Honoré de Balzac.

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French Classical Romances

Complete in Twenty Crown Octavo Volumes


With Critical Introductions and Interpretative Essays by








The Two
Young Brides











STRONGER than ever, even than under the spell of
first acquaintance and of the early time, is the sense
thanks to a renewal of intimacy and, I am tempted
to say, of loyalty that Balzac stands signally alone,
that he is the first and foremost member of his craft,
and that, above all, the Balzac-lover is in no position
till he has cleared the ground by saying so. The Bal-
zac-lover only, fpr that matter, is worthy to have his
word, on so happy an occasion as this, about the au-
thor of La Comedie Humaine, and it is indeed not easy
to see how the amount of attention so inevitably in-
duced could, at the worst, have failed to find itself
turning to an act of homage. I have been deeply
affected, to be frank, by the mere refreshment of mem-
ory, which has brought in its train, moreover, con-
sequences critical and sentimental too numerous to
figure here in their completeness. The authors and
the books that have, as the phrase is, done something
for us, formed a solid part of the answer to our cu-
riosity when our curiosity had the freshness of youth,
these particular agents exist for us, with the lapse of

7 Vol. 2


Honore de Balzac

time, as the substance itself of knowledge: they have
been intellectually so swallowed, digested, and assimi-
lated that we take their general use and suggestion for
granted, cease to be aware of them because they have
passed out of sight. But they have passed out of
sight simply by having passed into our lives. They
have become a part of our personal history, a part of
ourselves, very often, so far as we may have succeeded
in best expressing ourselves. Endless, however, are
the uses of great persons and great things, and it may
easily happen in these cases that the connection, even
as an " excitement " the form mainly of the connec-
tions of youth is never really broken. We have
largely been living on our benefactor which is the
highest acknowledgment one can make; only, thanks
to a blessed law that operates in the long run to re-
kindle excitement, we are accessible to the sense of
having neglected him. Even when we may not con-
stantly have read him over the neglect is quite an illu-
sion, but the illusion perhaps prepares us for the
finest emotion we are to have owed to the acquaint-
ance. Without having abandoned or denied our au-
thor, we yet come expressly back to him, and if not
quite in tatters and in penitence like the Prodigal
Son, with something at all events of the tenderness
with which we revert to the parental threshold and
hearthstone, if not, more fortunately, to the parental
presence. The beauty of this adventure, that of see-
ing the dust blown off a relation that had been put
away as on a shelf, almost out of reach, at the back


Honore de Balzac

of one's mind, consists in finding the precious object
not only fresh and intact, but with its firm lacquer
still further figured, gilded, and enriched. It is all
overscored with traces and impressions vivid, defi-
nite, almost as valuable as itself of the recognitions
and agitations it originally produced in us. Our old
^that is our young feelings are, very nearly, what
page after page most gives us. The case has become
a case of authority plus association. If Balzac in him-
self is indubitably wanting in the sufficiently common
felicity we know as charm, it is this association that
may on occasion contribute the glamour.

The impression then, confirmed and brightened,
is of the mass and weight of the figure, and of the
extent of ground it occupies; a tract on which we
really might all of us together pitch our little tents,
open our little booths, deal in our little wares, and
not materially either diminish the area or impede the
circulation of the occupant. I seem to see him in
such an image moving about as Gulliver among the
pigmies, and not less good-natured than Gulliver for
the exercise of any function, without exception, that
can illustrate his larger life. The first and the last
word about the author of Les Conies Drolatiques is that
of all novelists he is the most serious by which I am
far from meaning that in the human comedy as he
shows it the comic is an absent quantity. His sense
of the comic was on the scale of his extraordinary
senses in general, though his expression of it suffers
perhaps exceptionally from that odd want of elbow-


Honore de Balzac

room the penalty somehow of his close-packed,
pressed-down contents which reminds us of some
designedly beautiful thing but half-disengaged from
the clay or the marble. It is the scheme and the
scope that are supreme in him, applying it, moreover,
not to mere great intention, but to the concrete form,
the proved case, in which we possess them. We most
of us aspire to achieve at the best but a patch here
and there, to pluck a sprig or a single branch, to
break ground in a corner of the great garden of life.
Balzac's plan was simply to do all, to give the whole
thing. He proposed to himself to turn over the great
garden from north to south and from east to west; a
task immense, heroic, to this day immeasurable
that he bequeathed us the partial performance of, a
huge imperfect block, in the twenty monstrous years,
years of concentration and sacrifice the vision of
which still makes us ache, representing his productive
career. He had indeed a striking good fortune,
the only one he was to enjoy as an harassed and ex-
asperated worker: the great garden of life presented
itself to him absolutely and exactly in the guise of the
great garden of France, a subject vast and compre-
hensive enough, yet with definite edges and corners.
This identity of his universal with, so to speak, his
local, national vision is the particular thing we should
doubtless call his greatest strength were we preparing
agreeably to speak of it also as his visible weakness.
Of Balzac's weaknesses, however, it takes some as-
surance to talk; there is always plenty of time for


Honore de Balzac

them; they are the last signs we know him by; such
things, truly, as in other painters of manners often
pass for the exuberances of power. So little in short
do they earn that name even when we feel them as

What he did above all was to read the universe,
as hard and as loud as he could, into the France of his
time; his own eyes regarding his work as at once the
drama of man and a mirror of the mass of social phe-
nomena, the social state, the most rounded and regis-
tered, most organized and administered, and thereby
most exposed to systematic observation and por-
trayal, that the world had seen. There are happily
other interesting societies, but these are, for schemes
of such an order, comparatively loose and incoherent,
with more extent and perhaps more variety, but with
less of the great inclosed and exhibited quality, less
neatness and sharpness of arrangement, fewer cate-
gories, subdivisions, juxtapositions. Balzac's France
was both inspiring enough for an immense prose epic
and reducible enough for a report or a table. To
allow his achievement all its dignity we should doubt-
less say also treatable enough for a history, since it
was as a patient historian, a Benedictine of the actual,
the living painter of his living time, that he regarded
himself and handled his material. All painters of man-
ners and fashions, if we will, are historians, even when
they least put on the uniform: Fielding, Dickens,
Thackeray, George Eliot, Hawthorne, among our-
selves. But the great difference between the great


Honore de Balzac,

Frenchman and the eminent others is that, with an
imagination of the highest power, an unequalled in-
tensity of vision, he saw his subject in the light of
science as well, in the light of the bearing of all its
parts on each other, and under pressure of a passion
for exactitude, an appetite, the appetite of an ogre,
for all the kinds of facts. We find, I think, in the
combination here suggested something like the truth
about his genius, the nearest approach to a final ac-
count of him. Of imagination, on one side, all com-
pact, he was on the other an insatiable reporter of the
immediate, the material, the current combination, per-
petually moved by the historian's impulse to fix them,
preserve them, explain them. One asks one's self as
one reads him what concern the poet has with so
much arithmetic and so much criticism, so many sta-
tistics and documents, what concern the critic and the
economist have with so many passions, characters,
and adventures. The contradiction is always before
us; it springs from the inordinate scale of the author's
two faces; it explains more than anything else his
eccentricities and difficulties. It accounts for his
want of grace, his want of the lightness associated
with an amusing literary form, his bristling surface,
his closeness of texture, so suggestive, yet at the
same time so akin to the crowded air we have in mind
when we speak of not being able to see the wood for
the trees.

A thorough-paced votary, for that matter, can
easily afford to declare at once that this confounding


duality of character does more things still, or does at
least the most important of all introduces us with-
out mercy (mercy for ourselves, I mean) to the oddest
truth we could have dreamed of meeting in such a
connection. It was certainly a priori not to be ex-
pected we should feel it of him, but our hero is, after
all, not, in his magnificence, totally an artist: which
would be the strangest thing possible, one must hasten
to add, were not the smallness of the practical differ-
ence so made even stranger. His endowment and
his effect are each so great that the anomaly makes
at the most a difference only by adding to his interest
for the critic. The critic worth his salt is indiscreetly
curious and wants ever to know how and why
whereby Balzac is thus a still rarer case for him, sug-
gesting that curiosity may have exceptional rewards.
The question of what makes the artist, on a great
scale, is interesting enough; but we feel it in Balzac's
company to be nothing- to the question of what, on an
equal scale, frustrates him. The scattered pieces, the
disjecta membra, of the character are here so numerous
and so splendid that they prove misleading; we pile
them together, and the heap, assuredly, is monumen-
tal; it forma an overtopping figure. The genius this
figure stands for, none the less, is really such a lesson
to the artist as perfection itself would be powerless to
give; it carries him so much further into the special
mystery. Where it carries him, however, I must not
in this scant space attempt to say which would be 3
toss of the fine thread of my argument. I stick to


Honore de Balzac

our point in putting it, more concisely, that the artist
of the Comedie Humaine is half smothered by the his-
torian. Yet it belongs as well to the matter also to
meet the question of whether the historian himself
may not be an artist, in which case Balzac's catas-
trophe would seem to lose its excuse. The answer
of course is that the reporter, however philosophic,
has one law, and the creator, however substantially
fed, has another; so that the two laws can with no
sort of harmony or congruity make, for the finer sense,
a common household. Balzac's catastrophe so to
name it once again was in this perpetual conflict and
final impossibility, an impossibility that explains his
defeat on the classic side and extends so far at times
as to make us think of his work as, from the point of
view of beauty, a tragic waste of effort.

What it would come to, we judge, is that the ir-
reconcilability of the two kinds of law is, more simply
expressed, but the irreconcilability of two different
ways of composing one's work. The principle of com-
position that his free imagination would have, or cer-
tainly might have, handsomely imposed on him is
perpetually dislocated by the quite opposite principle
of the earnest seeker, the inquirer to a useful end, in
whom nothing is free but a born antipathy to his
yoke-fellow. Such a production as Le Cure de Village,
the wonderful story of Mme. Graslin, so nearly a
masterpiece, yet so ultimately not one, would be, in
this connection, could I take due space for it, a perfect
illustration. If, as I say, Mme. Graslin's creator was


Honore de Balzac

confined by his doom to patches and pieces, no piece
is finer than the first half of the book in question, the
half in which the picture is determined by his un-
equalled power of putting people on their feet, plant-
ing them before us in their habit as they lived a
faculty nourished by observation as much as one will,
but with the inner vision all the while wide-awake, the
vision for which ideas are as living as facts and assume
an equal intensity. This intensity, greatest indeed in
the facts, has in Balzac a force all its own, to which
none other in any novelist I know can be likened.
His touch communicates on the spot to the object,
the creature evoked, the hardness and permanence
that certain substances, some sorts of stone, acquire by
exposure to the air. The hardening medium, for the
image soaked in it, is the air of his mind. It would
take but little more to make the peopled world of fic-
tion as we know it elsewhere affect us by contrast as a
world of rather gray pulp. This mixture of the solid
and the vivid is Balzac at his best, and it prevails with-
out a break, without a note not admirably true, in
Le Cure de Village since I have named that instance
up to the point at which Mme. Graslin moves out
from Limoges to Montegnac in her ardent passion of
penitence, her determination to expiate her strange
and undiscovered association with a dark misdeed by
living and working for others. Her drama is a par-
ticularly inward one, interesting, and in the highest
degree, so long as she herself, her nature, her be-
haviour, her personal history, and the relations in


Honor de Balzac

which they place her, control the picture and feed
our illusion. The firmness with which the author
makes them play this part, the whole constitution of
the scene and of its developments from the moment
we cross the threshold of her dusky, stuffy old-time
birth-house, is a rare delight, producing in the reader
that sense of local and material immersion which is
one of Balzac's supreme secrets. What characteris-
tically befalls, however, is that the spell accompanies
us but part of the way only until, at a given moment,
his attention ruthlessly transfers itself from inside to
outside, from the centre of his subject to its circum-

This is Balzac caught in the very fact of his mon-
strous duality, caught in his most complete self-ex-
pression. He is clearly quite unwitting that in
handing over his data to his twin-brother the impas-
sioned economist and surveyor, the insatiate general
inquirer and reporter, he is in any sort betraying our
confidence, for his good conscience at such times, the
spirit of edification in him, is a lesson even to the
best of us, his rich, robust temperament nowhere more
striking, no more marked anywhere the great push of
the shoulder with which he makes his theme move,
overcharged though it may be like a carrier's van.
It is not therefore, assuredly, that he loses either
sincerity or power in putting before us to the last de-
tail such a matter as, in this case, his heroine's man-
agement of her property, her tenantry, her economic
opportunities and visions, for these are cases m wmcn


Honore de Balzac

he never shrinks nor relents, in which, positively, he
stiffens and terribly towers, reminds us again of M.
Taine's simplifying sentence, his being a great painter
doubled with a man of business. Balzac was indeed
doubled, if ever a writer was, and to that extent that
we almost as often, while we read, feel ourselves think-
ing of him as a man of business doubled with a great
painter. Whichever way we turn it the oddity never
fails, nor the wonder of the ease with which either
character bears the burden of the other. I use the
word burden because, as the fusion is never complete
witness in the book before us the fatal break of
" tone," the one unpardonable sin for the novelist
we are beset by the conviction that, but for this
strangest of dooms, one or other of the two partners
might, to our relief and to his own, have been dis-
embarrassed. The disembarrassment, for each, by a
more insidious fusion, would probably have produced
the master of the interest proceeding from form, or
at all events the seeker for it, that Balzac fails to be.
Perhaps the possibility of an artist constructed on
such strong lines is one of those fine things that are
not of this world, a mere dream of the fond critical
spirit. Let these speculations and condonations at
least pass as the amusement, as a result of the high
spirits if high spirits be the word of the reader
feeling himself again in touch. It was not of our
author's difficulties that is of his difficulty, the great
one that I proposed to speak, but of his immense
positive effect. Even that, truly, is not an impression


Honore de Balzac

of ease, and it is strange and striking that we are in
fact so attached by his want of the unity that keeps
surfaces smooth and dangers down as scarce to feel
sure at any moment that we shall not come back to it
with most curiosity. We are never so curious about
successes as about interesting failures. The more
reason therefore to speak promptly, and once for all,
of the scale on which, in its own quarter of his genius,
success worked itself out for him.

It is to that I should come back to the infinite
reach in him of the painter and the poet. We can
never know what might have become of him with
less importunity in his consciousness of the machinery
of life, of its furniture and fittings, of all that, right
and left, he causes to assail us, sometimes almost to
suffocation, under the general rubric of things.
Things, in this sense, with him, are at once our de-
light and our despair; we pass from being inordinate-
ly beguiled and convinced by them to feeling that his
universe fairly smells too much of them, that the
larger ether, the diviner air, is in peril of finding
among them scarce room to circulate. His land-
scapes, his " local colour " thick, in his pages, at a
time when it was to be found in his pages almost
alone his towns, his streets, his houses, his Saumurs,
Angoulemes, Guerandes, his great prose Turner-
views of the land of the Loire, his rooms, shops, in-
teriors, details of domesticity and traffic, are a short
list of the terms into which he saw the real as clam-
ouring to be rendered and into which he rendered


Honore de Balzac

it with unequalled authority. It would be doubtless
more to the point to make our profit of this consum-
mation than to try to reconstruct a Balzac planted
more in the open. We hardly, as the case stands,
know most whether to admire in such an example as
the short tale of La Grenadiere the exquisite feeling
for " natural objects " with which it overflows like a
brimming wine-cup, the energy of perception and
description which so multiplies them for beauty's
sake, and for the love of their beauty, or the general
wealth of genius that can count so little and spend so
joyously. The tale practically exists for the sake of
the enchanting aspects involved those of the em-
bowered white house that nestles, on its terraced hill,
above the great French river, and we can think, frank-
ly, of no one else with an equal amount of business on
his hands who would either have so put himself out
for aspects or made them, almost by themselves, a
living subject. A born son of Touraine, it must be
said, he pictures his province, on every pretext and
occasion, with filial passion and extraordinary
breadth. The prime aspect in his scene, all the while,
it must be added, is the money aspect. The general
money question so loads him up and weighs him down
that he moves through the human comedy, from be-
ginning to end, very much in the fashion of a camel,
the ship of the desert, surmounted with a cargo.
" Things " for him are francs and centimes more than
any others, and I give up as inscrutable, unfathom-
able, the nature, the peculiar avidity of his interest


Honore de Balzac

in them. It makes us wonder again and again what
then is the use, on Balzac's scale, of the divine faculty.
The imagination, as we all know, may be employed up
to a certain point, in inventing uses for money; but its
office beyond that point is surely to make us forget
that anything so odious exists. This is what Balzac
never forgot; his universe goes on expressing itself
for him, to its furthest reaches, on its finest sides, in
the terms of the market. To say these things, how-
ever, is, after all, to come out where we want, to sug-
gest his extraordinary scale and his terrible complete-
ness. I am not sure that he does not see character
too, see passion, motive, personality, as quite in the
order of the " things " we have spoken of. He makes
them no less concrete and palpable, handles them no
less directly and freely. It is the whole business, in
fine that grand total to which he proposed to him-
self to do high justice that gives him his place apart,
makes him, among the novelists, the largest, weight-
iest presence. There are some of his obsessions
that of the material, that of the financial, that of the
" social," that of the technical, political, civil for
which I feel myself unable to judge him, judgment
losing itself, unexpectedly, in a particular shade of
pity. The way to judge him is to try to walk all
round him on which we see how remarkably far we
have to go. He is the only member of his order really
monumental, the sturdiest-seated mass that rises in
our path.


Honore de Balzac


We recognise, none the less, that the finest con-
sequence of these re-established relations is linked
with just that appearance in him, that obsession of
the actual under so many heads, that makes us look
at him, as we would at some rare animal in captivity,
between the bars of a cage. It amounts to a kind of
doom, since to be solicited by the world from all quar-
ters at once what is that, for the spirit, but a denial
of escape? We feel his doom to be his want of a pri-
vate 'door, and that he felt it, though more obscurely,
himself. When we speak of his want of charm, there-
fore, we perhaps so surrender the question as but to
show our own poverty. If charm, to cut it short, is
what he lacks, how comes it that he so touches and
holds us that above all, if we be actual or possible
fellow-workers we are uncomfortably conscious of
the disloyalty of almost any shade of surrender? We
are lodged perhaps by our excited sensibility in a di-
lemma of which one of the horns is a compassion that
savours of patronage ; but we must resign ourselves to
that by reflecting that our tenderness at least takes
nothing away from him. It leaves him solidly where
he is and only brings us near, brings us to a view of all
his formidable parts and properties. The conception
of the Comedie Humaine represents them all, and
represents them mostly in their felicity and their tri-
umph or at least the execution does: in spite of
which we irresistibly find ourselves thinking of him,


Honore de Balzac

in reperusals, as most essentially the victim of a cruel
joke. The joke is one of the jokes of fate, the fate
that rode him for twenty years at so terrible a pace
and with the whip so constantly applied. To have
wanted to do so much, to have thought it possible,
to have faced and in a manner resisted the effort, to
have felt life poisoned and consumed, in fine, by such
a bravery of self-committal these things form for us

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe two young brides → online text (page 1 of 24)