare of passion and action, unsoftened by the veil that hides and in some measure transforms when they have passed into history; and it included in this reality the little, the commonplace, the trivial. This innovator in fiction aimed, as Crabbe and Wordsworth had aimed in poetry, at interesting the reader in themes which were ordinarily deemed to be void of interest. The thing deserved trying. His predecessors, and even his contemporaries, had neglected it. An experimenter in this direction, he now and then forgot that the proper subject-matter of the novel is man — man either individual or collective — and spent himself in fruitless endeavours to endow the abstract with reality.
When he opined, somewhat rashly, that George Sand had no force of conception, no power of constructing a plot, no faculty of attaining the true, no art of the pathetic, he doubtless wished the influence to be drawn that he was not lacking in them himself.
As regards the first, his claim can be admitted without reserve. Force of conception is dominant throughout his fiction. It is that which gained his novels their earliest acceptance. Whether they were approved or disapproved in other respects, their strong originality imposed itself on the attention of friends and enemies alike. One felt then, and one feels now, though more than half a century has elapsed since they were produced, that, whatever factitious accretions clung to them, they came into the world with substance and form new-fashioned; no mere servile perpetuation of an effete type, but a fresh departure in the annals of art.
Especially is this seen in his characterization. His men and women are most of them put on foot with the energy of movement in them and an idiosyncrasy of speech and action that has not been surpassed. As already stated, they generally are not portraits, although his memory was of that peculiar concave visuality which allowed him to cast its images forth solidly into space. What he did was to remodel these images with proportions differing from those of the reality, magnifying or diminishing them pretty much as Swift with his Brobdingnagians and Lilliputians; and, having got the body of his personage recomposed, with mental and moral qualities and defects corresponding to every one of its details — for Balzac was a firm believer in the corporal being an exact reflection of the spiritual — he set his mechanisms in motion.30
30 “A round waist,” he says, “is a sign of force; but women so built are imperious, self-willed, more voluptuous than tender. On the contrary, flat-waisted women are devoted, full of finesse, inclined to melancholy.” Elsewhere, he informs us that “most women who ride horseback well are not tender.” “Hands like those of a Greek statue announce a mind of illogical domination; eyebrows that meet indicate a jealous tendency. In all great men the neck is short, and it is rare that a tall man possesses eminent faculties.”
To call his men and women mechanisms, while yet acknowledging their intense vitality, may seem a contradiction; but nothing less than this antinomy is adequate to indicate the fatality of Balzac’s creatures. None of them ever appear to be free agents. Planet-like they revolve in an orbit, or meteor-like they rush headlong, and their course in the one or the other case is guessable from the beginning. Not that change or development is precluded. The conjuror provides for large transformation; but the law of such transformation is one of iron necessity, and, when he brings in at the end his interferences of Providence, they shock us as an inconsequence. However, though bound by their weird, his people are extraordinarily various in their aspect and doings. It is rare that he repeats his characters, albeit many of them touch each other at certain points. The exceptions are caused by his sometimes altering his manner of characterization and proceeding from the inside first. This variation goes to the extent of distinguishing influences of the soil as well as of social grade and temperament. His northerners speak and act otherwise than those of the south or west, and, in the main, are true to life, despite the author’s perceptible satire when depicting provincials.
Parallel to his vigorous creation of character is the force with which he builds up their environment. Here his realism is intense. Indeed, occasionally one is tempted to credit Balzac with a greater love of things than of men, yet not the things of nature as much as things made by men. His portrayal of landscape may be fine prose, but contains no pure feeling of poetry in it, while, in the town, in the house, in the street, wherever the human mind and hand have left their imprints, his language grows warm, his fancy swoops and grasps the significance of detail; these dumb survivals of the past become eloquent to his ears; his eyes discover in them a reflecting retina which, obedient to his command, resuscitates former contacts, a world buried and now found again. When attempting the historical novel, in which his persons are typical rather than individual, he still preserves this exactitude of local colouring. His descriptions of places, in fact, in all his books are almost photographs, and, where change has been slow, still serve to guide the curious traveller.
In his preface to the Cabinet of Antiques, he explains how he dealt with his raw material. A young man has been prosecuted before the Assize Court, and had been condemned and branded. This case he connected with the story of an ancient family fallen from its high estate and dwelling in provincial surroundings. The story had dramatic elements in it, but less intensely dramatic than those of the young man’s case. “This way of proceeding,” he says, “should be that of an historian of manners and morals. His task consists in blending analogous facts in a single picture. Is he not rather bound to give the spirit than the letter of the happenings? He synthesizes them. Often it is necessary to pick out several similar characters in order to succeed in making up one, just as odd people are met with who are so ridiculous that two distinct persons may be created out of them. . . . . Literature uses a means employed in painting, which, to obtain a fine figure, adapts the hands of one model, the foot of another, the chest of a third, the shoulders of a fourth.”
The foregoing quotation raises the question of the significance of the term truth as applied to fiction. Evidently, it cannot have the same meaning as when applied to history or biography. In the latter, the writer invents neither circumstances nor actions, nor the persons engaged in them, but seeks to know the whole of the first two exactly as they occurred, and to interpret, as nearly to life as may be, the third. However, if he be a philosopher, he will perhaps try to show the intimate relations existing between these same persons and the events in which they were concerned; and, in doing so, he will step out of his proper role and assume one which is less easy for him than for the novelist to play, since the writer of fiction composes both his dramatis personae and their story; and the concordance between them is more a matter of art than of science.
Still it is possible that neither a novelist’s characters nor their environment shall be in entire agreement with all observable facts. There may be arrangements, eliminations, additions, which, though pleasing to the reader, may remove the mimic world to a plane above that of the so-called real one. Thus removed, Balzac judged George Sand’s production to be. And we must confess that, even in Little Fadette, The Devil’s Pool, and Francois le Champi, it deals with human experience in a mode differing widely from that which the author of Eugenie Grandet considered conform to truth.
As regards the methods of these two rivals, the claim to superior truth cannot be settled in Balzac’s favour by merely pointing to his realism. Realism tried by the norm of truth is relative. What it represents of the accidental in life may be much less than what it omits of the essential or potential, for these two words are often interchangeable. In the same object, different people usually see different aspects, qualities, attributes. Is one spectacle necessarily true and another false? It is certain that George Sand, in her stories of peasant life, largely uses the artist’s liberty of leaving out a great deal that Balzac would have put in when treating a like subject. It is certain that from some themes and details that Balzac delighted in describing she deliberately turned away, and it is certain also that she introduced into her fiction not a little of the Utopian world that has haunted man in his later development without there being actuality or the least chance of realization to lend it substance. But Balzac’s fiction has, too, its pocket Utopias, less attractive and less invigorating than Madame Dudevant’s, and in his most realistic portrayals there are not infrequently dream-scapes of the fancy. The truth that we can most readily perceive in his work is one which, after all, embraces the ideally potential in man as well as his most material manifestations. It is small compared with the mass of what he wrote; but, where found, it is supreme.
In constructing plot Balzac is unequal and often inferior. Here it is that his romanticist origins reappear rankly like weeds, giving us factitious melodrama that accords ill with his sober harvest of actuality. And his melodrama has not the merit of being various. It nearly always contains the same band of rogues, disguised under different names, conspiring to ruin innocent victims by the old tricks of their trade.
Then, again, many of his novels have no understandable progression from the commencement, through the middle, to the conclusion. This is not because he was incapable of involving his characters in the consequences of their actions, but because things that he esteemed of greater importance interfered with the story’s logical development. We have episodes encroaching on the main design, or what was originally intended to be the main design, which is disaggregated before the end is arrived at. As a matter of fact, quite a number of his plots are swamped by what he forces into them with the zeal of an encyclopaedist. Philosophy, history, geography, law, medicine, trade, industry, agriculture enter by their own right. The novelist yields up his wand, and the pedagogue or vulgarisateur comes forward with his chalk and blackboard. Canalization is explained at length in the Village Cure; will-making is discoursed upon in Ursule Mirouet; promissory notes, bills of exchange, and protests, not to speak of business accounts, cover pages in the Lost Illusions; therapeutics takes the place of narrative in the Reverse Side of Contemporary History; physiology is lectured upon in the Lily in the Valley; Louis Lambert aims at becoming a second and better edition of the Thoughts of Pascal; and in Seraphita we have sermons as long and tedious as those of an Elizabethan divine. The result is that even novels containing the presentment of love in its most passional phases lose their right to the name. At best they can be called only disparate chapters of fiction; at worst, they are merely raw material.
As for his achievement in the pathetic, it is almost nil. At least, if by pathos we mean that which touches the heart’s tenderest strings. Harrow us, he can; play upon many of our emotions, he is able to at will. But, at bottom, he had too little sympathy with his fellows to find in their mistakes, or sins, or sufferings, the wherewithal to bring out of us our most generous tears. Those he wept once or twice himself when writing were drawn from him by a reflex self-pity that is easily evoked. In genuine pathos, Hugo is vastly his superior.
Women occupy so preponderant a position in the Comedy that one is forced to ask one’s self whether these numerous heroines are reproduced with the same fidelity to nature as are his men. At any rate, they are not all treated in the same manner. In his descriptions of grand ladies the satiric intention is rarely absent. Why, it is difficult to say, unless it was that he was unable to avoid the error of introducing the pique of the plebeian suitor, and that the satire was an effort to establish the balance in his favour. “When I used to go into high society,” he told Madame Hanska, “I suffered in every part of me through which suffering could enter. It is only misunderstood souls and those that are poor who know how to observe, because everything jars on them, and observation results from suffering.” In his inmost thought he had no high opinion of women. Notwithstanding his flattery of Madame Hanska, he was a firm upholder of the old doctrine of male supremacy; and, at certain moments, he slipped his opinion out, content afterwards to let Eve or another suppose that his hard words were not spoken in earnest. One of his would-be witticisms at the expense of the fair sex was: “The most Jesuitical Jesuit among the Jesuits is a thousand times less Jesuitical than the least Jesuitical woman.” The form only of the accusation was new. How often before and since the misogynist has asserted that women have no conscience. Be it granted that Balzac’s grand dames often have very little, and some of his other women also. They are creatures of instinct and passion susceptible only of being influenced through their feelings. Yet, as regards the former, Sainte-Beuve assures us that their portraits in the Comedy resemble the originals. He says: “Who especially has more delightfully hit off the duchesses and viscountesses of the Restoration period!” Brunetiere accepts this testimony of a contemporary who himself frequented the salons of the great. Some later critics, on the contrary, hold that the novelist has given us stage-dames with heavy graces and a bizarre free-and-easiness as being the nearest equivalent to aristocratic nonchalance. One thing is certain, namely, that Balzac was personally acquainted rather with that side of aristocratic society which was not the better. It was the side bordering on licentiousness, where manners as well as morals are easily tainted and vulgarity can creep in. Again, he creates his women with a theory, and, in art, theories are apt to become prejudices. According to his appreciation Walter Scott’s heroines are monotonous; they lack relief, he said, and they lack it because they are Protestants. The Catholic woman has repentance, the Protestant woman, virtue only. Many of Balzac’s women repent, and many of those that repent either backslide or come very near to it. His altogether virtuous women are childish without being children, and some are bold into the bargain. In fine, his gamut of feminine psychology seems to be limited, very limited. Women of the finest mind he neither comprehended nor cared to understand. They were outside his range.
But what he missed in the whole representation of the fair sex he made up for by what he invented, as indeed, too, in his representation of the sterner sex; and Jules Janin’s account of the matter is not far from the truth:—
“He is at once the inventor, the architect, the upholsterer, the milliner, the professor of languages, the chambermaid, the perfumer, the barber, the music-teacher, and the usurer. He renders his society all that it is. He it is who lulls it to sleep on a bed expressly arranged for sleep and adultery; he, who bows all women beneath the same misfortune; he, who buys on credit the horses, jewels, and clothes of all these handsome sons without stomach, without money, without heart. He is the first who has found the livid veneer, the pale complexion of distinguished company which causes all his heroes to be recognized. He has arranged in his fertile brain all the adorable crimes, the masked treasons, the ingenious rapes mental and physical which are the ordinary warp of his plots. The jargon spoken by this peculiar world, and which he alone can interpret, is none the less a mother-tongue rediscovered by Monsieur de Balzac, which partly explains the ephemeral success of this novelist, who still reigns in London and Saint Petersburg as the most faithful reproduction of the manners and actions of our century.”
Janin’s animus blinded him to the rest, and it is just the rest of the qualities which converted the ephemeral success into the permanent. Taine’s estimate is more discursive. He is further removed from polemics. He says:—
“Monsieur de Balzac has of private life a very deep and fine sentiment which goes even to minuteness of detail and of superstition. He knows how to move you and make you palpitate from the first, simply in depicting a garden-walk, a dining-room, a piece of furniture. He divines the mysteries of provincial life; sometimes he makes them. Most often he does not recognize and therefore isolates the pudic and hidden side of life, together with the poetry it contains. He has a multitude of rapid remarks about old maids and old women, ugly girls, sickly women, sacrificed and devoted mistresses, old bachelors, misers. One wonders where, with his petulant imagination, he can have picked it all up. It is true that Monsieur de Balzac does not proceed with sureness, and that in his numerous productions, some of which appear to us almost admirable, at any rate touching and delicious or piquant and finely comic in observation, there is a dreadful pell-mell. What a throng of volumes, what a flight of tales, novels of all sorts, droll, philosophic, and theosophic. There is something to be enjoyed in each, no doubt, but what prolixity! In the elaboration of a subject, as in the detail of style, Monsieur de Balzac has a facile, unequal, risky pen. He starts off quickly, sets himself in a gallop, and then, all at once, he stumbles to the ground, rising only to fall again. Most of his openings are delightful; but his conclusions degenerate or become excessive. At a certain moment, he loses self-control. His observing coolness escapes; something in his brain explodes, and carries everything far, far away. Hazard and accident have a good share in Monsieur de Balzac’s best production. He has his own manner, but vacillating, fidgety, often seeking to regain self-possession.”
How much one could wish that, instead of producing more, Balzac should have produced less. With a man of his native power and perseverance, what greater perfection there might have been! Certainly, no defect is more patent in the Comedie Humaine than the trail of hasty workmanship, the mark of being at so much a line. Strangely, the speed with which he wrote furnished him with a cause for boasting. More properly, it ought to have filled him with humiliation. Many litterateurs are compelled to drive and overdrive their pens. But, if they have the love of letters innate in them, it will go against the grain to send into the world their sentences without having had leisure to polish each and all. Examples have already been given of the short time spent over several books of the Comedy. There is no need to repeat these or to add to their names. Occasionally, the result was not bad, when, as with Cesar Birotteau, the subject had been long in the novelist’s head. This, however, was the exception. The fifty-five sheets once composed in a single week, and the six thousand lines once reeled off in ten days, were probably invented as well as set on paper within the periods stated. No doubt, much was altered in the galley proofs; but the alterations would be made with the same celerity, so that they risked being no improvement either in style or matter. Balzac, indeed, was aware of the imperfections arising from such a method; and he not infrequently strove to correct them in subsequent editions. The task might perhaps have been carried out fully, if the bulk of his new novels had not been continually growing faster than he could follow it with his revision.
The commercial compromises that he consented to were still more injurious to the artistic finish of some of his later pieces of fiction. For instance, when the Employees was about to come out in a volume, after its publication as a serial the length was judged to be insufficient by the man of business. He wanted more for his money. What did Balzac do? He searched through his drawers, pitched upon a manuscript entitled Physiology of the Employee, and drilled it into the other story. Of these patchwork novels The Woman of Thirty Years Old is the worst. Originally, it was six distinct short tales which had appeared at divers dates. The first was entitled Early Mistakes; the second, Hidden Sufferings; the third, At Thirty Years Old; the fourth, God’s Finger; the fifth, Two Meetings; and the sixth and last, The Old Age of a Guilty Mother. In 1835, the author took it into his head to join them together under one title, The Same Story, although the names of the characters differed in each chapter, so that the chief heroine had no fewer than six appellations. Not till 1842 did he remedy this primary incoherence, yet without the removal of the aliases doing anything towards bestowing consistency on the several personages thus connected in Siamese-twin fashion. To-day, any one who endeavors to read the novel through will proceed from astonishment to bewilderment, and thence to amazement. Nowhere else does Balzac come nearer to that peculiar vanity which fancies that every licence is permissible to talent.
In his chapter on the social importance of the Comedie Humaine, Brunetiere tries to persuade us that, before Balzac’s time, novelists in general gave a false presentation of the heroes by making love the unique preoccupation of life. And he seems to include dramatists in his accusation, declaring that love as a passion, the love which Shakespeare and Racine speak of, is a thing exceeding rare, and that humanity is more usually preoccupied with everything and anything besides love; love, he says, has never been the great affair of life except with a few idle people. Monsieur Brunetiere’s erudition was immense, and the nights as well as the days he spent in acquiring his formidable knowledge may in his case have prevented more than a passing thought being given to the solicitation of love. If the eminent critic had been as skilled in psychology as he was in literature, he would have been more disposed to recognize that, amidst all the toils and cares of life, love, in some phase, is after all the mainspring, and that, if it were eliminated from man’s nature, the most puissant factor of his activity would disappear. Love is part of the huge sub-conscious in man; and the novelist, in making the events of his fiction turn upon it, does no more than follow nature.
However, it is not exact that all novelists and dramatists, or even the majority of them, before Balzac’s time made love the sole preoccupation of their heroes. What they did rather — in so far as their writing was true — was to give a visible relief to it which in real life is impossible, since it belongs to the invisible, inner experience. Nor is it exact that Balzac consistently assigns a secondary place in his novels to love. He does so in his best novels, but not in some that he thought his best — The Lily in the Valley and Seraphita for example. The relegation of love to the background in these novels which happen to be his masterpieces was caused by something mentioned in a preceding chapter, to wit, that Balzac never thoroughly felt or understood love as a great and noble passion. And love, with him, being so oddly mixed up with calculation, it was to be expected he should succeed best in books in which the dominant interest was some other passion — an exceptional one. If money plays, on the contrary, such an intrusive role in his novels, its introduction was less from voluntary, reasoned choice than from obsession. He deals with this subject sometimes splendidly, but, at other times, he wearies. Had money filled a smaller part of his work, the work would not have been lost.
In fine, with its beauties and its ugliness, its perfections and its shortcomings, the Comedy is the illumination cast by a master-mind upon the goings-out and comings-in of his contemporaries, the creation of a more universal and representative history of social life than had been previously written. Having considerable ethical value, it is worth still more on account of the ways it opens towards the fiction of the future.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47