Honoré de Balzac.

A Distinguished Provincial at Paris online

. (page 10 of 29)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 10 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

two reviews that I am to write for him. _Item_ two works, just out, by
Victor Ducange, a novelist highly thought of in the Marais. _Item_ a
couple of copies of a second work by Paul de Kock, a beginner in the
same style. _Item_ two copies of _Yseult of Dole_, a charming provincial
work. Total, one hundred francs, my little Barbet."

Barbet made a close survey of edges and binding.

"Oh! they are in perfect condition," cried Lousteau. "The _Travels_ are
uncut, so is the Paul de Kock, so is the Ducange, so is that other thing
on the chimney-piece, _Considerations on Symbolism_. I will throw that
in; myths weary me to that degree that I will let you have the thing to
spare myself the sight of the swarms of mites coming out of it."

"But," asked Lucien, "how are you going to write your reviews?"

Barbet, in profound astonishment, stared at Lucien; then he looked at
Etienne and chuckled.

"One can see that the gentleman has not the misfortune to be a literary
man," said he.

"No, Barbet - no. He is a poet, a great poet; he is going to cut out
Canalis, and Beranger, and Delavigne. He will go a long way if he does
not throw himself into the river, and even so he will get as far as the
drag-nets at Saint-Cloud."

"If I had any advice to give the gentleman," remarked Barbet, "it would
be to give up poetry and take to prose. Poetry is not wanted on the
Quais just now."

Barbet's shabby overcoat was fastened by a single button; his collar was
greasy; he kept his hat on his head as he spoke; he wore low shoes,
an open waistcoat gave glimpses of a homely shirt of coarse linen.
Good-nature was not wanting in the round countenance, with its two slits
of covetous eyes; but there was likewise the vague uneasiness habitual
to those who have money to spend and hear constant applications for
it. Yet, to all appearance, he was plain-dealing and easy-natured, his
business shrewdness was so well wadded round with fat. He had been an
assistant until he took a wretched little shop on the Quai des Augustins
two years since, and issued thence on his rounds among journalists,
authors, and printers, buying up free copies cheaply, making in such
ways some ten or twenty francs daily. Now, he had money saved; he
knew instinctively where every man was pressed; he had a keen eye for
business. If an author was in difficulties, he would discount a bill
given by a publisher at fifteen or twenty per cent; then the next day he
would go to the publisher, haggle over the price of some work in demand,
and pay him with his own bills instead of cash. Barbet was something of
a scholar; he had had just enough education to make him careful to steer
clear of modern poetry and modern romances. He had a liking for small
speculations, for books of a popular kind which might be bought outright
for a thousand francs and exploited at pleasure, such as the _Child's
History of France_, _Book-keeping in Twenty Lessons_, and _Botany for
Young Ladies_. Two or three times already he had allowed a good book to
slip through his fingers; the authors had come and gone a score of
times while he hesitated, and could not make up his mind to buy the
manuscript. When reproached for his pusillanimity, he was wont to
produce the account of a notorious trial taken from the newspapers; it
cost him nothing, and had brought him in two or three thousand francs.

Barbet was the type of bookseller that goes in fear and trembling; lives
on bread and walnuts; rarely puts his name to a bill; filches little
profits on invoices; makes deductions, and hawks his books about
himself; heaven only knows where they go, but he sells them somehow,
and gets paid for them. Barbet was the terror of printers, who could
not tell what to make of him; he paid cash and took off the discount;
he nibbled at their invoices whenever he thought they were pressed for
money; and when he had fleeced a man once, he never went back to him - he
feared to be caught in his turn.

"Well," said Lousteau, "shall we go on with our business?"

"Eh! my boy," returned Barbet in a familiar tone; "I have six thousand
volumes of stock on hand at my place, and paper is not gold, as the old
bookseller said. Trade is dull."

"If you went into his shop, my dear Lucien," said Etienne, turning
to his friend, "you would see an oak counter from some bankrupt wine
merchant's sale, and a tallow dip, never snuffed for fear it should burn
too quickly, making darkness visible. By that anomalous light you descry
rows of empty shelves with some difficulty. An urchin in a blue blouse
mounts guard over the emptiness, and blows his fingers, and shuffles
his feet, and slaps his chest, like a cabman on the box. Just look about
you! there are no more books there than I have here. Nobody could guess
what kind of shop he keeps."

"Here is a bill at three months for a hundred francs," said Barbet, and
he could not help smiling as he drew it out of his pocket; "I will take
your old books off your hands. I can't pay cash any longer, you see;
sales are too slow. I thought that you would be wanting me; I had not
a penny, and I made a bill simply to oblige you, for I am not fond of
giving my signature."

"So you want my thanks and esteem into the bargain, do you?"

"Bills are not met with sentiment," responded Barbet; "but I will accept
your esteem, all the same."

"But I want gloves, and the perfumers will be base enough to decline
your paper," said Lousteau. "Stop, there is a superb engraving in the
top drawer of the chest there, worth eighty francs, proof before letters
and after letterpress, for I have written a pretty droll article upon
it. There was something to lay hold of in _Hippocrates refusing the
Presents of Artaxerxes_. A fine engraving, eh? Just the thing to suit
all the doctors, who are refusing the extravagant gifts of Parisian
satraps. You will find two or three dozen novels underneath it. Come,
now, take the lot and give me forty francs."

"_Forty francs_!" exclaimed the bookseller, emitting a cry like the
squall of a frightened fowl. "Twenty at the very most! And then I may
never see the money again," he added.

"Where are your twenty francs?" asked Lousteau.

"My word, I don't know that I have them," said Barbet, fumbling in his
pockets. "Here they are. You are plundering me; you have an ascendency
over me - - "

"Come, let us be off," said Lousteau, and taking up Lucien's manuscript,
he drew a line upon it in ink under the string.

"Have you anything else?" asked Barbet.

"Nothing, you young Shylock. I am going to put you in the way of a bit
of very good business," Etienne continued ("in which you shall lose a
thousand crowns, to teach you to rob me in this fashion"), he added for
Lucien's ear.

"But how about your reviews?" said Lucien, as they rolled away to the
Palais Royal.

"Pooh! you do not know how reviews are knocked off. As for the _Travels
in Egypt_, I looked into the book here and there (without cutting the
pages), and I found eleven slips in grammar. I shall say that the writer
may have mastered the dicky-bird language on the flints that they call
'obelisks' out there in Egypt, but he cannot write in his own, as I will
prove to him in a column and a half. I shall say that instead of giving
us the natural history and archaeology, he ought to have interested
himself in the future of Egypt, in the progress of civilization, and the
best method of strengthening the bond between Egypt and France. France
has won and lost Egypt, but she may yet attach the country to her
interests by gaining a moral ascendency over it. Then some patriotic
penny-a-lining, interlarded with diatribes on Marseilles, the Levant and
our trade."

"But suppose that he had taken that view, what would you do?"

"Oh well, I should say that instead of boring us with politics, he
should have written about art, and described the picturesque aspects
of the country and the local color. Then the critic bewails himself.
Politics are intruded everywhere; we are weary of politics - politics
on all sides. I should regret those charming books of travel that dwelt
upon the difficulties of navigation, the fascination of steering between
two rocks, the delights of crossing the line, and all the things that
those who never will travel ought to know. Mingle this approval with
scoffing at the travelers who hail the appearance of a bird or a
flying-fish as a great event, who dilate upon fishing, and make
transcripts from the log. Where, you ask, is that perfectly
unintelligible scientific information, fascinating, like all that is
profound, mysterious, and incomprehensible. The reader laughs, that is
all that he wants. As for novels, Florine is the greatest novel reader
alive; she gives me a synopsis, and I take her opinion and put a review
together. When a novelist bores her with 'author's stuff,' as she calls
it, I treat the work respectfully, and ask the publisher for another
copy, which he sends forthwith, delighted to have a favorable review."

"Goodness! and what of criticism, the critic's sacred office?" cried
Lucien, remembering the ideas instilled into him by the brotherhood.

"My dear fellow," said Lousteau, "criticism is a kind of brush which
must not be used upon flimsy stuff, or it carries it all away with
it. That is enough of the craft, now listen! Do you see that mark?" he
continued, pointing to the manuscript of the _Marguerites_. "I have
put ink on the string and paper. If Dauriat reads your manuscript, he
certainly could not tie the string and leave it just as it was before.
So your book is sealed, so to speak. This is not useless to you for
the experiment that you propose to make. And another thing: please to
observe that you are not arriving quite alone and without a sponsor in
the place, like the youngsters who make the round of half-a-score of
publishers before they find one that will offer them a chair."

Lucien's experience confirmed the truth of this particular. Lousteau
paid the cabman, giving him three francs - a piece of prodigality
following upon such impecuniosity astonishing Lucien more than a little.
Then the two friends entered the Wooden Galleries, where fashionable
literature, as it is called, used to reign in state.


The Wooden Galleries of the Palais Royal used to be one of the most
famous sights of Paris. Some description of the squalid bazar will not
be out of place; for there are few men of forty who will not take
an interest in recollections of a state of things which will seem
incredible to a younger generation.

The great dreary, spacious Galerie d'Orleans, that flowerless hothouse,
as yet was not; the space upon which it now stands was covered with
booths; or, to be more precise, with small, wooden dens, pervious to the
weather, and dimly illuminated on the side of the court and the garden
by borrowed lights styled windows by courtesy, but more like the
filthiest arrangements for obscuring daylight to be found in little
wineshops in the suburbs.

The Galleries, parallel passages about twelve feet in height, were
formed by a triple row of shops. The centre row, giving back and front
upon the Galleries, was filled with the fetid atmosphere of the place,
and derived a dubious daylight through the invariably dirty windows of
the roof; but so thronged were these hives, that rents were excessively
high, and as much as a thousand crowns was paid for a space scarce six
feet by eight. The outer rows gave respectively upon the garden and the
court, and were covered on that side by a slight trellis-work painted
green, to protect the crazy plastered walls from continual friction with
the passers-by. In a few square feet of earth at the back of the shops,
strange freaks of vegetable life unknown to science grew amid the
products of various no less flourishing industries. You beheld a
rosebush capped with printed paper in such a sort that the flowers
of rhetoric were perfumed by the cankered blossoms of that ill-kept,
ill-smelling garden. Handbills and ribbon streamers of every hue
flaunted gaily among the leaves; natural flowers competed unsuccessfully
for an existence with odds and ends of millinery. You discovered a knot
of ribbon adorning a green tuft; the dahlia admired afar proved on a
nearer view to be a satin rosette.

The Palais seen from the court or from the garden was a fantastic sight,
a grotesque combination of walls of plaster patchwork which had once
been whitewashed, of blistered paint, heterogeneous placards, and all
the most unaccountable freaks of Parisian squalor; the green trellises
were prodigiously the dingier for constant contact with a Parisian
public. So, upon either side, the fetid, disreputable approaches might
have been there for the express purpose of warning away fastidious
people; but fastidious folk no more recoiled before these horrors than
the prince in the fairy stories turns tail at sight of the dragon or
of the other obstacles put between him and the princess by the wicked

There was a passage through the centre of the Galleries then as now;
and, as at the present day, you entered them through the two peristyles
begun before the Revolution, and left unfinished for lack of funds; but
in place of the handsome modern arcade leading to the Theatre-Francais,
you passed along a narrow, disproportionately lofty passage, so
ill-roofed that the rain came through on wet days. All the roofs of the
hovels indeed were in very bad repair, and covered here and again with
a double thickness of tarpaulin. A famous silk mercer once brought an
action against the Orleans family for damages done in the course of
a night to his stock of shawls and stuffs, and gained the day and a
considerable sum. It was in this last-named passage, called "The Glass
Gallery" to distinguish it from the Wooden Galleries, that Chevet laid
the foundations of his fortunes.

Here, in the Palais, you trod the natural soil of Paris, augmented by
importations brought in upon the boots of foot passengers; here, at all
seasons, you stumbled among hills and hollows of dried mud swept daily
by the shopman's besom, and only after some practice could you walk at
your ease. The treacherous mud-heaps, the window-panes incrusted with
deposits of dust and rain, the mean-looking hovels covered with ragged
placards, the grimy unfinished walls, the general air of a compromise
between a gypsy camp, the booths of a country fair, and the temporary
structures that we in Paris build round about public monuments that
remain unbuilt; the grotesque aspect of the mart as a whole was in
keeping with the seething traffic of various kinds carried on within
it; for here in this shameless, unblushing haunt, amid wild mirth and a
babel of talk, an immense amount of business was transacted between the
Revolution of 1789 and the Revolution of 1830.

For twenty years the Bourse stood just opposite, on the ground floor of
the Palais. Public opinion was manufactured, and reputations made and
ruined here, just as political and financial jobs were arranged. People
made appointments to meet in the Galleries before or after 'Change;
on showery days the Palais Royal was often crowded with weather-bound
capitalists and men of business. The structure which had grown up, no
one knew how, about this point was strangely resonant, laughter was
multiplied; if two men quarreled, the whole place rang from one end to
the other with the dispute. In the daytime milliners and booksellers
enjoyed a monopoly of the place; towards nightfall it was filled with
women of the town. Here dwelt poetry, politics, and prose, new books and
classics, the glories of ancient and modern literature side by side with
political intrigue and the tricks of the bookseller's trade. Here
all the very latest and newest literature were sold to a public which
resolutely decline to buy elsewhere. Sometimes several thousand copies
of such and such a pamphlet by Paul-Louis Courier would be sold in a
single evening; and people crowded thither to buy _Les aventures de la
fille d'un Roi_ - that first shot fired by the Orleanists at The Charter
promulgated by Louis XVIII.

When Lucien made his first appearance in the Wooden Galleries, some few
of the shops boasted proper fronts and handsome windows, but these in
every case looked upon the court or the garden. As for the centre row,
until the day when the whole strange colony perished under the hammer of
Fontaine the architect, every shop was open back and front like a booth
in a country fair, so that from within you could look out upon either
side through gaps among the goods displayed or through the glass doors.
As it was obviously impossible to kindle a fire, the tradesmen were fain
to use charcoal chafing-dishes, and formed a sort of brigade for the
prevention of fires among themselves; and, indeed, a little carelessness
might have set the whole quarter blazing in fifteen minutes, for the
plank-built republic, dried by the heat of the sun, and haunted by too
inflammable human material, was bedizened with muslin and paper and
gauze, and ventilated at times by a thorough draught.

The milliners' windows were full of impossible hats and bonnets,
displayed apparently for advertisement rather than for sale, each on a
separate iron spit with a knob at the top. The galleries were decked
out in all the colors of the rainbow. On what heads would those dusty
bonnets end their careers? - for a score of years the problem had puzzled
frequenters of the Palais. Saleswomen, usually plain-featured,
but vivacious, waylaid the feminine foot passenger with cunning
importunities, after the fashion of market-women, and using much the
same language; a shop-girl, who made free use of her eyes and tongue,
sat outside on a stool and harangued the public with "Buy a pretty
bonnet, madame? - Do let me sell you something!" - varying a rich and
picturesque vocabulary with inflections of the voice, with glances, and
remarks upon the passers-by. Booksellers and milliners lived on terms of
mutual understanding.

But it was in the passage known by the pompous title of the
"Glass Gallery" that the oddest trades were carried on. Here were
ventriloquists and charlatans of every sort, and sights of every
description, from the kind where there is nothing to see to panoramas
of the globe. One man who has since made seven or eight hundred thousand
francs by traveling from fair to fair began here by hanging out a
signboard, a revolving sun in a blackboard, and the inscription in
red letters: "Here Man may see what God can never see. Admittance, two
sous." The showman at the door never admitted one person alone, nor more
than two at a time. Once inside, you confronted a great looking-glass;
and a voice, which might have terrified Hoffmann of Berlin, suddenly
spoke as if some spring had been touched, "You see here, gentlemen,
something that God can never see through all eternity, that is to say,
your like. God has not His like." And out you went, too shamefaced to
confess to your stupidity.

Voices issued from every narrow doorway, crying up the merits
of Cosmoramas, views of Constantinople, marionettes, automatic
chess-players, and performing dogs who would pick you out the prettiest
woman in the company. The ventriloquist Fritz-James flourished here in
the Cafe Borel before he went to fight and fall at Montmartre with the
young lads from the Ecole polytechnique. Here, too, there were fruit and
flower shops, and a famous tailor whose gold-laced uniforms shone like
the sun when the shops were lighted at night.

Of a morning the galleries were empty, dark, and deserted; the
shopkeepers chatted among themselves. Towards two o'clock in the
afternoon the Palais began to fill; at three, men came in from the
Bourse, and Paris, generally speaking, crowded the place. Impecunious
youth, hungering after literature, took the opportunity of turning
over the pages of the books exposed for sale on the stalls outside the
booksellers' shops; the men in charge charitably allowed a poor student
to pursue his course of free studies; and in this way a duodecimo volume
of some two hundred pages, such as _Smarra_ or _Pierre Schlemihl_, or
_Jean Sbogar_ or _Jocko_, might be devoured in a couple of afternoons.
There was something very French in this alms given to the young, hungry,
starved intellect. Circulating libraries were not as yet; if you wished
to read a book, you were obliged to buy it, for which reason novels
of the early part of the century were sold in numbers which now seem
well-nigh fabulous to us.

But the poetry of this terrible mart appeared in all its splendor at
the close of the day. Women of the town, flocking in and out from the
neighboring streets, were allowed to make a promenade of the Wooden
Galleries. Thither came prostitutes from every quarter of Paris to "do
the Palais." The Stone Galleries belonged to privileged houses, which
paid for the right of exposing women dressed like princesses under
such and such an arch, or in the corresponding space of garden; but the
Wooden Galleries were the common ground of women of the streets.
This was _the_ Palais, a word which used to signify the temple
of prostitution. A woman might come and go, taking away her prey
whithersoever seemed good to her. So great was the crowd attracted
thither at night by the women, that it was impossible to move except at
a slow pace, as in a procession or at a masked ball. Nobody objected
to the slowness; it facilitated examination. The women dressed in a way
that is never seen nowadays. The bodices cut extremely low both back and
front; the fantastical head-dresses, designed to attract notice; here
a cap from the Pays de Caux, and there a Spanish mantilla; the hair
crimped and curled like a poodle's, or smoothed down in bandeaux over
the forehead; the close-fitting white stockings and limbs, revealed it
would not be easy to say how, but always at the right moment - all this
poetry of vice has fled. The license of question and reply, the public
cynicism in keeping with the haunt, is now unknown even at masquerades
or the famous public balls. It was an appalling, gay scene. The dazzling
white flesh of the women's necks and shoulders stood out in magnificent
contrast against the men's almost invariably sombre costumes. The murmur
of voices, the hum of the crowd, could be heard even in the middle of
the garden as a sort of droning bass, interspersed with _fioriture_ of
shrill laughter or clamor of some rare dispute. You saw gentlemen
and celebrities cheek by jowl with gallows-birds. There was something
indescribably piquant about the anomalous assemblage; the most
insensible of men felt its charm, so much so, that, until the very last
moment, Paris came hither to walk up and down on the wooden planks laid
over the cellars where men were at work on the new buildings; and
when the squalid wooden erections were finally taken down, great and
unanimous regret was felt.

Ladvocat the bookseller had opened a shop but a few days since in the
angle formed by the central passage which crossed the galleries; and
immediately opposite another bookseller, now forgotten, Dauriat, a bold
and youthful pioneer, who opened up the paths in which his rival was
to shine. Dauriat's shop stood in the row which gave upon the garden;
Ladvocat's, on the opposite side, looked out upon the court. Dauriat's
establishment was divided into two parts; his shop was simply a great
trade warehouse, and the second room was his private office.

Lucien, on this first visit to the Wooden Galleries, was bewildered by a
sight which no novice can resist. He soon lost the guide who befriended

"If you were as good-looking as yonder young fellow, I would give you
your money's worth," a woman said, pointing out Lucien to an old man.

Lucien slunk through the crowd like a blind man's dog, following the
stream in a state of stupefaction and excitement difficult to describe.
Importuned by glances and white-rounded contours, dazzled by the
audacious display of bared throat and bosom, he gripped his roll of
manuscript tightly lest somebody should steal it - innocent that he was!

"Well, what is it, sir!" he exclaimed, thinking, when some one caught
him by the arm, that his poetry had proved too great a temptation to
some author's honesty, and turning, he recognized Lousteau.

"I felt sure that you would find your way here at last," said his

The poet was standing in the doorway of a shop crowded with persons
waiting for an audience with the sultan of the publishing trade.
Printers, paper-dealers, and designers were catechizing Dauriat's
assistants as to present or future business.

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 10 of 29)