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The Century, Volume 11 online

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again before publication in a volume. The
proof-sheet, in a word, was the map of his
Dattle-field, showing the fight between matter
and mind.

He was a thorough artist in the prepara-
tion of his effects, usually reaching his climax
with one of those epigrammatic sentences
which the reader unconsciously repeats
whenever he thinks of the story. As the
action reaches this point, his style is free
from verbiage, the words employed being
only those necessary to carry the idea to
the denouement. The expression, simple
and decisive, is sped home like a well-

directed bullet These crowning phrases
are of intense interest, and are so fitted to
the place that they may not be replaced by
any otheis, and appear as the first natural
expression of the author. He meditated
these words, and changed ^efn over and
over again until they assumed the form
which pleased him. One of these, by way.
of illustration, which thrill and remain in
the memory, is spoken by Rastignac as he
stands over the grave of Goriot and looks
menacingly down on Paris — ^^Maintenanty h
nous deux /^^ This is the apex of the

If at rimes he is uninteresting, it is because
of his imiversality. He was not satisfied to
indicate the possession of technical knowl-
edge in a character, but the character was
made to express it And this system gives
an idea of the various kinds of studies which
Balzac must have made. His physician
appears such to physicians, his painter such
to his like, and so on. Besides the external
view of the actor usually given to the spec-
tator, another is exhibited behind the scenes,
of the most intimate character, in the midst
of professional machinery. Madame Mar-
neuf no longer has any secrets for us ; Lou-
steau, Bixio, and Blondet take off their
masks; at length we get thoroughly acquaint-
ed with Ae French Shylock, Gobseck.

He was full of poeric fancy, but could not
write poetry. The few verses which he
required in his novels were written for him
by his firiends. In his character of the com-
prehensive, universal man, he admired the
poet, but in a lukewarm way, which leaves
the inference that he did not rate him highly.
It was rather the prose of Hugo that he
liked. It is easy for the poet to drop into
prose. Gaurier modestiy said: "We are
birds, walking as well as flying, but we are
not the lion," — meaning Balzac. When the
latter saw Gaurier at the end of the table
writing an article for his journal with facility,
and little or no correction, he was surprised,
but thought the writer would make it better
if he would meditate, cut and develop his
subject. In his novels he has two poets,
Canalis and Lucien de Rubempr6, neither
of whom is an honor to Ae class he repre-
sents. The first is a metallic, ambitious,
mundane poet, intriguing after position and
pelf; and the second is a man with the faults
and weakness o( a pretty coquette.

His poor opinion of the journalists, — which
he did not hesitate to express, — ^his pride and
independence, turned most of the critics
against him, as well as a number of those

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who were also authors. As an illustration
of his indiscretion in uttering his opinions,
he said of George Sand that " she was a
writer of the neuter gender, that Nature had
been distraite in her creation, and should
have given her more trouser and less style."
As is almost always the case, this drew the
. fire of the criticised, she retorting that Balzac

tator of R6tif de la Bretonne and of Ducray-
Duminil. Jules Janin wrote that he tiuned
incessandy in the same circle of vulgar and
trivial adventures. It was the intention of
this critic to "demolish" Balzac, — to use
his technical word ; and this furnishes a
curious example of how little value is to be
attached to the opinion of the professional

was a great naif infant, who only knew her
sex from hearsay — a tender point with
Frenchmen, as they usually plume them-
selves on understanding woman's heart from
personal experience. To some of the jour-
nalists, Balzac was irritatingly contemptuous,
and this naturally bore fruit. According to
Philar^te Chasles, he was an awkward imi-

critic when his personality is in question.
Before the time of Balzac in literature, the
beautiful and attractive heroine was usually
18 or 20 years of age, and never exceeded
25. He wrote the history of the woman of
30, made her the fashion, and her rehabili-*
tation created many admirers for the author
among women of that age, and somewhat

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it, from whom he received a number
of souvenirs and many letters. The author
told the woman of 30 l>er secrets, showed
that he understood and appreciated her, and
proved to her that she was more interesting
and irresistible than her younger sister.

Cane of Balzac." The head of the stick
was hollow, and contained a tress of beauti-
ful hair, which had been sent to him with a
word, " L'Inconnue," and whose owner at
a later day, according to common report, he
came to know as his wife.



The mementos which he received from
grateful maturity, consisting in part of pre-
cious stones, he had set on the head of a
great cane, which became as celebrated as
its owner. Madame Delphine de Girardin
consecrated a volume to it, entitled " The

It has been often said that his pictures of
French life are not true, because they show a
wickedness and a demoralization in a civiliza-
tion which, except in its art feature, does not
greatly differ from that of other countries.
There is some ground for Ais criticism, for

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most of Balzac's characters are chargedj and
for dramatic purposes there seems to be a
necessity for this. Shakespeare and Moli^re
did the same in creating types representing
some concentrated passion, such as jealousy
in Othello, melancholy in Hamlet, avarice
in Harpagon, and hypocrisy in TartufTe.
Yet it is seldom in real life that a real Othello
or TartufTe, or any of the others named, are
met with, although incomplete characters of
the kind are common. In the same way
Balzac made profound studies of a dominant
passion, and more particularly of a vice.
Several of these have been done with re-
markable power, such as Grandet the miser
in " Eugenie Grandet," unscrupulous sel-
fishness in Philip Brideau in the " Manage
de Gargon," illegal love in the Baron

Happy people have no history, is an axiom
generally accepted, and especially by the
novelist. Dramatic requirements do not
permit him to write a quiet, even history, or
the book would be dull. A dramatic crisis
does not perhaps occur more than once in
the life of an ordinary man, and the novelist
must take it up at this point, which makes
of his story an exceptional state of things,
for he paints one year of turbulence to per-
haps forty-nine which are left blank. There
must be love, difficulty, and despair, of an
extreme form, for these pictures depend on
the system of contrasts for their success. No
man of this age has made such an analysis of
these passions as Balzac — minute, thorough,
and philosophical. Hawthorne did it, but his
was a more restricted field. The working out
of "The Scarlet Letter" is, according to the
plan of Balzac, more poetic and superior
in form to that which the French author usu-
ally wrote, but narrow. Balzac did not have
the poetic grace of the American author, but
he had a more robust understanding, greater
fertility of invention and capacity for work,
and an intensity of observation which has
never been equaled.

He had, in developing passion, the faculty
of seizing thd dramatic situation, and with
• this a tendency to write the story of vice
rather than of virtue, because he believed
the dramatic elements more marked in wick-
edness than in virtue. Hence the virtuous
people in his works are in a minority, but in
such numbers as to make the necessary con-
trast and relieve the features of vice ; as an
artist, he could not do less. Besides, there
were the representatives of what he consid-
ered iht juste milieu/ neither good nor bad ;
but the scale almost always descends on the

side of the bad, and this gives color to the
judgment pronounced against him, for he
intended these characters to represent aver-
age men and women of the world.

His good man is often a victim, for he
made him suffer to heighten the virtuous
coloring. One of these sublime victims is
the P^re Goriot, who died that his daughter
might live in a luxurious sphere; another
is that woman who set up love's idol in an
out-of-the-way province, and worshiped it in
constancy and heroism, in spite of the bad
clay of which it was made. Thus, vice as
oflen triumphs in his books as virtue, and,
in this, he observes the logic of human
nature, which he was always studying. He
put to himself the problem of a man with
certain qualities and defects, and his con-
sequent career. The deductions once made,
he followed them out intrepidly to the end,
though that end was suicide or the prison,
without regard to the punishment of the
guilty and the recompense of the guileless,
usually meted out at the termination by the
ordinary story-teller. There was no whip
nor sugar-plum here. He did not write for
children, but for intelligent men and women
who appreciate a conscientious and power-
ful study. It is for this his books so often
leave a painful impression; virtue frequently
goes down before vice, chicanery overcomes
knowledge, the heroic succumbs to the das-
tardly, but their defeat is tm^ned into a mon-
ument which the sympathetic reader conse-
crates to their memories for all time.

"Are they moral?" is a question fi^-
quendy asked in reference to his books, and
it may be answered that they are, to people
of cultivation and judgment, for no effort is
made to gild vice and render it seductive, —
for instance, after the manner of Bulwer, in
his eariier novels. The philosophical recti-
tude of Balzac would never permit him to
do this. The bad man and the bad cause
are not extenuated, and he looks at them
from the stand-point of a historian. To a
matured and healthy mind, then, it may be
declared there is no evil influence in his
works. For the young and inexperienced,
they may be objected to on account of that
freedom of language permitted in French,
which is hardly accepted in English, — at least,
for family reading. Things are called by
the names which express them most aptiy ;
and this may not be done across the Chan-
nel and the Atlantic. Besides, there are
certain subjects analyzed in all their details,
which are not referred to in the lands of the
English language, or are only approached

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with periphrase. H^studied these, and wrote
about them as he would of a system of the-
ology or government. He was like a painter
drawing irom the model, who does not see

too, as belonging to his most profoimd

Balzac had the zeal, assiduity, and almost
the dress, of a monk of the middle ages.


with carnal eyes, but only with those of the
artist — ^painting everjrthing in nature with
pleasure, which presented itself in a com-
plete form.

Still, a few of his books may be put into
the hands of the young without fear, and
two of these are " Eugenie Grandet" and
" Ursule Mirouet," which French parents
permit their children to read, as they con-
tain nothing in form or subject to offend the
immature mind. They may be regarded.

His working costume was a white flannd
robe, thrown back at the throat, and tied
with a cord at the waist. It was not stained
with ink, as one might suppose, — he holding
that the true man of letters should be clean
at his work. He probably had an idea of
symbolizing in this a cloistered life devoted
to literature. He had a thick neck, white
and smooth as a woman's, which was in
striking contrast to a face highly colored.
His lips were sensual and good-humored;

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the nose was square at the end, with well-
cut nostrils. When he posed to David
d' Angers for his bust, he called attention to
this feature: "Pay attention to my nose,
David ; there is a world in my nose." The
forehead was noble, with a perpendicular
line in the middle, reaching to the space
between the eyes. His hair was thrown
back in confusion. The most striking feat-
ure was the eye, clear, handsome, and mag-
netic. According to Gautier, the habitual
expression of the face was one of puissant
hilarity, of Rabelaisian joy — ^the monk's robe
probably giving birth to the idea. He had
small white hands with tapering fingers, the
rose-colored nails scrupulously cared for;
his hand was one of his vanities, and a com-
pliment thereon pleased him much.

His vanity was not confined to his hands,
and was proverbial. On the sword of a
statuette of Napoleon I., given him by the
sculptor, was written : " What he could not
achieve by the sword, I will accomplish
with the pen. . . Honor^ de Balzac."

Another sign of his vanity was the particle
de which he put before his name, and to
which he had no legitimate claim. He
believed, or affected to believe, that he was
descended firom the de Balzacs d'Entragues,
whose history goes back to the Crusade, and
he had the coat-of-arms of the same placed
on his plate and paper. Whe;p some one had
the courage and candor to prove to him
that he was not descended fi-om the mem-
bers of this family, he replied : " So much
the worse for them." To be the gentilhomme
was his most marked puerility, when his
vogue as a writer began. Then he played
the character of a modem Alcibiades, dressed
himself in fashionable and conspicuous gar-
ments, carried the noted cane, fi-equented
the loge infemaU at the theater and several
noted salons. But this existence did not
last long, for it was unnatural, and Balzac
soon retired from it, after enjoying his tri-
umph in the character of lion, and gratifying
his vanity with the parade.

When the idea of a book presented itself
to him, he disappeared. He has been heard
to say to himself: " To work, my friend, to
work; cut loose ftx)m every lien which
attaches you to gross humanity; isolate
yourself fi-om the world entire; a truce to
reasons; roll up your sleeves, spit in your
hands, en avant la besogne, dig like a nig-
ger!" Then he shut his door to all the
world, even his best friends, and worked
eighteen hours out of the twenty-four. No
letters were opened during the period of

labor. He was cloistered in absolute soli-
tude; the shutters and curtains were closed,
and he wrote by the light of four candles,
habited in his Dominican robe, as for away
fix)m the life of Paris as if he had been in
the interior of Afiica. From the middle of
the night, till eleven or twelve in the morn-
ing, there was. no interruption ; if he felt
sleepy, he woke himself with black coffee ;
at twelve, he break&sted with eggs, bread,
and cold water, finishing with a cup of
black coffee, and went back to his table;
afler'a light dinner, toward evening he slept
six hours. When he became more exhausted
than usual under this regimen, the rubicund
Rose, his cook, softly approached with a
plate of fi^grant soup and tremblingly
offered it to him, which he harshly and
peremptorily declined. " But Monsieur wiU
become seriously ill." "Rose, you annoy
me — get out" Then, repenting of his treat-
ment of her, he would call her back, eat the
soup, and admonish her solemnly not to
attempt it again under pain of dismissal.
This was his life for four, six, or perhaps
eight weeks. He disappeared fat, rosy, and
came forth pale, flabby, with a black circle
around his eyes, and a chef-d^ctuvre in his
hands. After this travail, he allowed him-
self a holiday license. He has been known on
one of these occasions to consume at a single
dinner, one hundred Ostend oysters, a dozen
mutton chops, a young duck with turnips,
a pair of roasted partridges, a sole nor-
mande, and several pears, the whole accom-
panied with copious libations of wine.
Morally, his work had a good effect on him.
The formidable studies of Jean Jacques
Rousseau brought misanthropy in their wake,
and those of Moli^re, melancholy. Balzac
issued from his lalx)rs serene and cheerful.

Sometimes, in the small hours of the
morning, when the brain refused its task,
even imder the inspiration of strong coffee,
he went out into the night and took long
walks. At his cottage — ^The Jardies — in
the Ville d'Avray, in the neighborhckxi of
Paris, a privileged few went occasionally to
difie, when the host only appeared as the
repast was served, and sometimes not at all.
Without ceremony, he left his guests and
retired to bed. Sometimes, he was so
absorbed in his literary plans, his guests
could get nothing from him but monosylla-
bles ; but, generally, he was a good convive^
and entered into the conversation with that
zest which characterized him in all he did.

He was a boy as long as he lived. He
possessed that naivete which often accom-

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panics genius, and was always hopeful and
enthusis^c When he played with his
sister's children, he romped as if he were
one of them. He wrote a book for them.
Delphine Girardin enlisted him in acrobatic
exercises of language, such as making puns
and capping verses, neither of which could
he do well, and he wrestled with ardor in
these bouts. A contemporary has left a
portrait of him engaged in this way in
Madame Girardin's salon, << sitting on his
shoulders," his white waistcoat pushed up
negligently on his breast, his brow absorbed
in thought

According to the American average, he
was something under the usual height ; but,
in France, he was of medium stature. To-
ward the latter part of his life, he was thick,
fat, with large shoulders; the hair tiuning
to gray, long, and ill combed ; the face of a
rubicund monk of the olden time; the
mouth large and teeth solid; mustaches
snudl, and the eyes bright and of strange
attraction. His laugh is said to have been
so loud and deep as to cause the crystal to
vibrate on the table. This profound each-
innation was often the preliminary to the
anecdotes which he told — ^bursting out in a
way to cause surprise in those who did not
know him. When, in a preoccupied mood,
a Rabelaisian joke was told him, one saw it
stealing into his face, which became radiant
with mirth ; his great breast heaved and his
Itings sent out what is popularly called in
English-speaking countries, a horse-laugh.
This mighty risibility was so hearty and nat-
ural as to be contagioxis. He was far from
being elegant; his clothes always seemed to
fit him badly. He cared little for conven-
tional forms ; in reading a play at the foyer of
the Od^n in presence of women, he opened
his waistcoat and buckled up his braces two
or three holes with what the feminine mind
doubtless thought was the equanimity of a

The persuasive powers of Balzac were so
remarkable that he won his hearers over to
his improbable projects and views. Some-
thing alter the style of Poe's " Gold Bug,"
he pretended to have discovered the place
where the treasure of Toussaint L'Ouverture
was buried near Point-^-Pitre. He exercised
such magnetism in his account of the hidden
treasure that he persuaded Th6ophile Gau-
tier and Jules Sandeau of its authenticity,
each of whom was to receive one-quarter of
the loot, he requiring the services of two
tnusty friends to aid him. They actually
went so far as to look at some shovels and

picks. It is hardly necessary to say that
they never discovered the treasure; they
had no money to pay their passage and the
ph>ject was reluctantly abandoned. One of
the trio made public confession of his par-
ticipation in the scheme, begging his readers
not to quiz him too much therefor, and
throwing the blame on the irresistible mag- .
netism of Balzac.

He has been known to interrupt himself
in the middle of one of his accounts of how
to become rich, accusing himself of idleness
and bavardagt. Every moment was pre-
cious, and, abrupdy leaving his hearer, he
locked himself .in and wrought like a giant
The most active Yankee, with his proverb
of "time is money," was prodigal of his
minutes compared to Balzac. Loss of time
was remorse. He loved his work, but he
also loved the glory and riches which it was
to bring, and in which his faith was absolute.

The acquisition of riches in some roman-
tic and sudden fashion was the dream of his
life. It was the pain of Tantalus, — ^for
wealth alwa3rs eluded him. In the early
part of his career, he became convinced
that there was still considerable silver in the
silver mines abandoned by the Romans
through their imperfect refining process,
and he made a voyage to Sardinia to assure
himself of it ; but naively communicated his
project to the captain of the ship on which
he embarked at Marseilles, who availed
himself of the idea and made a' fortune.

In imagination he reveled in the possession
of gold and precious stones, of sumptuous
apartments and magnificent equipages. He
lived in his characters, and especially in
" Facino Cane," in which is painted the scene
of tons of gold and piles of precious stones,
hidden away in a Venetian vault. During
this period he talked of nothing else than
wonderful discoveries of this kmd, and in-
deed, at all times, the power of money was
one of his principal themes.

He could not keep money, and often
spent it before he made it, — Whence his debts.
He was always surrounding himself, after
his literary success, with objects of luxury
beyond his means. The simple cord which
ginded his monachal robe was changed to a
chain of Venetian gold, to which were at-
tached a paper-cutter and a pair of scissors
of the same metal. He wa^ always dis-
counting the prospective profits of his books,
and his account was generaUy overdrawn
with his publisher. He was always estimat-
ing in francs and centimes the value of his
work, and believed in his ftitiu^ wealth as

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Napoleon believed in his star. Some day the
fickle princess, unheeding other adorers
making genuflexions before her, was to
guide the wheel to the door of Balzac and
pour out the horn of plenty before him. In
moments of expansion, he gave a descrip-
tion of the contents of the cornucopia as if
they were spread before him, and con-


structed castles in Spain without number
and of unparalleled magnificence.

His imagination always traveled ahead
of actual results. If one of his volumes
brought in good retiuns, they were to be
ten times as great in the volume to follow —
and he was ready to prove it to his listener
with a torrent of eloquence which bore
away obstacles as if they were feathers.

One of his singular plans for the attain-
ment of the wealth which, for the time,
absorbed him, was the cultivation of pine-
apples at The Jardies, containing four or
five acres, and he made it out that the*
growing of this firuit would produce him an
immense revenue. He argued the matter
with his fiiends and had an answer for every
objection ; he took Th^ophile Gautier with
him along the Boulevard to look for a shop

to rent for the rale of his pine-apples, but
fortunately none were vacant. Eureka!
There was no use worrying himself any
more about money. The solution was found
in pine-apples, and in ten days afterward
pine-apples were never mentioned.

This was the history of most of his money-
making projects. Once he walked in from
The Jardies to Paris, several miles,
at two o'clock in the morning, and
woke up one of his fiiends, teUing
him to get up immediately and dress
himself. What was the matter?
Was his house on fire ; had a calam-
ity befallen his fiiends or relatives ?
No ; he had invented a scheme for
getting rich. There was no time to
be lost ; it was a question of millions
— it was always a question of mill-
ions with Balzac — which were to be
found in a mine of Corsica. On
hearing this the friend, not a little
. annoyed, turned over, saying that
he thought it would keep until the
morrow. At the time the public
gaming-houses existed, he explained
to Jules Sandeau and his publisher,
an infalUble theory for winning enor-
mous amounts of money, and waited
at the comer of die street while one
of them with 60 francs followed his

Online LibraryFrancis HallThe Century, Volume 11 → online text (page 112 of 163)