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The Letters Of Honore De Balzac by By Henry James

 

THE FIRST feeling of the reader of the two volumes which have lately been published under the foregoing title is that he has almost done wrong to read them. He reproaches himself with having taken a shabby advantage of a person who is unable to defend himself. He feels as one who has broken open a cabinet or rummaged an old desk. The contents of Balzac's letters are so private, so personal, so exclusively his own affairs and those of no one else, that the generous critic constantly lays them down with a sort of dismay, and asks himself in virtue of what peculiar privilege, or what newly discovered principle it is, that he is thus burying his nose in them. Of course he presently reflects that he has not broken open a cabinet nor violated a desk, but that these repositories have been very freely and confidently emptied into his lap. The two stout volumes of the “Correspondance de H. de Balzac, 1819 1830,” lately put forth, are remarkable, like many other French books of the same sort, for the almost complete absence of editorial explanation or introduction. They have no visible sponsor; only a few insignificant lines of preface and the scantiest possible supply of notes. Such as the book is, in spite of its abruptness, we are thankful for it; in spite, too, of our bad conscience. What we mean by our bad conscience is the feeling with which we see the last remnant of charm, of the graceful and the agreeable, removed from Balzac's literary physiognomy. His works had not left much of this favouring shadow, but the present publication has let in the garish light of full publicity. The grossly, inveterately professional character of all his activity, the absence of leisure, of contemplation, of disinterested experience, the urgency of his consuming money-hunger—-all this is rudely exposed. It is always a question whether we have a right to investigate a man's life for the sake of anything but his official utterances—-his results. The picture of Balzac's career which is given in these letters is a record of little else but painful processes, unrelieved by reflections or speculations, by any moral or intellectual emanation. To prevent misconception, however, we hasten to add that they tell no disagreeable secrets; they contain nothing for the lovers of scandal. Balzac was a very honest man, but he was a man almost tragically uncomfortable, and the unsightly underside of his discomfort stares us full in the face. Still, if his personal portrait is without ideal beauty, it is by no means without a certain brightness, or at least a certain richness of colouring. Huge literary ogre as he was, he was morally nothing of a monster. His heart was capacious, and his affections vigorous; he was powerful, coarse, and kind.

The first letter in the series is addressed to his elder sister, Laure, who afterward became Mme. de Surville, and who, after her illustrious brother's death, published in a small volume some agreeable reminiscences of him. For this lady he had, especially in his early years, a passionate affection. He had in 1819 come up to Paris from Touraine, in which province his family lived, to seek his fortune as a man of letters. The episode is a strange and gloomy one. His vocation for literature had not been favourably viewed at home, where money was scanty; but the parental consent, or rather the parental tolerance, was at last obtained for his experiment. The future author of the “Père Goriot” was at this time but twenty years of age, and in the way of symptoms of genius had nothing but a very robust self-confidence to show. His family, who had to contribute to his support while his masterpieces were a-making, appear to have regretted the absence of further guarantees. He came to Paris, however, and lodged in a garret, where the allowance made him by his father kept him neither from shivering nor from nearly starving. The situation had been arranged in a way very characteristic of French manners. The fact that Honoré had gone to Paris was kept a secret from the friends of the family, who were told that he was on a visit to a cousin in the South. He was on probation, and if he failed to acquire literary renown, his excursion should be hushed up. This pious fraud did not contribute to the comfort of the young scribbler, who was afraid to venture abroad by day lest he should be seen by an acquaintance of the family. Balzac must have been at this time miserably poor. If he goes to the theatre, he has to pay for the pleasure by fasting. He wishes to see Talma (having to go to the play, to keep up the fiction of his being in the South, in a latticed box). “I shall end by giving in . . . . My stomach already trembles.” Meanwhile he was planning a tragedy of “Cromwell,” which came to nothing, and writing the “Héritière de Birague,” his first novel, which he sold for one hundred and sixty dollars. Through these early letters, in spite of his chilly circumstances, there flows a current of youthful ardour, gayety, and assurance. Some passages in his letters to his sister are a sort of explosion of animal spirits:

Ah, my sister, what torments it gives us—-the love of glory! Long live grocers! they sell all day, count their gains in the evening, take their pleasure from time to time at some frightful melodrama—-and behold them happy! Yes, but they pass their time between cheese and soap. Long live rather men of letters! Yes, but these are all beggars in pocket, and rich only in conceit. Well, let us leave them all alone, and long live every one!

Elsewhere he scribbles: “Farewell, soror! I hope to have a letter sororis to answer sorori, then to see sororem,” etc. Later, after his sister is married, he addresses her as “the box that contains everything pleasing; the elixir of virtue, grace, and beauty; the jewel, the phenomenon of Normandy; the pearl of Bayeux, the fairy of St. Lawrence, the virgin of the Rue Teinture, the guardian angel of Caen, the goddess of enchantments, the treasure of friendship

We shall continue to quote, without the fear of our examples exceeding, in the long run, our commentary. “Find me some widow, a rich heiress,” he writes to his sister at Bayeux, whither her husband had taken her to live. “You know what I mean. Only brag about me. Twenty-two years old, a good fellow, good manners, a bright eye, fire, the best dough for a husband that heaven has ever kneaded. I will give you five per cent. on the dowry.” “Since yesterday,” he writes in another letter, “I have given up dowagers and have come down to widows of thirty. Send all you find to Lord Rhoone [this remarkable improvisation was one of his early noms de plume]; that's enough—-he is known at the city limits. Take notice. They are to be sent prepaid, without crack or repair, and they are to be rich and amiable. Beauty isn't required. The varnish goes, and the bottom of the pot remains!”

Like many other young men of ability, Balzac felt the little rubs—-or the great ones—-of family life. His mother figures largely in these volumes (she survived her glorious son), and from the scattered reflection of her idiosyncrasies the attentive reader constructs a sufficiently vivid portrait. She was the old middle-class Frenchwoman whom he has so often seen—-devoted, active, meddlesome, parsimonious, exacting veneration, and expending zeal. Honoré tells his sister:

The other day, coming back from Paris much bothered, it never occurred to me to thank maman for a black coat which she had had made for me; at my age one isn't particularly sensitive to such a present. Nevertheless, it would not have cost me much to seem touched by the attention, especially as it was a sacrifice. But I forgot it. Maman began to pout, and you know what her aspect and her face amount to at those moments. I fell from the clouds, and racked my brain to know what I had. done. Happily Laurence [his younger sister] came and notified me, and two or three words as fine as amber mended mamen's countenance. The thing is nothing—-a mere drop of water; but it's to give you an example of our manners. Ah, we are a jolly set of originals in our holy family. What a pity I can't put us into novels!

His father wished to find him an opening in some profession, and the thought of being made a notary was a bugbear to the young man: “Think of me as dead, if they cap me with that extinguisher.” And yet, in the next sentence, he breaks out into a cry of desolate disgust at the aridity of his actual circumstances: “They call this mechanical rotation living—-this perpetual return of the same things. If there were only something to throw some charm or other over my cold existence. I have none of the flowers of life, and yet I am in the season in which they bloom. What will be the use of fortune and pleasures when my youth has departed? What need of the garments of an actor if one no longer plays a part? An old man is a man who has dined, and who watches others eat; and I, young as I am—-my plate is empty, and I am hungry. Laure, Laure, my two only and immense desires, to be famous and to be loved—-will they ever be satisfied ?”

These occasional bursts of confidence in his early letters to his sister are (with the exception of certain excellent pages, addressed in the last years of his life to the lady he eventually married) Balzac's most delicate, most emotional utterances. There is a touch of the ideal in them. Later, one wonders where he keeps his ideal. He has one of course, artistically, but it never peeps out. He gives up talking sentiment, and he never discusses “subjects”; he only talks business. Meanwhile, however, at this period, business was increasing with him. He agrees to write three novels for eight hundred and twenty dollars. Here begins the inextricable mystery of Balzac's literary promises, pledges, projects, and contracts. His letters form a swarming register of schemes and bargains through which he passes like a hero of the circus, riding half a dozen piebald coursers at once. We confess that in this matter we have been able to keep no sort of account; the wonder is that Balzac should have accomplished the feat himself. After the first year or two of his career, we never see him working upon a single tale; his productions dovetail and overlap, and dance attendance upon each other in the most bewildering fashion. As soon as one novel is fairly on the stocks he plunges into another, and while he is rummaging in this with one hand, he stretches out a heroic arm and breaks ground in a third. His plans are always vastly in advance of his performance; his pages swarm with titles of books that were never to be written. The title circulates with such an assurance that we are amazed to find, fifty pages later, that there is no more of it than of the cherubic heads. With this, Balzac was constantly paid in advance by his publishers—-paid for works not begun, or barely begun; and the money was as constantly spent before the equivalent had been delivered. Meanwhile more money was needed, and new novels were laid out to obtain it; but prior promises had first to be kept. Keeping them, under these circumstances, was not an exhilarating process; and readers familiar with Balzac will reflect with wonder that these were yet the circumstances in which some of his best tales were written. They were written, as it were, in the fading light, by a man who saw night coming on, and yet couldn't afford to buy candles. He could only hurry. But Balzac's way of hurrying was all his own; it was a sternly methodical haste, and might have been mistaken, in a more lightly-weighted genius, for elaborate trifling. The close tissue of his work never relaxed; he went on doggedly and insistently, pressing it down and packing it together, multiplying erasures, alterations, repetitions, transforming proof-sheets, quarrelling with editors, enclosing subject within subject, accumulating notes upon notes.

The letters make a jump from 1822 to 1827, during which interval he had established, with borrowed capital, a printing house, and seen his enterprise completely fail. This failure saddled him with a mountain of debt which pressed upon him crushingly for years, and of which he rid himself only toward the close of his life. Balzac's debts are another labyrinth in which we do not profess to hold a clue. There is scarcely a page of these volumes in which they are not alluded to, but the reader never quite understands why they should bloom so perennially. The liabilities incurred by the collapse of the printing scheme can hardly have been so vast as not to have been for the most part cancelled by ten years of heroic work. Balzac appears not to have been extravagant; he had neither wife nor children (unlike many of his comrades, he had no illegitimate offspring), and when he admits us to a glimpse of his domestic economy, we usually find it to be of a very meagre pattern. He writes to his sister in 1827 that he has not the means either to pay the postage of letters or to use omnibuses, and that he goes out as little as possible, so as not to wear out his clothes. In 1829, however, we find him in correspondence with a duchess, Mme. d'Abrantès, the widow of Junot, Napoleon's rough marshal, and author of those voluminous memoirs upon the imperial court which it was the fashion to read in the early part of the century. The Duchess d'Abrantès wrote bad novels, like Balzac himself at this period, and the two became good friends.

The year 1830 was the turning point in Balzac's career. Renown, to which he had begun to lay siege in Paris in 1820, now at last began to show symptoms of self-surrender. Yet one of the strongest expressions of discontent and despair in the pages before us belongs to this brighter moment. It is also one of the finest passages:

Sacredieu, my good friend, I believe that literature, In the day we live in, is no better than the trade of a woman of the town, who prostitutes herself for a dollar, it leads to nothing. I have an itch to go off and wander and explore, make of my life a drama, risk my life; for, as for a few miserable years more or less! . . . Oh, when one looks at these great skies of a beautiful night, one is ready to unbutton—-

But the modesty of the English tongue forbids us to translate the rest of the phrase. Dean Swift might have related how Balzac wished to express his contempt for all the royalties of the earth. Now that he is in the country, he goes on:

I have been seeing real splendours, such as fine, sound fruit and gilded insects; I have been quite turning philosopher, and if I happen to tread upon an anthill, I say, like that immortal Bonaparte, “These creatures are men: what is it to Saturn, or Venus, or the North Star?” And then my philosopher comes down to scribble items for a newspaper. Proh pudor! And so it seems to me that the ocean, a brig, and an English vessel to sink, if you must sink yourself to do it, are rather better than a writing-desk, a pen, and the Rue St. Denis.

But Balzac was fastened to the writing desk. In 1831 he tells one of his correspondents that he is working fifteen or sixteen hours a day. Later, in 1837, he describes himself repeatedly as working eighteen hours out of the twenty-four. In the midst of all this (it seems singular), he found time for visions of public life, of political distinction. In a letter written in 1830 he gives a succinct statement of his political views, from which we learn that he approved of the French monarchy having a constitution, and of instruction being diffused among the lower orders. But he desired that the people should be kept “under the most powerful yoke possible,” so that in spite of their instruction they should not become disorderly. It is fortunate, probably, both for Balzac and for France, that his political rôle was limited to the production of a certain number of forgotten editorials in newspapers; but we may be sure that his dreams of statesmanship were brilliant and audacious. Balzac indulged in no dreams that were not.

Some of his best letters are addressed to Mme. Zulma Carraud, a lady whose acquaintance he had made through his sister Laure, of whom she was an intimate friend, and whose friendship (exerted almost wholly through letters, as she always lived in the country) appears to have been one of the brightest and most salutary influences of his life. He writes to her in 1832:

There are vocations which we must obey, and something Irresistible draws me on to glory and power. It is not a happy life. There is within me the worship of woman (le cults de la femme) and a need of love which has never been fully satisfied. Despairing of ever being loved and understood by such a woman as I have dreamed of, having met her only under one form, that of the heart, I throw myself into the tempestuous sphere of political passions and into the stormy and desiccating atmosphere of literary glory. I shall fail perhaps on both sides; but, believe me, if I have wished to live the life of the age itself, instead of running my course in happy obscurity, it is just because the pure happiness of mediocrity has failed me. When one has a fortune to make, It is better to make it great and illustrious; because, pain for pain, it is better to suffer in a high sphere than in a low one, and I prefer dagger blows to pin pricks.

All this, though written at thirty years of age, is rather juvenile; there was to be much less of the “tempest” in Balzac's life than is here foreshadowed. He was tossed and shaken a great deal, as we all are, by the waves of the time, but he was too stoutly anchored at his work to feel the winds.

In 1832 “Louis Lambert” followed the “Peau de Chagrin,” the first in the long list of his masterpieces. He describes “Louis Lambert” as “a work in which I have striven to rival Goethe and Byron, Faust and Manfred. I don't know whether I shall succeed, but the fourth volume of the 'Philosophical Tales' must be a last reply to my enemies and give the presentiment of an incontestable superiority. You must therefore forgive the poor artist his fatigue [he is writing to his sister], his discouragements, and especially his momentary detachment from any sort of interest that does not belong to his subject. 'Louis Lambert' has cost me so much work! To write this book I have had to read so many books! Some day or other, perhaps, it will throw science into new paths. If I had made it a purely learned work, it would have attracted the attention of thinkers, who now will not drop their eyes upon it. But if chance puts it into their hands, perhaps they will speak of it!” In this passage there is an immense deal of Balzac—-of the great artist who was so capable at times of self-deceptive charlatanism. “Louis Lambert,” as a whole, is now quite unreadable; it contains some admirable descriptions, but the “scientific” portion is mere fantastic verbiage, There is something extremely characteristic in the way Balzac speaks of its having been optional with him to make it a “purely learned” work. His pretentiousness was simply colossal, and there is nothing surprising in his wearing the mask even en famille (the letter we have just quoted from is, as we have said, to his sister); he wore it during his solitary fifteen-hours sessions in his study. But the same letter contains another passage, of a very different sort, which is in its way as characteristic:

Yes, you are right. My progress is real, and my infernal courage will he rewarded. Persuade my mother of this too, dear sister; tell her to give me her patience in charity; her devotion will be laid up in her favour. One day, I hope, a little glory will pay her for everything. Poor mother, that Imagination of hers which she has given me throws her for ever from north to south and from south to north. Such journeys tire us; I know it myself! Tell my mother that I love her as when I was a child. As I write you these lines my tears start—-tears of tenderness and despair; for I feel the future, and I need this devoted mother on the day of triumph! When shall I reach it? Take good care of our mother, Laure, for the present and the future. . . . Some day, when my works are unfolded, you will see that it must have taken many hours to think and write so many things; and then you will absolve me of everything that has displeased you, and you will excuse, not the selfishness of the man (the man has none), but the selfishness of the worker.

Nothing can be more touching than that; Balzac's natural affections were as robust as his genius and his physical nature. The impression of the reader of his letters quite confirms his assurance that the man proper had no selfishness. Only we are constantly reminded that the man had almost wholly resolved himself into the worker, and we remember a statement of Sainte-Beuve's, in one of his malignant foot-notes, to the effect that Balzac was “the grossest, greediest example of literary vanity that he had ever known”—-l'amour-propre littéraire le plus avide et le plus grossier que j'aie connu. When we think of what Sainte-Beuve must have known in this line, these few words acquire a portentous weight.

By this time (1832) Balzac was, in French phrase, thoroughly lancé. He was doing, among other things, some of his most brilliant work, certain of the “Contes Drôlatiques.” These were written, as he tells his mother, for relaxation, as a rest from harder labour. One would have said that no work would have been much harder than compounding the marvellously successful imitation of mediæval French in which these tales are written. He had, however, other diversions as well. In the autumn of 1832 he was at Aix-les-Bains with the Duchess of Castries, a great lady, and one of his kindest friends. He has been accused of drawing portraits of great ladies without knowledge of originals; but Mme. de Castries was an inexhaustible fund of instruction upon this subject. Three or four years later, speaking of the story of the “Duchesse de Laugeais” to one of his correspondents, another femme du monde, he tells her that as a femme du monde she is not to pretend to find flaws in the picture, a high authority having read the proofs for the express purpose of removing them. The authority is evidently the Duchess of Castries.

Balzac writes to Mme. Carraud from Aix: “At Lyons I corrected 'Lambert' again. I licked my cub, like a she bear. . . . On the whole, I am satisfied; it is a work of profound melancholy and of science. Truly, I deserve to have a mistress, and my sorrow at not having one increases daily; for love is my life and my essence. . . I have a simple little room,” he goes on, “from which I see the whole valley. I rise pitilessly at five o'clock in the morning, and work before my window until half-past five in the evening. My breakfast comes from the club—-an egg. Mme. de Castries has good coffee made for me. At six o'clock we dine together, and I pass the evening with her. She is the finest type (le type le plus fin) of woman; Mme. de Beausiéant [from “Le Père Goriot"] improved; only, are not all these pretty manners acquired at the expense of the soul?”

During his stay at Aix he met an excellent opportunity to go to Italy; the Duke de Fitz-James, who was travelling southward, invited him to become a member of his party. He discourses the economical problem (in writing to his mother) with his usual intensity, and throws what will seem to the modern traveller the light of enchantment upon that golden age of cheapness. Occupying the fourth place in the carriage of the Duchess of Castries, his quarter of the total travelling expenses from Geneva to Rome (carriage, beds, food, etc.) was to be fifty dollars! But he was ultimately prevented from joining the party. He went to Italy some years later.

He mentions, in 1833, that the chapter entitled “Juana,” in the superb tale of “The Maranas,” as also the story of “La Grenadière,” was written in a single night. He gives at the same period this account of his habits of work: “I must tell you that I am up to my neck in excessive work. My life is mechanically arranged. I go to bed at six or seven in the evening, with the chickens; I wake up at one in the morning and work till eight; then I take something light, a cup of pure coffee, and get into the shafts of my cab until four; I receive, I take a bath, or I go out, and after dinner I go to bed. I must lead this life for some months longer, in order not to be overwhelmed by my obligations. The profit comes slowly; my debts are inexorable and fixed. Now, it is certain that I will make a great fortune; but I must wait for it, and work for three years. I must go over things, correct them again, put everything en état monumental; thankless work, not counted, without immediate profit. He speaks of working at this amazing rate for three years longer; in reality he worked for fifteen. But two years after the declaration we have just quoted, it seemed to him that he should break down: “My poor sister, I am draining the cup to the dregs. It is in vain that I work my fourteen hours a day; I can't do enough. While I write this to you I find myself so weary that I have just sent Auguste to take back my word from certain engagements that I had formed. I am so weak that I have advanced my dinner hour in order to go to bed earlier; and I go nowhere.” The next year he writes to his mother, who had apparently complained of his silence: “My good mother, do me the charity to let me carry my burden without suspecting my heart. A letter for me, you see, is not only money, but an hour of sleep and a drop of blood.”

We spoke just now of Balzac's sentimental consolations; but it appears that at times he was more acutely conscious of what he missed than of what he enjoyed. “As for the soul,” he writes to Mme. Carraud in 1833, “I am profoundly sad. My work alone sustains me in life. Is there then to be no woman for me in this world? My physical melancholy and ennui last longer and grow more frequent. To fall from this crushing labour to nothing—-not to have near me that soft, caressing mind of woman, for whom I have done so much!” He had, however, a devoted feminine friend, to whom none of the letters in these volumes are addressed, but who is several times alluded to. This lady, Mme. de Berny, died in 1836, and Balzac speaks of her ever afterward with extraordinary tenderness and veneration. But if there had been a passion between them, it was only a passionate friendship. “Ah, my dear mother,” he writes on New Year's day, 1836, “I am harrowed with grief. Mme. de Berny is dying; it is impossible to doubt it. No one but God and myself knows what my despair is. And I must work—-work while I weep!” He writes of Mme. de Berny at the time of her death as follows. The letter is addressed to a lady with whom he was in correspondence more or less sentimental, but whom he never saw: “The person whom I have lost was more than a mother, more than a friend, more than any creature can be for another. The term divinity only can explain her. She had sustained me by word, by act, by devotion, during my worst weather. If I live, it is by her; she was everything for me. Although for two years illness and time had separated us, we were visible at a distance for each other. She reacted upon me; she was a moral sun. Mme. de Mortsauf, in the 'Lys dans la Vallée,' is a pale expression of this person's slightest qualities.” Three years afterward he writes to his sister: “I am alone against all my troubles, and formerly, to help me to resist them, I had with me the sweetest and bravest person in the world; a woman who every day is born again in my heart, and whose divine qualities make the friendships that are compared with her's seem pale. I have now no adviser in my literary difficulties; I have no guide but the fatal thought, 'What would she say if she were living?'“ And he goes on to enumerate some of his actual and potential friends. He tells his sister that she herself might have been for him a close intellectual comrade if her duties of wife and mother had not given her too many other things to think about. The same is true of Mme. Carraud: “Never has a more extraordinary mind been more smothered; she will die in her corner unknown! George Sand,” he continues, “would speedily be my friend; she has no pettiness whatever in her soul—-none of the low jealousies which obscure so many contemporary talents. Dumas resembles her in this; but she has not the critical sense. Mme. Hanska is all this; but I cannot weigh upon her destiny.” Mme. Hanska was the Polish lady whom he ultimately married, and of whom we shall speak. Meanwhile, for a couple of years (1836 and 1837), he carried on an exchange of opinions, of the order that the French call intimes, with the unseen correspondent to whom we have alluded, and who figures in these volumes as “Louise.” The letters, however, are not love letters; Balzac, indeed, seems chiefly occupied in calming the ardour of the lady, who was evidently a woman of social distinction. “Don't have any friendship for me,” he writes; “I need too much. Like all people who struggle, suffer, and work, I am exacting, mistrustful, wilful, capricious. . . . If I had been a woman, I should have loved nothing so much as some soul buried like a well in the desert—-discovered only when you place yourself directly under the star which indicates it to the thirsty Arab.”

His first letter to Mme. Hanska here given bears the date of 1835; but we are informed in a note that he had at that moment been for some time in correspondence with her. The correspondence had begun, if we are not mistaken, on Mme. Hanska's side, before they met; she had written to him as a literary admirer. She was a Polish lady of great fortune, with an invalid husband. After her husband's death, projects of marriage defined themselves more vividly, but practical considerations kept them for a long time in the background. Balzac had first to pay off his debts, and Mme. Hanska, as a Polish subject of the Czar Nicholas, was not in a position to marry from one day to another. The growth of their intimacy is, however, amply reflected in these volumes, and the dénouement presents itself with a certain dramatic force. Balzac's letters to his future wife, as to every one else, deal almost exclusively with his financial situation. He discusses the details of this matter with all his correspondents, who apparently have—-or are expected to have—-his monetary entanglements at their fingers' ends. It is a constant enumeration of novels and tales begun or delivered, revised or bargained for. The tone is always profoundly sombre and bitter. The reader's general impression is that of lugubrious egotism. It is the rarest thing in the world that there is an allusion to anything but Balzac's own affairs, and to the most sordid details of his own affairs. Hardly an echo of the life of his time, of the world he lived in, finds its way into his letters; there are no anecdotes, no impressions, no opinions, no descriptions, no allusions to things heard, people seen, emotions felt—-other emotions, at least, than those of the exhausted or the exultant worker. The reason of all this is of course very obvious. A man could not be such a worker as Balzac and be much else besides. The note of animal spirits which we observed in his early letters is sounded much less frequently as time goes on; although the extraordinary robustness and exuberance of his temperament plays richly into his books. The “Contes Drôlatiques” are full of it, and his conversation was also full of it. But the letters constantly show us a man with the edge of his spontaneity gone—-a man groaning and sighing, as from Promethean lungs, complaining of his tasks, denouncing his enemies, and in complete ill humour generally with life. Of any expression of enjoyment of the world, of the beauties of nature, art, literature, history, human character, these pages are singularly destitute. And yet we know that such enjoyment—-instinctive, unreasoning, essential—-is half the inspiration of the poet. The truth is that Balzac was as little as possible of a poet; he often speaks of himself as one but he deserved the name as little as his own Canalis or his own Rubempré. He was neither a poet nor a moralist, though the latter title in France is often bestowed upon him—-a fact which strikingly helps to illustrate the Gallic lightness of soil in the moral region. Balzac was the hardest and deepest of prosateurs; the earth-scented facts of life, which the poet puts under his feet, he had put above his head. Obviously there went on within him a vast and constant intellectual unfolding. His mind must have had a history of its own—-a history of which it would be most interesting to have an occasional glimpse. But the history is not related here, even in glimpses. His books are full of ideas; his letters have almost none. It is probably not unfair to argue from this fact that there were few ideas that he greatly cared for. Making all allowance for the pressure and tyranny of circumstances, we may believe that if he had greatly cared to se recueillir, as the French say—-greatly cared, in the Miltonic phrase, “to interpose a little ease”—-he would sometimes have found an opportunity for it. Perpetual work, when it is joyous and salubrious, is a very fine thing; but perpetual work, when it is executed with the temper which more than half the time appears to have been Balzac's, has in it something almost debasing. We constantly feel that his work would have been vastly better if the Muse of “business” had been elbowed away by her larger-browed sister. Balzac himself, doubtless, often felt in the same way; but, on the whole, “business” was what he most cared for. The “Comédie Humaine” represents an immense amount of joy, of spontaneity, of irrepressible artistic life. Here and there in the letters this occasionally breaks out in accents of mingled exultation and despair. “Never,” he writes in 1836, “has the torrent which bears me along been more rapid; never has a work more majestically terrible imposed itself upon the human brain. I go to my work as the gamester to the gaming-table; I am sleeping now only five hours and working eighteen; I shall arrive dead. . . . . Write to me; be generous; take nothing in bad part, for you don't know how, at moments, I deplore this life of fire. But how can I jump out of the chariot?” We had occasion in writing of Balzac in these pages more than a year ago to say that his great characteristic, far from being a passion for ideas, was a passion for things. We said just now that his books are full of ideas; but we must add that his letters make us feel that these ideas are themselves in a certain sense “things.” They are pigments, properties, frippery; they are always concrete and available. Balzac cared for them only if they would fit into his inkstand.

He never “jumped out of his car”; but as the years went on he was able at times to let the reins hang more loosely. There is no evidence that he made the great fortune he had looked forward to; but he must have made a great deal of money. In the beginning his work was very poorly paid, but after his reputation was solidly established he received large sums. It is true that they were swallowed up in great part by his “debts”—-that dusky, vaguely outlined, insatiable maw which we see grimacing for ever behind him, like the face on a fountain which should find itself receiving a stream instead of giving it out. But he travelled (working all the while en route). He went to Italy, to Germany, to Russia; he built houses, he bought pictures and pottery. One of his journeys illustrates his singular mixture of economic and romantic impulses. He made a breathless pilgrimage to the island of Sardinia to examine the scoriæ of certain silver mines, anciently worked by the Romans, in which he had heard that the metal was still to be found. The enterprise was fantastic and impracticable; but he pushed his excursion through night and day, as he had written the “Père Goriot.” In his relative prosperity, when once it was established, there are strange lapses and stumbling-places. After he had built and was living in his somewhat fantastical villa of Les Jardies at Sèvres, close to Paris, he invites a friend to stay with him on these terms: “I can take you to board at forty sous a day, and for thirty-five francs you will have fire-wood enough for a month.” In his joke he is apt to betray the same preoccupation. Inviting Charles de Bernard and his wife to come to Les Jardies to help him arrange his books, he adds that they will have fifty sous a day and their wine. He is constantly talking of his expenses, of what he spends in cab hire and postage. His letters to the Countess Hanska are filled with these details. “Yesterday I was running about all day: twenty-five francs for carriages!” The man of business is never absent. For the first representations of his plays he arranges his audiences with an eye to effect, like an impresario or an agent. In the boxes, for “Vautrin,” “I insist upon there being handsome women.” Presenting a copy of the “Comédie Humaine” to the Austrian ambassador, he accompanies it with a letter calling attention, in the most elaborate manner, to the typographical beauty and the cheapness of the work; the letter reads like a prospectus or an advertisement.

In 1840 (he was forty years old) he thought seriously of marriage—-with this remark as the preface to the announcement: Je ne veux plus avoir do cœur! . . . If you meet a young girl of twenty-two,” he goes on, “with a fortune of 200,000 francs, or even of 100,000, provided it can be used in business, you will think of me. I want a woman who shall be able to be what the events of my life may demand of her—-the wife of an ambassador, or a housewife at Les Jardies. But don't speak of this; its a secret. She must be an ambitious, clever girl.” This project, however, was not carried out; Balzac had no time to marry. But his friendship with Mme. Hanska became more and more absorbing, and though their project of marriage, which was executed in 1850, was kept a profound secret until after the ceremony, it is apparent that they had had it a long time in their thoughts.

For this lady Balzac's esteem and admiration seem to have been unbounded; and his letters to her, which in the second volume are very numerous, contain many noble and delicate passages. “You know too well,” he says to her somewhere, with a happy choice of words belonging to the writer, whose diction was here and there as felicitous as it was generally intolerable—-”Vous savez trop bien que tout ce qui n'est pas vous n'est que surface, sottise et vains palliatifs de l'absence.” “You must be proud of your children,” he writes to his sister from Poland; “such daughters are the recompense of your life. You must not be unjust to destiny; you may now accept many misfortunes. It is like myself with Mme. Hanska. The gift of her affection explains all my troubles, my weariness, and my toil; I was paying to evil, in advance, the price of such a treasure. As Napoleon said, we pay for everything here below; nothing is stolen. It seems to me that I have paid very little. Twenty-five years of toil and struggle are nothing as the purchase money of an attachment so splendid, so radiant, so complete.”

Mme. Hanska appears to have come rarely to Paris, and when she came to have shrouded her visits in mystery; but Balzac arranged several meetings with her abroad, and visited her at St. Petersburg and on her Polish estates. He was devotedly fond of her children, and the tranquil, opulent family life to which she introduced him appears to have been one of the greatest pleasures he had known. In several passages which, for Balzac, may be called graceful and playful, he expresses his homesickness for her chairs and tables, her books, the sight of her dresses. Here is something, in one of his letters to her, which is worth quoting: “In short, this is the game that I play; four men will have had, in this century, an immense influence—-Napoleon, Cuvier, O'Connell. I should like to be the fourth. The first lived on the blood of Europe; il s'est inoculé des armées; the second espoused the globe; the third became the incarnation of a people; I—-I shall have carried a whole society in my head. But there will have been in me a much greater and much happier being than the writer—-and that is your slave. My feeling is finer, grander, more complete, than all the satisfactions of vanity or of glory. Without this plenitude of the heart I should never have accomplished the tenth part of my work; I should not have had this ferocious courage.” During a few days spent at Berlin, on his way back from St. Petersburg, he gives his impressions of the “capital of Brandenburg” in a tone which almost seems to denote a prevision of the style of allusion to this locality and its inhabitants which was to become fashionable among his countrymen thirty years later. Balzac detested Prussia and the Prussians.

It is owing to this charlatanism [the spacious distribution of the streets, etc.] that Berlin has a more populous look than Petersburg; I would have said “more animated” look if I had been speaking of another people; but the Prussian, with his brutal heaviness, will never be able to do anything but crush. To produce the movement of a great European capital you must have less beer and bad tobacco, and more of the French or Italian spirit; or else you must have the great industrial and commercial ideas which have produced the gigantic development of London; but Berlin and its inhabitants will never be anything but an ugly little city, inhabited by an ugly big people.

“I have seen Tieck en famille,” he says in another letter. “He seemed pleased with my homage. He had an old countess, his contemporary in spectacles, almost an octogenarian—-a mummy with a green eye-shade, whom I supposed to be a domestic divinity. . . . I am at home again; it is half-past six in the evening, and I have eaten nothing since this morning. Berlin is the city of ennui; I should die here in a week. Poor Humboldt is dying of it; he drags with him everywhere his nostalgia for Paris.”

Balzac passed the winter of 1848-'49 and several months more at Vierzschovnia, the Polish estate of Mme. Hanska and her children. His health had been gravely impaired, and the doctors had absolutely forbidden him to work. His inexhaustible and indefatigable brain had at last succumbed to fatigue. But the prize was gained; his debts were paid; he was looking forward to owning at last the money that he should make. He could afford—-relatively speaking at least—-to rest. His fame had been solidly built up; the public recognized his greatness. Already, in 1846, he had written: “You will learn with pleasure, I am sure, that there is an immense reaction in my favour. At last I have conquered! Once more my protecting star has watched over me. . . . At this moment the public and the papers turn toward me favourably; more than that, there is a sort of acclamation, a general consecration. . . . It is a great year for me, dear Countess.”

To be ill and kept from work was, for Balzac, to be a chained Prometheus; but there was much during these last months to alleviate his impatience. His letters at this period are easier, less painfully preoccupied than at any other; and he found in Poland better medical advice than he deemed obtainable in Paris. He was preparing a house in Paris to receive him as a married man—-preparing it apparently with great splendour. At Les Jardies the pictures and divans and tapestries had mostly been nominal—-had been present only in grand names, chalked grotesquely upon the empty walls. But during the last years of his life Balzac appears to have been a great collector. He bought many pictures and other objects of value; in particular, there figures in these letters a certain set of Florentine furniture which he was willing to sell again, but to sell only to a royal purchaser. The King of Holland appears to have been in treaty for it. Readers of the “Comédie Humaine" have no need to be reminded of the author's passion for furniture; nowhere else are there such loving or such invidious descriptions of it. “Decidedly,” he writes once to Mme. Hanska, “I will send to Tours for the Louis XVI. secretary and bureau; the room will then be complete. It's a matter of a thousand francs; but for a thousand francs what can one get in modern furniture? Des platitudes bourgeoises, des misères sans valeur et sans gout.”

Old Mme. de Balzac was her son's factotum and universal agent. His letters from Vierzschovnia are filled with prescriptions of activity for his mother, accompanied always with the urgent reminder that she is to use cabs ad libitum. He goes into the minutest details (she was overlooking the preparation of his house in the Rue Fortunée, which must have been converted into a very picturesque residence): “The carpet in the dining-room must certainly be readjusted. Try and make M. Henry send his carpet-layer. I owe that man a good pour-boire; he laid all the carpets, and I once was rough with him. You must tell him that in September he can come and get his present. I want particularly to give it to him myself.”

His mother occasionally annoyed him by unreasonable exactions and untimely interferences. There is an episode of a letter which she writes to him at Vierzschovnia, and which, coming to Mme. Hanska's knowledge, endangers his prospect of marriage. He complains bitterly to his sister that his mother cannot get it out of her head that he is still fifteen years old. But there is something very touching in his constant tenderness toward her—-as well as something very characteristically French—-very characteristic of the French sentiment of family consistency and solidarity—-in the way in which, by constantly counting upon her practical aptitude and zeal, he makes her a fellow worker toward the great total of his fame and fortune. At fifty years of age, at the climax of his distinction, announcing to her his brilliant marriage, he signs himself Ton fils soumis. To his old friend Mme. Carraud he speaks thus of this same event: “The dénouement of that great and beautiful drama of the heart which has lasted these sixteen years. . . . Three days ago I married the only woman I have loved, whom I loved more than ever, and whom I shall love until death. I believe that this union is the recompense that God has held in reserve for me through so many adversities, years of work, difficulties suffered and surmounted. I had neither a happy youth nor a flowering spring; I shall have the most brilliant summer, the sweetest of all autumns.” It had been, as Balzac says, a drama of the heart, and the dénouement was of the heart alone. Mme. Hanska, on her marriage, made over her large fortune to her daughter.

Balzac had at last found rest and happiness, but his enjoyment of these blessings was brief. The energy that he had expended to gain them left nothing behind it. His terrible industry had blasted the soil it passed over; he had sacrificed to his work the very things he worked for. One cannot do what Balzac did and live. He was enfeebled, exhausted, broken. He died in Paris three months after his marriage. The reader feels that premature death is the logical, the harmonious completion of such a career. The strongest man has but a certain fixed quantity of life to expend, and we may expect that if he works habitually fifteen hours a day, he will spend it while, arithmetically speaking, he is yet young.

We have been struck in reading these letters with the strong analogy between Balzac's career and that of the great English writer whose history was some time since so expansively written by Mr. Forster. Dickens and Balzac take much in common; as individuals they strongly resemble each other; their differences are chiefly differences of race. Each was a man of affairs, an active, practical man, with a temperament of almost phenomenal vigour and a prodigious quantity of life to expend. Each had a character and a will—-what is nowadays called a personality—-which imposed themselves irresistibly; each had a boundless self-confidence and a magnificent egotism. Each had always a hundred irons on the fire; each was resolutely determined to make money, and made it in large quantities. In intensity of imaginative power, the power of evoking visible objects and figures, seeing them themselves with the force of hallucination, and making others see them all but just as vividly, they were almost equal. Here there is little to choose between them; they have had no rivals but each other and Shakespeare. But they most of all resemble each other in the fact that they treated their extraordinary imaginative force as a matter of business; that they worked it as a gold mine, violently and brutally; overworked and ravaged it. They succumbed to the task that they had laid upon themselves, and they are as similar in their deaths as in their lives. Of course, if Dickens is an English Balzac, he is a very English Balzac. His fortune was the easier of the two, and his prizes were greater than the others. His brilliant opulent English prosperity, centred in a home and diffused through a progeny, is in strong contrast with the almost scholastic penury and obscurity of much of Balzac's career. But the analogy is still very striking.

In speaking formerly of Balzac in these pages we insisted upon the fact that he lacked charm; but we said that our last word upon him should be that he had incomparable power. His letters only confirm these impressions, and above all they deepen our sense of his strength. They contain little that is delicate, and not a great deal that is positively agreeable; but they express an energy before which we stand lost in wonder, in an admiration that almost amounts to awe. The fact that his devouring observation of the great human spectacle has no echo in his letters only makes us feel how concentrated and how intense was the labour that went on in his closet. Certainly no solider intellectual work has ever been achieved by man. And in spite of the massive egotism, the personal absoluteness, to which these pages testify, they leave us with a downright kindness for the author. He was coarse, but he was tender; he was corrupt in a way, but he was hugely natural. If he was ungracefully eager and voracious, awkwardly blind to all things that did not contribute to his personal plan, at least his egotism was exerted in a great cause. The “Comédie Humaine” has a thousand faults, but it is a monumental excuse.

 
 
 

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