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Title: Honoré de Balzac
Author: Gautier, Théophile
Language: French
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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9, rue des Beaux-Arts

Translated by David Desmond


Around 1835, I lived in two small rooms in the Impasse
du Doyenné, not far from the current location of the
Pavillon Mollien. Although it was located in the center of
Paris facing the Tuilleries and just a few steps from the
Louvre, the location was deserted and wild, and it
required a certain persistence for me to be found.
However, one morning a young man with a distinguished
look and a cordial and spiritual air approached my front
door and excused himself while making his introduction;
he was Jules Sandeau: he had come to recruit me on
behalf of Balzac for La Chronique de Paris, a weekly journal
that one will certainly remember, but which had not been
as financially successful as it deserved. Balzac, Sandeau
told me, had read Mademoiselle de Maupin, then very
recently published, and he had very much admired its
style; thus he wished to request my collaboration on the
journal that he sponsored and directed. A date was set for
us to get together, and from that date forward there was
between us a friendship that only death could break.

If I have told this story, it is not because it is flattering for
me, but because it honors Balzac, who, already famous,
sought out a young, obscure writer to collaborate in a
spirit of of camaraderie and complete equality. At that
time, it's true, Balzac was not yet the author of La Comédie
Humaine, but he had completed, besides several novellas,
La Physiologie du Mariage, La Peau de Chagrin, Louis Lambert,
Seraphita, Eugénie Grandet, l'Histoire des Treize, Le Médecin de
Campagne, Père Goriot, that is to say, in ordinary times,
enough to solidify five or six reputations. His nascent
glory, strengthened each month with new rays, shined
with all of the splendors of the aurora; certainly he shined
brightly like his contemporaries Lamartine, Victor Hugo,
de Vigny, de Musset, Sainte-Beuve, Alexandre Dumas,
Mérimée, George Sand, and many others; but at no time
in his life did Balzac carry himself as the Grand Lama of
literature, and he was always good company; he had
pride, but he was entirely free of vanity.

He lived at that time at the end of the Jardin du
Luxembourg, near the Observatoire, on a little
frequented road given the name of Cassini, without
doubt because of its astronomical neighbor. On the
garden wall which occupied almost the entire side, and at
the end of which was found the house in which Balzac
lived, one read: Labsolu, brick merchant. That strange sign,
which is still there, if I am not wrong, is very striking; La
Recherche de l'Absolu can have no other inspiration. This
fateful name probably suggested to the author the idea of
Balthasar Claës in the pursuit of his impossible dream.

When I saw him for the first time, Balzac, one year older
than the century, was around thirty-six, and his face was
one of those that one would never forget. In his
presence, one is reminded of Shakespeare's lines about
Julius Caesar: "Before him, nature stands up boldly and
says to the world, 'This is a man!'"

My  heart beat strongly because never had I approached
without trembling a master of thought, and all the
speeches I had prepared on the way stayed in my throat,
allowing nothing to pass other than a stupid phrase like
this: "The temperature is nice today." Heinrich Heine,
when he went to visit Goethe, could find nothing to say
except that the plums that have fallen from the trees on
the route from Iéna to Weimar are excellent for thirst,
which made the Jupiter of German poetry laugh gently.
Balzac, seeing  my embarrassment, soon put me at my
ease, and during breakfast I became calm enough to
examine him in detail.

He wore, in the form of a dressing gown, a robe of white
cashmere or flannel held at the waist by a cord, in which,
some time later, he was painted by Louis Boulanger.
What whim had pushed him to choose, ahead of any
other, this costume that he never took off? Could it be
that it symbolized in his eyes the cloistered life to which
his labors condemned him, and, Benedictine of the novel,
he had thus taken the robe? This robe always suited him
marvelously. He boasted, showing me the intact sleeves,
to have never sullied its purity with the least stain of ink,
"because," he said, "the true writer should always be neat
while at his work."

His robe,  thrown back, revealed the neck of an athlete or
a bull, round as a section of a column, without apparent
muscles, and of a satiny whiteness which contrasted with
the deeper hue of his face. At this time, Balzac, in the
prime of his life, gave the impression of a robust health,
little in harmony with the romantic pallors then in
fashion.  The pure Tourainian blood left his cheeks a
bright purple and warmly colored his lips, thick and
sinuous, easy to laugh; a light mustache and a small beard
just below his lower lip accentuated the contours of his
mouth, without concealing them; the nose, square at the
end, divided into two lobes, pierced by very open
nostrils, of a character entirely original and unique;
Balzac, in posing for his bust, told the sculptor, David
d'Angers, "Be careful about my nose, my nose is a
world!" The forehead was beautiful, vast, noble, much
whiter than the face, with no creases other than a
perpendicular furrow along the ridge of the nose; there
was a very pronounced ridge above the eyebrows; the
hair, abundant, long, strong and black, stood up in back
like a lion's mane. As for the eyes, there have never
existed anything comparable. They had a life, a light, an
inconceivable magnetism. Despite the nightly vigils, their
whites were pure, limpid, bluish, like that of a child or a
virgin, and encased two black diamonds that shined at
times with rich reflections of gold: they were eyes to
make eagles avert their gaze, to penetrate walls and
hearts, to strike down a furious wild beast, the eyes of the
sovereign, the seer, the conqueror.

Mme. Emile de Girardin, in her novel entitled La Canne
de M. de Balzac, speaks of these shining eyes:

"Tancred then perceived at the front of the club,
turquoise, gold, marvelous carvings; and behind all of
that two large black eyes more brilliant than the stones."

Those extraordinary eyes, once one had met their gaze,
made it difficult to notice other features that might have
been trivial or irregular.

The habitual expression of the face was a sort of
powerful hilarity, a Rabelaisian and monkish joy — the
robe no doubt contributing to the birth of this idea —
which made you think of Brother Jean des
Entommeures, but it was enlarged and elevated by a
mind of the first order.

According to his habit, Balzac had risen at midnight, and
had written until my arrival. His features betrayed no
fatigue, aside from a slight darkening beneath the eyelids,
and during the entire breakfast he demonstrated a wild
gaiety. Little by little the conversation drifted toward
literature, and he complained of the enormous difficulties
of the French language. Style preoccupied him a great
deal, and he sincerely believed that he had none at all. It
is true that he was then generally thought to be lacking
this quality. The school of Victor Hugo, in love with the
sixteenth century and the Middle Ages, specialized in
patterns, in rhythms, in structure, rich in words, breaking
prose with the gymnastics of verse, and modeling itself
on a master confident in his methods, would do nothing
other than that which was well written, that is to say
worked and toned beyond measure, and found the
portrayal of modern manners to be useless, conventional,
and lacking in lyricism. Balzac, despite the popularity that
he had begun to enjoy among the public, was not
admitted among the gods of Romanticism, and he knew
it. While devouring his books, people did not pause to
regard their serious side, and even for his admirers, he
remained for a long time the most productive of our
novelists and nothing else; this surprises today, but I can
vouch for the truth of my assertion. He tortured himself
in trying to achieve a style, and, in his anxiety to make
corrections, he consulted people who were a hundred
times his inferiors. Before signing his name to anything,
he had written under different pseudonyms (Horace de
Saint-Aubin, L. de Viellerglé, etc.) one hundred volumes
just "to free his hand." However he already possessed a
style of his own without being conscious of it.

But let me return to our breakfast. While talking, Balzac
played with his knife or his fork, and I noted that his
hands were of a rare beauty, the true hands of a prelate,
white, with fingers both slender and plump, and nails that
were pink and shiny; he was proud of them and smiled
with pleasure as I looked at them. He considered his
hands to be evidence of breeding and aristocratic birth.
Lord Byron, in a note, says with evident satisfaction, that
Ali Pacha complimented him on the smallness of his ears,
and inferred from them that he was a true gentleman. A
similar remark upon his hands would have equally
flattered Balzac, even more than the praise of one his
books. He had a sort of prejudice against those whose
extremities lacked finesse. The meal was rather fine, a
paté de foie gras was part of it, but this was a deviation
from his habitual frugality, as he remarked while
laughing, and that for "this solemn occasion" he had
borrowed his silver plates from his library!

I retired after having promised some articles for La
Chronique de Paris, where Le Tour en Belgique, La Morte
Amoureuse, La Chaine d'Or, and other literary works had
appeared. Charles de Bernard, who had also been called
by Balzac, contributed La Femme de Quarante Ans, La Rose
Jaune, and some new work since collected into volumes.
Balzac, as one knows, had invented the woman of thirty
years; his imitator added ten years to that already
venerable age and his heroine obtained no less success.

Before going further, let's pause for a moment and give
some details of Balzac's life prior to my acquaintance
with him. My authorities will be Madame de Surville, his
sister, and himself.

Balzac was born in Tours, May 16, 1799, on the day of
the celebration of Saint Honoré who gave him his name,
which sounded good and augured well. Little Honoré was
not a child prodigy; he did not announce prematurely that
he would write La Comédie Humaine. He was a fresh, rosy,
healthy boy, fond of play, with gentle, sparkling eyes, but
in no way distinguished from other boys of his age, at
least upon casual observation. At seven, upon leaving a
day school in Tours, he attended a secondary school in
Vendôme run by the Oratoriens, where he was thought
to be a very mediocre student.

The  first part of Louis Lambert contains curious
information regarding this period of Balzac's life.
Dividing his own personality, he describes himself as an
old classmate of Louis Lambert, sometimes speaking in
his name, and sometimes lending his own sentiments to
this person who is imaginary, yet very real, since he is a
sort of lens into the writer's very soul.

"Situated in the middle of the town, upon the little river
Loire that bathes its walls, the college forms a vast
enclosure containing the establishments necessary for an
institution of this kind: a chapel, a theater, an infirmary, a
bakery, some streams of water. This college, the most
celebrated seat of instruction of the central provinces, is
populated by those provinces and by our colonies. The
distance does not allow parents to come here often to see
their children; the rules forbid vacations away from the
institution. Once they have entered, the pupils do not
leave the college until the end of their studies. With the
exception of walks taken outside under the supervision of
the Fathers, everything had been planned to give to this
house all of the advantages of monastic discipline. In my
time, the corrector was still a living memory, and the
leather strap played with honor its terrible role."

It is in this way that Balzac described this formidable
college, which left in his imagination such persistent

It would be intriguing to compare the novella titled
William Wilson, in which Edgar Allen Poe describes, with
the strange exaggerations of childhood, the old building
from the time of Queen Elizabeth where his hero was
raised with a companion who was no less strange than
Louis Lambert; but this is not the place to make this
comparison, thus I must content myself only to point it

Balzac suffered prodigiously in this college, where his
tendency to daydream was assaulted every instant by
some inflexible rule. He neglected his studies; but,
benefitting from the tacit complicity of a tutor of
mathematics, who was at the same time a librarian and
occupied in studies that were outside of the realm of
ordinary experience, he did not take his lessons and
borrowed all of the books he wished. He passed all of his
time in secret reading. Soon he became the most
punished student in the class. Extra work and detentions
occupied his recreation time.

For certain schoolchildren, punishments inspire a sort of
stoic rebellion, and they oppose the exasperated
professors with the same disdainful impassivity that
captive savage warriors display toward the enemy who
tortures them. Isolation, starvation, and the leather strap
will not elicit the least complaint; there are thus between
the master and the student some horrible conflicts,
unknown to the parents, in which the steadfastness of the
martyrs and the skills of the executioner are found
equally. Some nervous teachers cannot bear the
expressions full of hate, scorn, and threat with which a
child of eight or ten years defies them.

Let us consider here some characteristic details that,
under the name of Louis Lambert, also describe Balzac.
"Accustomed to the open air, the independence of an
education left to chance, the tender care of an old man
who cherished him, and thinking while being warmed by
the rays of the sun, it was very difficult for him to
conform to the rules of the college, to march in line, to
live within the four walls of a room in which twenty-four
young boys were silent, seated on a wooden bench, each
before his desk. His senses possessed a perfection which
gave them an exquisite fragility, and they all suffered
from this communal life; the exhalations that left the air
corrupted, mixed with the odor of a class that was always
dirty and encumbered by the remains of our lunches and
our snacks, affected his sense of smell, that sense which,
connected more directly than the others to the cerebral
system, should cause by its derangements some
unavoidable shocks to the organ of thought; apart from
these atmospheric corruptions, he found in our study
halls some spots where each would put his booty,
pigeons killed for the feast days or plates stolen from the
refectory. Finally our rooms contained an immense stone
on which two buckets of water rested where on a rotating
basis we went each morning to wash our face and hands,
in the presence of the master. Washed only once each day
before our awakening, our premises were always dirty.
Then, despite the number of windows and the height of
the door, the air was always fouled by the emanations of
the wash house, the garbage dump, by the thousand
activities of every schoolboy, without counting our eighty
bodies when assembled. This kind of a collective
humidity, when combined with the dirt that we would
carry back from our travels, resulted in an unbearable
stench. The deprivation of air that was pure and scented
with the countryside in which he had until then lived, the
change in his routines, and the discipline all saddened
Lambert. His head always leaning on his left hand and his
arm supported by his desk, he passed his study time by
looking at the foliage of the trees or the clouds in the sky.
He seemed to be studying his lessons; but seeing his pen
immovably fixed and his page remaining blank, the
professor would cry out to him: 'You are doing nothing,

To this vivid and truthful description of the miseries of
life at school, let me add an extract in which Balzac
characterizes himself as a duality under the double
sobriquet Pythagoras and the Poet, one carried by the
half of himself personified in Louis Lambert and the other
by the half of himself that was his true identity, and
which explains admirably why he was seen by his teachers
as being an incapable child:

"Our independence, our illicit occupations, our apparent
indolence, the torpor in which we remained, our constant
punishments, our repugnance toward homework and
chores, won us the reputation of being useless and
incorrigible boys: our masters despised us, and we
similarly fell into the most terrible discredit among our
classmates, from whom we concealed our contraband
studies for fear of their mockeries. This double low
regard, unjust on the part of the Fathers, was a natural
sentiment on the part of our classmates; we didn't know
how to play ball, run, or walk on stilts on those days of
amnesty when by chance we obtained a moment of
freedom; we didn't take part in any of the amusements
then in style at the school; strangers to the pleasures of
our comrades, we remained alone, seated sadly under a
tree in the courtyard. The Poet and Pythagoras were an
exception, living a life separate from that of the
community. The penetrating instinct, the fragile self-regard
of schoolboys, gave them a greater sensitivity with
regard to minds that were higher or lower than their own;
from there, for some, was hatred of our mute aristocracy;
for others, scorn for our uselessness. We held these
sentiments between us without our full knowledge, and
it's possible that I didn't understand them until today. We
lived therefore exactly like two rats skulking in the corner
of the room that held our desks, bound there equally
during the hours of study and during those of

The result of these hidden labors, of these meditations
which used up study time, was the famous Traité de la
Volonté about which he spoke many times in La Comédie
Humaine. Balzac always regretted the loss of this first
work that he describes in Louis Lambert, and he speaks
with an emotion that time has not diminished of the
confiscation of the box that held the precious
manuscript; some jealous schoolmates tried to snatch the
box that two friends fiercely defended: "Suddenly,
attracted by the noise of the battle, Father Haugoult
roughly intervened and quieted the dispute. This terrible
Haugoult ordered us to give the box to him; Lambert
handed him the key, the teacher took the papers and
flipped through them; then he said while confiscating
them: 'So this is the foolishness for which you neglect
your work!' Large tears fell from Lambert's eyes, caused
as much by the consciousness of  his offended sense of
moral superiority as by the gratuitous insult and the
betrayal that overwhelmed him. Father Haugoult
probably sold the Traité de la Volonté to a grocer of
Vendôme without knowing the importance of the
scientific treasures whose seeds were left to die in
ignorant hands."

After this passage he adds, "It was in memory of the
catastrophe that had happened to Louis's book that in the
work with which these studies begin I used for a piece of
fiction the title truly invented by Lambert, and that I
ave the name (Pauline) of a woman who was dear to him to
a young girl who was full of devotion."

In effect, if I open La Peau de Chagrin, I find in the
confession of Raphael the following words: "You alone
admired my Théorie de la Volonté, that long work for which
I learned the Oriental languages, anatomy, physiology,
and to which I dedicated the greatest part of my time,
work which, if I am not mistaken, will complete the
studies of Mesmer, of Lavater, of Gall, of Bichat, by
opening a new path to the human science; there stops my
beautiful life, this sacrifice of all of those days, this
silkworm's work, unknown to the world, and whose only
compensation could be in the work itself; since the end
of childhood until the day that I finished my Theorié, I
have observed, learned, written, read without rest, and
my life has seemed like a long chore; a gentle lover of
Oriental idleness, enthralled with my dreams, sensual, I
have always worked, denying myself the delights of
Parisian life; a gourmand, I have been temperate; fond of
hikes and journeys on the water, hoping to visit foreign
countries, still finding a child's pleasure in skipping stones
on the water, I stayed constantly seated with pen in hand;
talkative, I went to listen in silence to the public courses
at the library and the museum; I slept in my solitary bunk
like a devotee of the order of Saint Benedict, and women
were however my only fantasy, a fantasy that I caressed
but which always escaped me!"

If Balzac regretted the Traité de la Volonté, he was less
sensitive to the loss of his epic poem on the Incas, which
began thusly:

    Oh Inca, oh ill-fated and unhappy king!

This unfortunate inspiration earned him, for all of the
remaining time that he stayed at the school, the derisory
nickname of poet. Balzac, it must be confessed, never had
a gift for poetry, at least for meter; his complex thoughts
rebelled against rhythm.

From these intense meditations, from these truly
prodigious intellectual efforts of a child of twelve or
fourteen years, there resulted a bizarre malady, a nervous
fever, a sort of coma entirely inexplicable for the
professors, who were not in on the secret of the readings
and the works of young Honoré, who appeared to be so
lazy and stupid. No one at the school suspected this
precocious excess of intelligence, no one knew that in the
cell in which he caused himself to be put daily so as to be
at liberty, this student who was thought to be lazy had
absorbed an entire library of serious books that were
beyond the typical understanding of his age.

Let me here tie together several curious lines related to
the reading ability attributed to Louis Lambert, that is to
say, Balzac:

"In three years, Louis had assimilated the substance of
the books in his uncle's library that deserved to be read.
His absorption of ideas by reading had become a curious
phenomenon: his eye took in seven or eight lines at a
time, and his mind appreciated their meaning at an equal
speed. Often a single word in a phrase sufficed for him to
appreciate its substance. His memory was prodigious. He
remembered with the same fidelity the thoughts acquired
by reading as those which reflection or conversation had
suggested to him. Ultimately he retained all of those
memories: those of places, of names, of words, of things,
of figures; not only did he recall objects at will, but he
remembered them again lit and colored as they were at
the moment that he first perceived them. This power
applied equally to the most imperceptible elements of
understanding. He remembered not only the placement
of thoughts in the book from which he had derived
them, but even the disposition of his soul at those distant

Balzac retained this marvelous gift of his youth
throughout his life, even in larger measure as the years
passed, and it is through this that his immense work can
be explained, truly the work of Hercules.

The anxious teachers wrote to Balzac's parents to come
for him as soon as possible. His mother hurried to him
and picked him up to take him back to Tours. The
astonishment of the family was great when they saw the
thin and sickly child that the school had returned to them
in place of the cherub it had received, and it was
distressing for Honoré's grandmother. Not only had he
lost his beautiful colors and his youthful sturdiness, but,
struck by a congestion of ideas, he appeared to be an
imbecile. His manner was that of an ecstatic, of a
somnambulist who sleeps with his eyes open: lost in a
profound reverie, he did not hear that which was said to
him, or his mind, returning from afar, arrived too late to
respond. But the open air, rest, the nurturing
environment of the family, the recreations they forced
him to take and the vigorous juices of adolescence soon
triumphed over this sickly state. The tumult caused in
that young brain by the whirring of ideas diminished.
Little by little, the muddled readings became organized;
abstractions came to be blended into real images,
observations made silently on life; while walking and
playing, he studied the pretty landscapes of the Loire, the
provincial types, the cathedral of Saint-Gatien and the
characteristic physiognomies of the priests and canons;
many of the images which later served in the grand fresco
of the Comédie were sketched during this period of fruitful
inaction. However, the intelligence of Balzac was not
perceived or understood any more in his family than at
school. Even if something clever escaped his lips, his
mother, despite being a superior woman, would say to
him: "Without a doubt, Honoré, you don't understand
what you are saying." And Balzac would laugh, without
further explanation, that wonderful laugh that he had.
Balzac's father, who shared qualities at that time with
Montaigne, Rabelais, and Uncle Toby, by his philosophy,
his originality, and his goodness (it's Madame de Surville
who is speaking), had a little better opinion of his son,
believing due to certain genetic theories that he held that
a child created by himself could not be stupid:
nevertheless, he had no suspicion of the great man that
he would become in the future.

Balzac's family having returned to Paris, he was entered
into the boarding school of Monsieur Lepitre, Rue Saint-Louis,
and Messieurs Sganzer and Beuzelin, Rue
Thoringy in the Marais. There as at the school in
Vendôme, his genius did not reveal itself, and he
remained in the midst of the troop of ordinary students.
No prefect exclaimed to him: "You will be Marcellus!" or
"Thus you shall go to the stars!"

His classes finished, Balzac gave himself that second
education which is the true one; he studied, perfected
himself, attended the courses of the Sorbonne, and
studied law while working with an attorney and a notary.
This time, apparently lost, since Balzac became neither an
attorney, nor a notary, nor a lawyer, nor a judge, gave him
a personal acquaintance with the personnel of the
Bazoche and led him to later write what I might call the
litigations of La Comédie Humaine in the style of a man
marvelously versed in that profession.

The examinations passed, the great question of which
career to select presented itself. His family wanted to
make a notary of Balzac; but the future great writer, who,
even though no one believed in his genius, had a
consciousness of it himself, refused in a most respectful
manner, although they had organized a position on the
most favorable terms. His father gave him two years to
prove himself, and as the family had returned to the
provinces, Madame Balzac installed Honoré in a garret,
allowing him a stipend sufficient for only his most
pressing needs, hoping that a little hardship would make
him wiser.

This garret was perched on the Rue de Lesdiguières,
number nine, near the Arsenal, whose library offered its
resources to the young laborer. Without a doubt, to pass
from an abundant and luxurious house to a miserable
hovel would be difficult at any age other than 21, which
was the age of Balzac; but if the dream of every child is
to have boots, that of every young man is to have a
room, a room all to himself, whose key he carries in his
pocket, although he can stand upright only at its center: a
room, it's the trappings of virility, it's independence,
personality, love!

Behold then master Honoré perched near the sky, seated
before his table, and trying to create a work that would
justify the indulgence of his father and disprove the
unfavorable predictions of his friends. It is a remarkable
thing that Balzac debuted with a tragedy, with a Cromwell!
Around that same time, Victor Hugo also put the last
touches on his Cromwell, whose preface became the
manifesto of all young dramatists.


In attentively rereading La Comédie Humaine when one has
known Balzac personally, one finds there scattered
curious details with regard to his character and his life,
particularly in his first works, where he has not yet
separated out his own personality, and, due to a lack of
subjects, observes and dissects himself. I have said that
he began his rude apprenticeship for the literary life in a
garret on the Rue Lesdiguières, near the Arsenal. The
novel Facino Cane, published in Paris in March, 1836, and
dedicated to Louise, contains some precious information
regarding the life that this young aspirant for glory led in
his aerial nest.

"I lived then in a street which without doubt you do not
know, the Rue Lesdiguières: it begins at the Rue Saint-Antoine,
opposite a fountain, near the Place de la Bastille,
and leads into the Rue de la Cerisaie. The love of science
had thrown me into an attic where I wrote all night, and I
passed the day in a neighboring library, that of Monsieur;
I lived frugally, I had accepted all of the conditions of the
monastic life, so necessary for laborers. When the
weather was fine, I allowed myself a walk on the
Boulevard Bourbon. One sole passion enticed me from
my studious habits; but wasn't this also studying? I went
to observe the manners of the neighborhood, its
inhabitants and their characters. As ill clad as the
workers, indifferent to decorum, I did not put them on
their guard against me: I could mingle in their groups, see
them conclude their deals, and hear them argue about the
time that they would stop working. For me, observation
had already become intuitive, it penetrated the soul
without neglecting the body; in other words it so
thoroughly grasped exterior that it transcended it
immediately; it gave me the ability to live the life of the
individual on which I was focused and permitted me to
substitute myself for him, like the dervish of the Thousand
and One Nights seized the body and the soul of persons
over whom he pronounced certain words.

"When, between eleven o'clock and midnight, I met a
workman and his wife returning from the Ambigu-Comique,
I amused myself by following them from the
Boulevard Pont-aux-Choux to the Boulevard
Beaumarchais. These good people would at first speak of
the play that they had just seen; next they would address
their personal affairs; the mother would pull the child by
the hand without listening to either his complaints or his
questions. The married couple would count up the
money that would be paid to them the next day. They
would spend it in twenty different ways. They would then
move on to household matters, complaints over the
excessive price of potatoes or the length of the winter
and the rise in the cost of butter, energetic discussions on
how much was owed to the baker, and finally onto
discussions where each of them became irritated and
demonstrated his character with picturesque words. In
listening to these people, I could connect with their life, I
felt their rags upon my back, I walked with my feet in
their tattered shoes; their desires, their needs, all
passed into my soul, and my soul passed into theirs; it
was the dream of an awakened man. I became
exasperated with them against the workshop foremen
who tyrannized them or against the unfair practice that
made them return many times without providing them
with their pay. To abandon habits, to become another
through this intoxication of the moral faculties and to
play this game at will, such was my entertainment. To
what do I owe this gift? Is it an extrasensory perception?
Is it one of those qualities whose abuse would lead to
madness? I have never sought the sources of this power;
I possess it and I use it, that is all."

I have transcribed these lines, which are doubly
interesting because they illuminate a little-known side of
Balzac's life, and because they show that he was
conscious of this powerful faculty of intuition that he
already possessed at such a high level and without which
the realization of his work would have been impossible.
Balzac, like Vishnu, the Indian god, possessed the gift of
metamorphosis, that is to say the ability to incarnate
himself into different bodies and live in them as long as
he wished; however, the number of the metamorphoses
of Vishnu is fixed at ten: those of Balzac are countless,
and furthermore he could produce them at will. Although
it may seem extravagant to say this in the heart of the
nineteenth century, Balzac was a seer. His merits as an
observer, his acuteness as a physiologist, his genius as a
writer, do not suffice to explain the infinite variety of the
two or three thousand types which play a more or less
important role in La Comédie Humaine. He did not copy
them, he lived them in an ideal manner, he wore their
clothes, he took on their habits, he immersed himself in
their surroundings, he was them for as long as necessary.
From there come these authentic, logical characters,
never contradicting themselves and never forgetting
themselves, endowed with an intimate and profound
existence, who, to use one of his expressions, took on the
challenge of life in civil society. Truly red blood circulated
in their veins in place of the ink that infused the creations
of ordinary writers.

Balzac did not possess this ability for any time except the
present. He could transport his thought into a marquis,
into a financier, into a middle-class person, into a man of
the people, into a woman of the world, into a courtesan,
but the shadows of the past did not obey his call: he
never knew, like Goethe, how to evoke from the depths
of antiquity the beautiful Hélène and make her dwell in
the Gothic manor of Faust. With two or three
exceptions, all of his work is modern; he has assimilated
the living, he has not resurrected the dead. Even history
seduced him little, as one can see from the preface to La
Comédie Humaine: "In reading the dry and off-putting
catalogues of facts called histories, who has not recognized
that the writers have forgotten in every era, in Egypt, in
Persia, in Greece, in Rome, to give us the history of
manners? The piece by Petronius on the private life of
the Romans irritates rather than satisfies our curiosity."

This void left by the historians of vanished societies,
Balzac proposed to fill for our own, and God knows that
he carefully followed the program that he had planned.

"Society was going to be the historian, I should not be
but the secretary; in constructing the inventory of vices
and of virtues, in assembling the principal features of the
passions, in depicting the characters, in choosing the
principal events of the society, in composing types by the
blending of traits of several homogeneous characters,
perhaps I could succeed in writing the history forgotten
by so many historians, that of manners. With a great deal
of patience and courage, I might be able to complete, on
nineteenth century France, the book that we all regret
that Rome, Athens, Tyre, Memphis, Persia, India, have
unfortunately not left us on their civilization, and that like
the abbot Bartholomew, the courageous and patient
Monteil had attempted regarding the Middle Ages,
although in a form that was not appealing."

But let us return to the garret on the Rue Lesdiguières.
Balzac had not conceived the plan of the work that
would immortalize him; he was still seeking it with
anxiety, bated breath, and hard labor, trying everything
and succeeding in nothing; however he already possessed
that obstinacy in his work to which Minerva, as surly as
she might be, must one day or another yield; he outlined
comic operas, made plans for comedies, dramas and
romances whose titles Madame de Surville has preserved:
Stella, Coqsigrue, Les Deux Philosophes, without counting the
terrible Cromwell, whose verses had caused him so much
pain and yet were not worth much more than that which
began his epic poem, Incas.

Imagine to yourself young Honoré, his legs wrapped in a
patched coat, his upper body protected by an old shawl
of his mother, his headdress a sort of Dantesque cap and
his hair of a cut that only Madame de Balzac knew, his
coffee pot to his left, his inkwell to his right, working
with a heaving chest and bowed forehead, like an ox at
the plow, the field still stony and not cleared by those
thoughts which would later trace for him such productive
furrows. The lamp shines like a star in the front of the
dark house, the snow falls in silence on the loosened tiles,
the wind blows through the door and window "like
Tulou on his Flute, but less agreeably."

If some dawdling passerby had raised his eyes toward
that little, obstinately flickering glow, he certainly would
not have suspected that it was the dawning of one of the
greatest glories of our age.

Would you like to see a sketch of the place, transposed,
it's true, but very exact, drawn by the author in La Peau de
Chagrin, that work which contains so much of himself?

"… A room which looks down upon the yards of the
neighboring houses, from the windows of which extend
long poles hung with washing; nothing was more horrible
than that garret with those yellow, grimy walls, which
soaked in the misery and called out to its scholar. The
roof slanted in a uniform fashion, and the loosened tiles
permitted a view of the sky; there was room for a bed, a
table, a few chairs, and under the sharp angle of the roof
I could position my piano … I lived in this aerial
sepulcher for almost three years, working night and day,
without rest, with so much pleasure that my studies
seemed to be the most beautiful focus, the happiest
solution to human life. The calm and silence necessary to
the scholar have some elements of the sweetness and
intoxication of love … Study lends a sort of magic to
everything that surrounds us. The meager desk upon
which I wrote and the brown leather that covered it, my
piano, my bed, my armchair, the peculiar wallpaper, my
furniture, all of these things came to life and became for
me humble friends, silent partners in my future. How
many times have I not shared my soul while gazing upon
them? Often, while letting my eyes wander on a crooked
molding, I would encounter new developments, a striking
proof of my system that I believed was able to convey
nearly untranslatable thoughts."

In this same passage, he makes an allusion to his work: "I
had undertaken two great works; a comedy that was in
only a few days to give me fame, a fortune and entry into
that world in which I wanted to reappear while exercising
the kingly rights of a man of genius. You have all seen in
this masterpiece the first error of a young man just out of
college, the nonsense of a child. Your jibes destroyed the
nascent illusions, which since then have not been
awakened …"

One recognizes here the ill-fated Cromwell, which, read in
front of the family and the assembled friends, was a
complete fiasco.

Honoré appealed this sentence before an arbiter whom
he accepted as competent, an honorable old man, a
former professor at the École Polytechnique. The
judgment was that the author should do "anything at all,
except literature."

What a loss for letters, what a void in the human spirit if
the young man had bowed before the experience of the
old man and listened to his counsel, which, certainly, was
most wise, because there was not the least spark of
genius nor even of talent in this rhetorical tragedy!
Happily Balzac, under the pseudonym of Louis Lambert,
had not composed for nothing at the college of Vendôme
the Traité de la Volonté.

He submitted to the sentence, but only for tragedy;
he understood that he should give up trying to walk in
the footsteps of Corneille and Racine, whom he so
admired without being in their debt, for never were
geniuses more contrary to that of himself. The novel
offered him a more suitable model, and he wrote at this
time a great number of volumes which he did not sign
and which he always disavowed. The Balzac that we
know and that we admire was still in limbo and struggled
in vain to extricate himself. Those who had judged him
capable of being nothing but a copyist appeared to be
right; perhaps even this option had failed him, because
his beautiful handwriting had already deteriorated with
the crumpled, crossed out, overwritten, near hieroglyphic
drafts of the writer fighting for the idea and no longer
concerned about the beauty of the character.

Thus, nothing resulted from this rigorous confinement,
this hermetic life in the Thébaïde in which Raphaël
outlines the budget: "Three sous of bread, two sous of
milk, three sous of meat that prevented me from dying of
hunger and kept my mind in a state of singular lucidity.
My lodgings cost me three sous a day; I burned three
sous of oil every night, I took care of my own room, I
wore flannel shirts so that I would spend only two sous a
day for laundry. I warmed myself with coal, whose price
divided by the days in the year never gave more than two
sous for each. I had suits of clothes, linens, and shoes for
three years: I didn't want to get dressed except to go to
certain public lectures and to the libraries; these expenses
combined were only eighteen sous: there remained two
sous for unforeseen things. I do not recall having, during
this long period of work, having passed the Pont des Arts
or ever buying water."

Without doubt, Raphaël exaggerated these economies a
little, but Balzac's correspondence with his sister shows
that the novel does not differ much from the reality. The
old woman referred to in his letters by the name of Iris la
Messagère, who was 70 years-old, could not have been a
very active housekeeper, as Balzac writes: "The news of
my household is disastrous, the work does harm to its
cleanliness. This rascal of Myself neglects himself more
and more, he only descends every three or four days to
make some purchases, he goes to the closest and worst
provisioned merchants in the quarter: the others are too
far, and the fellow economizes even his steps; so that
your brother (destined for so much celebrity) is already
nourished absolutely like a great man, that is to say that
he is dying of hunger."

"Another problem: The coffee is made terribly bitter by
dirt. Lots of water is needed to correct the damage; but
the water does not rise to my celestial garret (it descends
there only on stormy days), it will require, after the
purchase of the piano, the installation of a hydraulic
machine, if the coffee continues to disappear while the
master and the servant daydream."

Elsewhere, continuing the joking, he reprimands the lazy
Myself, the only footman that he has in his service, who
does not fill the basin, leaves dust balls scattered freely
under the bed, the dirt obscuring the windows,
and the spiders spinning their webs in the corners.

In another letter, he writes: "I have eaten two melons …
it will be necessary to pay for them with nuts and dry

One of the rare recreations that he permitted himself was
to go to the Jardin des Plantes or Père-Lachaise. At the
summit of the funereal hill, he towered over Paris like
Rastignac at the burial of Père Goriot. His gaze glided
over this ocean of slate and tile that cover up so much
luxury, misery, intrigue and passion. Like a young eagle,
he took in his prey at a glance; but he still had no wings,
no beak, no talons, although his eye could already fix
itself on the sun. He said, contemplating the tombs:
"There are no more beautiful epitaphs than these: La
Fontaine, Masséna, Molière: one single name that says
everything and makes us dream!"

This sentence contains an ill-defined but prophetic
understanding that the future realized, alas!, too soon. On
the slope of the hill, upon a sepulchral stone, beneath a
bust cast in bronze, after the marble of David, the word
BALZAC says everything and makes the solitary
wanderer dream.

The dietary regimen recommended by Raphaël could be
favorable to the lucidity of the brain; but certainly it was
worthless for a young man used to the comfort of family
life. The fifteen months that passed under these intellectual
burdens, sadder, without fail, than those of Venice, had
made the youthful Tourangeau with the soft, glowing
cheeks a Parisian skeleton, haggard and yellow, nearly
unrecognizable. Balzac reentered the paternal home,
where the fatted calf was killed for the return of this only
slightly prodigal child.

I glide lightly over the period of his life when he tried to
ensure independence by speculations in the book trade
and during which only a lack of capital prevented him
from finding success. These ventures put him in debt,
mortgaged his future, and despite the devoted assistance
offered perhaps too late by the family, burdened him
with the rock of Sisyphus that he so many times pushed
just to the edge of the hill, and which always fell back
with more crushing weight upon the shoulders of this
Atlas, overloaded besides by an entire world.

This debt that he made it a sacred duty to discharge,
because it represented the fortune of those who were
dear to him, was Necessity armed with a spiked whip, her
hand bearing bronze nails that harassed him night and
day, with neither truce nor pity, making him regard every
hour of repose or recreation as a theft. She dominated his
entire life painfully, often rendering it inexplicable to he
who did not possess its secret.

Having provided these indispensable biographical details,
I come to my direct and personal impressions of Balzac.

Balzac, that immense brain, that physiologist so
penetrating, that observer so profound, that mind so
intuitive, did not possess the literary gift: within him there
opened an abyss between the thought and the form. That
abyss, particularly in the early years, he despaired of
crossing. He threw himself without fulfillment into
volume upon volume, observation upon observation,
essay upon essay; an entire library of disavowed books
passed through there. A will less robust would have been
discouraged a thousand times; but happily Balzac had an
unshakeable confidence in his genius, unknown to all the
world. He wanted to be a great man, and he was that by
his unrelenting projections of that force that was more
powerful than electricity, and with which he made such
subtle analyses in Louis Lambert.

Unlike the writers of the romantic school, who
distinguished themselves by a boldness and astonishing
facility of execution, and produced their fruits at nearly
the same time as their flowers, in a blossoming that was in
a sense involuntary, Balzac, the equal in genius of them
all, did not find his means of expression, or did not find
it until after infinite suffering. Hugo said in one of his
prefaces, with his Castilian pride: "I do not know the art
of soldering a beauty in the place of a defect, and I
correct myself in another work." But Balzac would cover
a tenth proof with his crossings out, and when he saw me
return to the La Chronique de Paris the proof of an article
written in a hurry, on the corner of a table, with only
typographical corrections, he could not believe, as
content as he was otherwise, that I had applied all of my
talent there. "By reworking it two or three times, it would
have been better," he said to me.

Citing himself as an example, he preached to me a
strange literary lifestyle. I must cloister myself for two or
three years, drink water, eat soggy lupins like Protogène,
go to bed at six o'clock in the evening, get up at
midnight, and work until morning, using the day to
revise, expand, shorten, perfect, polish the nocturnal
work, correct the proofs, take notes, do the necessary
studies, and live most importantly with absolute chastity.
He insisted a great deal upon this last recommendation,
which was very challenging for a young man of twenty-four
or twenty-five years. According to him, true chastity
develops to the highest degree the powers of the mind,
and gives to those who practice it unidentified abilities. I
timidly objected that the greatest geniuses did not forbid
themselves love, passion, or even pleasure, and I cited
some illustrious names. Balzac shook his head and
responded, "They would have done better, without the

The only concession that he would grant me, and even
then he regretted it, was to see my beloved one half hour
each year. He permitted letters: "These guide the
development of style."

By means of this regimen, he promised to make of me,
with the natural abilities that he was pleased to recognize
in me, a writer of the first order. It is clear from my work
that I have not followed this plan.

It must not be believed that Balzac was joking when he
laid down these conditions that the Trappists or the
Carthusians would have found harsh. He was perfectly
convinced, and spoke with such eloquence that many
times I consciously tried to use this method to develop
genius; I awoke numerous times at midnight, and after
having partaken of the inspirational coffee, acted
according to the formula, seating myself in front of a
table on which sleep caused me to quickly lay my head.
La Morte Amoureuse, published in the La Chronique de Paris,
was my only nocturnal work.

Around this time, Balzac had written for a review Facino
Cane, the story of a noble Venetian who, imprisoned in
the vaults of the ducal palace, had fallen, while digging an
escape tunnel, upon the secret treasure of the Republic, a
good part of which he carried away with the help of a
bribed jailer. Facino Cane, who became blind and played
the clarinet under the common name of Father Canet,
had kept an extrasensory perception for gold; he
recognized it through walls and in vaults, and he offered
to the writer, at a wedding in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine,
to guide him, if he was willing to pay him the
cost of the journey, toward this immense mass of riches
whose location had been lost due to the fall of the
Venetian Republic. Balzac, as I have said, lived his
characters, and at this moment, he was Facino Cane
himself, although without the blindness, for never have
there been eyes more sparkling or scintillating on a
human face. He dreamed of nothing but tons of gold,
heaps of diamonds and garnets, and, by means of
magnetism, with whose practices he had been long
familiar, he sought from these explorations the
location of the buried and lost treasure. He pretended to
have learned in this way, in the most precise manner, the
place where, near the hill of Pointe-à-Pître, Toussaint
Louverture had caused his booty to be buried by negroes
who were immediately shot. The Gold-Bug, of Edgar Poe,
does not equal, in subtlety of reasoning, in clarity of plan,
in divination of details, the fevered rendition that he has
given us of the expedition to attempt to become master
of this treasure, which was far richer than that which was
buried by Tom Kidd at the skull at the foot of the

I implore the reader to not make too much fun of me, if
I confess to him in all humility that I soon shared the
conviction of Balzac. What brain could have resisted his
breathtaking speech? Jules Sandeau was also soon
seduced, and as he needed two dependable friends, two
devoted and robust companions to perform the
nocturnal excavations under the direction of the seer,
Balzac was pleased to grant us one-fourth each of this
prodigious fortune. One-half was to revert to him by
right, as he had made the discovery and directed the

We were to buy pikes, pickaxes and shovels, get them
secretly on board the vessel, and get ourselves to a
designated point by different routes so as not to excite
suspicions, and, the blow being struck, we were to
transport our riches on a brigantine chartered in advance;
in short, it was quite a tale, which would have been
admirable if Balzac had written it instead of speaking it.

There is no need to say that we did not unearth the
treasure of Toussaint Louverture. Money was not
available to pay our passage; the three of us had at most
enough to buy the pickaxes.

The dream of a sudden fortune won by some strange and
marvelous means often haunted the brain of Balzac;
some years before (in 1833), he had made a voyage to
Sardinia to examine the slag of the silver mines
abandoned by the Romans, which, treated by imperfect
processes, must according to him still have contained a
great deal of metal. The idea was reasonable and,
imprudently confided, made the fortune of another.


I have related the anecdote of the treasure buried by
Toussaint Louverture, not for the pleasure of telling a
strange story, but because it is connected with a
dominant idea of Balzac – money. Certainly, nobody was
less avaricious than the author of La Comédie Humaine, but
his genius made him foresee the immense role that this
metallic hero would play in art, more interesting for
modern society than the Grandissons, the Desgrieux, the
Oswalds, the Werthers, the Malek-Adhels, the Renés, the
Laras, the Waverleys, the Quentin Durwards, etc.

Until then the story had been confined to the portrayal of
a unique passion, love, but love in an ideal sphere and
outside of the necessities and miseries of life. The
personages of these entirely psychological recitals neither
ate, nor drank, nor lodged, nor had an account with their
tailor. They moved in an abstract environment like those
of a tragedy. If they wished to travel, they put, without
obtaining a passport, some handfuls of diamonds into the
bottom of their pocket, and paid with this currency the
postilions, who did not fail at each way station to have
exhausted their horses; some chateaus of indistinct
architecture received them at the end of their journeys,
and with their blood they wrote to their beloveds
interminable epistles dated from the tour of the North.
The heroines, no less immaterial, resembled an aquatint
of Angelica Kauffmann: a large straw hat, hair somewhat
straightened in the English style, a long robe of white
chiffon, held at the waist by an azure sash.

With his profound instinct for reality, Balzac understood
that the modern life he wanted to portray was dominated
by one grand fact, money, and, in La Peau de Chagrin, he
had the courage to present a lover not only anxious to
know if he had touched the heart of the one he loves, but
also if he will have enough money to pay for the carriage
in which he was bringing her home. This audacity is
perhaps one of the greatest that one might permit oneself
in literature, and it alone sufficed to immortalize Balzac.
The consternation was profound, and the purists were
indignant at this infraction of the laws of the genre; but
all the young people who, going out in the evening to the
home of some beautiful woman wearing white gloves ironed
with gum elastic, had traversed Paris as dancers, on the
tips of their shoes, fearing a spot of mud more than the
crack of a pistol, commiserated, having shared these fears,
like the anguishes of Valentin, who cared deeply about a
hat that he could not renew and preserve despite his minute
care. In moments of supreme misery, the discovery of a one
hundred sou piece slid under the papers of the drawer, due
to the discreet pity of Pauline, produced the effect of the
most romantic theatrical strokes or of the intervention of
a Peri in the Arabian tales. Who has not discovered during
days of distress, forgotten in pants or in a vest, a few
glorious coins appearing at just the right time and saving
you from the calamity that youth fears the most: to fail to
provide a beloved woman with a carriage, a bouquet, a small
bench, a show program, a tip to the usherette or some trifles
of this type?

Balzac excels in the portrayal of youth who are poor, as
they almost always are, entering into their first struggles
with life, prey to the temptation of pleasures and luxury,
and experiencing profound miseries due to their high
hopes. Valentin, Rastignac, Bianchon, d'Arthez, Lucien
de Rubempré, Lousteau, have all sunk their beautiful
teeth into the tough meat of the angry cow, fortifying
food for robust stomachs, indigestible for weak
stomachs; he does not lodge them, these beautiful young
ones without a sou, in conventional garrets decorated
with Persian rugs, with windows festooned with sweet
peas and looking out on gardens; he does not have them
eat "some simple dishes, prepared by the hand of nature,"
and does not dress them in luxurious garments, but in
those that are proper and practical; he puts them in the
boarding house of Mother Vauquer, or forces them to
crouch under the sharp angle of a roof, he presses them
into greasy tables at mean little restaurants, dressing them
in black clothing with gray seams, and he is not afraid to
send them to the pawn shop, if they still have, a rare
occurrence, their father's watch.

Oh Corinne, you who allows, upon Cape Misèna, your
snowy arm to dangle across your ivory lyre, while the son
of Albion, draped in a superb new coat, and shod in his
beloved perfectly polished boots, reflects on you and
listens to you in an elegant pose, Corinne, what would
you have said to such heroes? They have however one
small quality that was lacking in Oswald, they live, and of
a life so robust that it seems like one has encountered
them one thousand times; also Pauline, Delphine de
Nucingen, the princess of Cadignan, Madame de
Bargeton, Coralie, Esther, are madly infatuated with

At the time that the first novels signed by Balzac
appeared, one did not have, to the same degree as today,
the preoccupation, or, better said, the fever for gold.
California had not been discovered; there existed perhaps
several leagues of railway whose future one hardly
suspected, and that one saw as a kind of conduit that led up
to the Russian mountains, but that had fallen into disuse;
the public ignored, so to speak, "business," and only
bankers gambled at the Bourse. This movement of
capital, this flow of gold, these calculations, these figures,
this importance given to money in works that one still
took as simple romantic fictions and not as serious
portraits of life, singularly shocked the subscribers to the
reading rooms, and critics added up the total sums spent
or staked by the author. The millions of father Grandet
led to arithmetic discussions, and serious people,
troubled by the enormity of the totals, doubted the
financial abilities of Balzac, very great abilities
nevertheless, and recognized later. Stendhal said with a
sort of disdainful smugness, "Before writing, I always
read three or four pages of the Civil Code to give me the
tone." Balzac, who understood money so well, also
discovered poems and dramas in the Code: Le Contrat de
Mariage, where he places in opposition, in the persons of
Matthias and of Solonnet, the ancient and the modern
notary, has all of the interest of the most eventful
comedy of the cloak and sword. The bankruptcy in
Grandeur et Décadence de César Birotteau makes you quiver
like the story of an empire's fall; the conflict of the
château and the cottage in Les Paysans offers just as much
adventure as the siege of Troy. Balzac knows how to give
life to the soil, to a house, to a heritage, to a capital, and
in fact to heroes and heroines whose adventures are
devoured with anxious avidity.

These new elements introduced into the novel were not
appreciated at first; the philosophical analyses, the
detailed character portraits, the minute descriptions that
seemed to have the future in view, were regarded as
unpleasantly lengthy, and quite often one skipped them
to move on to the story. Later, one recognized that the
goal of the author was not to weave intrigues that were
more or less well-plotted, but to portray society in its
entirety, from the summit to the base, with its characters
and its components, and that one will admire in it the
immense variety of these types. Is it not Alexandre
Dumas who said of Shakespeare: "Shakespeare, the man
who has created the most after God?"; the words might
be even more justly applied to Balzac; never, indeed, did
so many living creatures issue from one human brain.

At this time (1836), Balzac had conceived the plan for his
Comédie Humaine and possessed the full awareness of his
genius. He adroitly connected the works that had already
been published to his general concept and found them a
place in the categories that had been philosophically
outlined. Some novels of pure fantasy did not fit in very
well, despite the connections that were added afterwards;
but these are details that are lost in the immensity of the
ensemble, like ornaments in a differing style on a grand

I have said that Balzac worked laboriously, and, being an
obstinate smelter, rejected ten or twelve times from the
crucible the metal that had not perfectly filled the mold;
like Bernard Palissy, he would have burned the furniture,
the flooring and up through the beams of his house
without regret to maintain the fire in his furnace; the
most challenging necessities would never make him
deliver a work on which he had not put the utmost
effort, and he gave admirable examples of literary
conscientiousness. His corrections, so numerous that
they were almost equivalent to different editions on the
same idea, were charged to his account by the editors
who were responsible for earnings, and his
compensation, often modest for the value of the work
and the pain it had cost him, were diminished in
proportion. The promised sums did not always arrive on
time, and to sustain what he laughingly called his floating debt,
Balzac displayed prodigious resources of mind and a
level of activity that would have completely absorbed the
life of an ordinary man. But, when seated before his table
in his friar's frock, in the midst of the nocturnal silence,
he found himself confronted with blank sheets
illuminated by the glow of seven candles, concentrated by
a green shade, in taking pen in hand he forgot
everything, and thus commenced a struggle more terrible
than the conflict of Jacob with the angel, that of form
and idea. In these nightly battles, from which in the
morning he would issue broken but victorious, when the
extinguished hearth chilled the atmosphere of his room
once again, his head steamed and his body exhaled a
visible fog like the body of a horse in wintertime.
Sometimes only a single phrase occupied an entire
evening; it was considered, reconsidered, twisted,
kneaded, pounded, stretched, shortened, written in one
hundred different ways, and, bizarrely, the necessary,
complete, form, would not present itself until after the
exhaustion of the approximate forms; without doubt the
metal often flowed from a fuller and thicker hose, but
there are very few pages in Balzac that stayed identical to
the first draft. His manner of proceeding was this: when
he had for a long time borne and lived a subject, with
writing that was rapid, jumbled, blotted, nearly
hieroglyphic, he would outline a sort of scenario in a few
pages, which he would send to the printer and which was
returned on placards, that is to say as isolated columns in
the middle of large sheets. He read these placards
carefully, which already gave to his embryo of work that
impersonal character that the manuscript does not have,
and he applied to this rough sketch the high critical
faculty that he possessed, acting as if he were another
person. He worked on something; approving or
disapproving, he kept or corrected, but mostly added.
Lines issuing from the beginning, the middle or the end
of phrases, were directed toward the margins, to the
right, to the left, to the top, to the bottom, leading to
some developments, to insertions, to interpolations, to
epithets, to adverbs. At the end of some hours of work,
one would have called his sheet a bouquet of fireworks
drawn by a child. From the primitive text shot forth
rockets of style which exploded on all sides. Then there
were simple crosses, crosses recrossed like a coat of arms,
stars, suns, Arab or Roman numerals, Greek or French
letters, every imaginable sign of reference to mix with the
scratchings. Some strips of paper, fastened with sealing
wafers, stuck on with pins, added to the insufficient
margins, striped with lines of fine characters to conserve
space, themselves full of crossings out, because the
correction that had barely been made had itself already
been corrected. The printed placard nearly disappeared in
what appeared to be a cabalistic book of spells, which the
typographers passed from hand to hand, each not
wanting to work for more than an hour on Balzac.

The following day, they sent back the placards with the
corrections made, and already expanded by half.

Balzac resumed work, always amplifying, adding a trait, a
detail, a description, an observation on manners, a
characteristic word, a phrase for effect, bringing the form
closer to the idea, always moving closer to his internal
outline, choosing like a painter among three or four
contours the definitive line. Often this terrible work
ended with that intensity of attention of which he alone
was capable, as he recognized that a thought had been
poorly expressed, that one incident predominated, that a
figure that he wished to be secondary for general effect
deviated from his plan, and with one stroke of the pen he
would courageously destroy the result of four or five
nights of labor. He was heroic in these circumstances.

Six, seven, and sometimes ten proofs were returned with
crossings out, rewritten, without satisfying the author's
desire for perfection. I have seen at Les Jardies, on the
shelves of a library composed of only his works, each
different proof of the same work bound in a separate
volume from the first sketch to the definitive book; the
comparison of Balzac's thought at these diverse stages
offers a very curious study and contains profitable literary
lessons. Near these volumes a sinister looking book,
bound in black morocco leather, with neither clasps nor
gilding, drew my attention: "Take it," Balzac said to me,
"it is an unpublished work which may have some value."
Its title was Comptes Mélancoliques; it contained lists of
debts, due dates of bills to be paid, notices of purveyors
and all that menacing paperwork that is legalized by a
stamp. This volume, with a kind of  mocking contrast,
was placed beside the Contes Drolatiques, "of which it is
not a continuation," added the author of La Comédie
Humaine with a laugh.

Despite this laborious method of execution, Balzac
produced a great deal, thanks to his superhuman will
supplemented by the temperament of an athlete and the
seclusion of a monk. For two or three months in
succession, when he had some important work in
progress, he labored sixteen or eighteen hours out of
twenty-four; he granted to his animal being only six hours
of a heavy, feverish, convulsive sleep, encouraged by the
torpor of digestion after a hastily taken meal. He would
disappear so completely, his best friends would lose all
trace; but he would soon return from underground,
waving a major work above his head, laughing his hearty
laugh, applauding himself with a perfect innocence and
according himself the praise that he demanded from no
one else. No author was more unconcerned than him
regarding reviews and advertising upon the release of his
books; he allowed his reputation to grow by itself,
without putting his hand to it, and he never courted
journalists. Indeed other things consumed his time: he
delivered his copy, took his money and fled to distribute
it to his creditors who often waited in the journal's
courtyard, like, for example, the masons of Les Jardies.

Sometimes, in the morning, he would meet me
breathless, exhausted, giddy from the fresh air, like
Vulcan escaping from his forge, and he would fall upon a
couch; his long vigil had left him starving and he would
blend sardines with butter and make a sort of paste which
reminded him of the rillettes of Tours, and which he
would spread on bread. This was his favorite dish; he had
no sooner eaten than he fell asleep, begging me to
awaken him after one hour. Without regard for his
admonition, I would respect this well-earned sleep, and I
silenced all of the whispers in the house. When Balzac
awoke of his own accord, and he saw that the evening's
twilight was diffusing its gray tints across the sky, he
would leap up from his couch and heap me with abuse,
calling me traitor, thief, assassin: I made him lose ten
thousand francs, because awake he could have had the
idea for a novel that would have earned this sum (without
the reprints). I was the cause of the gravest catastrophes
and unimaginable disorders. I had made him miss
meetings with bankers, editors, duchesses; he would not
be able to repay his debts on time; this fatal sleep would
cost millions. But I was already used to these prodigious
betting systems that Balzac, starting from the lowest
figure, would push excessively to the most monstrous
sums, and I easily consoled myself by seeing the beautiful
colors characteristic in Tours reappear on his rested

Balzac lived then at Chaillot, rue des Batailles, a house
from which one found an admirable view of the course
of the Seine, the Champ de Mars, the École Militaire, the
dome of the Invalides, a large proportion of Paris and
further away the hills of Meudon. He had arranged there
an interior that was luxurious enough, because he knew
that in Paris nobody believed in an impoverished talent,
and that perception often leads to reality. It was during this
period that one hears of his tendencies toward elegance
and dandyism, the famous blue coat with solid gold
buttons, the walking stick with a turquoise head, the
appearances at the Bouffes and at the Opera, and the
more frequent visits into society where his sparkling flair
made him much sought after, visits that were useful for
more than one reason, for he met there more than one
model. It was not easy to penetrate into his home, which
was better guarded than the garden of the Hespérides.
Two or three passwords were required. Balzac, for fear
they might be divulged, changed them often. I remember
these ones: to the porter one said: "Prune season has
arrived," and he would let you cross the threshold; to the
servant who ran to the stairs at the sound of the bell, it
was necessary to whisper: "I bring lace from Belgium,"
and if you could assure the bedroom valet that "Madame
Bertrand was in good health," you were finally

This childish behavior very much amused Balzac; it was
necessary to ward off unwanted people and those who
were even more disagreeable.

In La Fille aux Yeux d'Or is found a description of the
salon in the rue des Batailles. It is of the most scrupulous
fidelity, and one will not be displeased to see the lion's
den painted by himself. There is not a detail to add or to

"Half of the sitting room described a delicately graceful
circular line, opposite of which the other half was
perfectly square, in the middle of which shined a fireplace
of white marble and gold. One entered through a side
door concealed by a rich tapestry and which faced a
window. The horseshoe-shaped section of the room was
decorated with a real Turkish divan, that is to say with a
mattress placed on the ground, but a mattress as large as
a bed, a divan fifty feet in circumference covered in white
cashmere, embellished with tufts of black and poppy-colored
silk, arranged in a diamond pattern; the back of
this immense bed was elevated several inches higher by
the numerous cushions that enriched it further by their
stylish compatibility. This sitting room was hung with a
red fabric on which was mounted a muslin from the
Indies that was fluted like a Corinthian column by piping
that alternated between hollow and round and stopped at
the top and bottom with a band of poppy-colored fabric,
on which were drawn some black arabesques. Under the
muslin, the poppy color became rose, an amorous color
that repeated in the window curtains, which were of
muslin from the Indies lined with rose-colored taffeta
and ornamented with poppy and black fringes. Six silver
arms each supporting two candles were attached to these
wall coverings at equal distances, to illuminate the divan.
The ceiling, from the center of which hung a lantern of
matte silver, sparkled with whiteness, and the molding
was gilded. The carpet resembled an Oriental shawl, it
presented the designs and recalled the poetry of Persia,
where the hands of slaves had created it. The furniture
was covered in white cashmere, set off by black and
poppy-colored accents. The clock, the candelabras, all
were of white marble and gold. The only table in the
room had a cashmere covering; elegant jardinières
contained roses of every type, and white or red flowers."

I can add that upon the table was placed a magnificent
writing desk in gold and malachite, the gift, without a
doubt, of some admiring stranger.

It was with a childlike satisfaction that Balzac showed me
this sitting room set in a square salon, and by necessity
leaving empty spaces at the angles of the circular half.
When I had admired the stylish splendors of this room
sufficiently,  splendors whose luxury would seem less
today, Balzac opened a secret door and made me enter a
shadowy passage that led around the semicircle; at one of
the corners was placed a narrow iron bed, a kind of
working camp bed; in the other, there was a table "with
everything that is necessary to write," as M. Scribe said in
his stage directions: it was there that Balzac took refuge
to be free of all intrusions and all investigations.

Many thicknesses of fabric and paper padded the wall to
block all noise from both sides. To be sure that no
sounds could pass into the salon from outside, Balzac
asked me to return to the room and shout as loudly as I
could; one could still hear a little; it was necessary to add
a few sheets of gray paper to entirely block the sound.
These mysterious actions intrigued me immensely and I
demanded to know their motivation. Balzac gave me a
reason that Stendhal would have approved, but modern
prudery prevents my repeating. The fact is that he was
already developing in his mind the scene of Henry de
Marsay and Paquita, and he was anxious to know if the
cries of the victim in the salon could reach the ears of the
other inhabitants of the house.

He gave me a splendid dinner in the same sitting room,
for which he lit with his own hand all of the candles on
the silver arms, as well as the lantern and the candelabras.
The guests were the Marquis de B. and the painter L. B.:
although very sober and abstemious by habit, Balzac
from time to time did not fear to "indulge in a little good
cheer"; he ate with a jovial gourmandism that inspired the
appetite, and he drank in the manner of Pantagruel. Four
bottles of the white wine of Vouvray, one of the headiest
known, did not affect his powerful brain and gave only a
greater sparkle to his gaiety. What good stories he told us
at dessert! Rabelais, Beroalde de Verville, Eutrapel, le
Pogge, Straparole, the Queen of Navarre and all of the
doctors of the happy science would have recognized in
him a disciple and a master!

Characteristic feature! At this splendid feast provided by
Chevet there was no bread! But when one has excess
then what is the point of necessities?

After dinner, our Amphytrion led us to the Italians in a
superb presentation. The evening was already getting late,
but Balzac did not want to miss "the descent of the
staircase" spectacle, which, according to him, was
eminently instructive.

Weighed down by the good food and fine wines,
enveloped in the warm atmosphere of the room, I should
say that the three of us slept the sleep of the just and only
awakened to offer our final compliments.

Balzac was quite amused by this somnolent trio.

In the same apartment on the rue des Batailles, whose
salon I described using Balzac's own words, I recall
having seen a magnificent sketch of Louis Boulanger
after a bas-relief of Léda and the Swan attributed to
Michelangelo. It was the only picture that it contained,
because the author of La Comédie Humaine did not yet
have the taste for paintings and curiosities that he would
later develop, and his luxury then, as we have seen,
consisted more of sumptuousness than of art. His painter
was Girodet. Some of his first stories show the influence
of this admiration which led me to tease him with jibes
that he accepted with good grace.


One of the dreams of Balzac was of a heroic and devoted
friendship, two souls, two courages, two intelligences
blended into the same will. Pierre and Jaffier of Otway's
Venice Preserv'd had impressed him greatly and he spoke of
them many times. L'Histoire des Treize is nothing but this
idea enlarged and complicated: one powerful unit
composed of multiple beings acting unquestioningly
toward an accepted and suitable goal. We know what
gripping, mysterious and terrible effects he has drawn
from this starting point in Ferragus, La Duchesse de Langeais,
and La Fille aux Yeux d'Or; but real life and the
intellectual life were not as clearly separated for Balzac as
they were for certain authors, and his creations followed
him outside of his study. He wanted to form an
association after the fashion of that which united
Ferragus, Montriveau, Ronquerolles, and their
companions. Only it was not done in such bold strokes; a
certain number of friends were to lend each other aid and
relief at all times, and to work according to their
strengths for the success or the fortune of the individual
who would be selected, with the understanding that that
person should in turn work for the others. Very much
infatuated with his project, Balzac recruited some
associates whom he put in contact with each other but
took precautions as if it were a political society or a
meeting of Carbonari. This needless mystery amused him
considerably, and he pursued his activities with the
utmost seriousness. When their numbers were complete,
he assembled the adepts and made known the goal of the
society. It need not be said that everyone was in
agreement, and that the statutes were approved with
enthusiasm. No one more than Balzac possessed the
ability to agitate, to overexcite, to intoxicate the coolest
heads, the most considered intellects. He had an
eloquence that was overflowing, tumultuous, rousing,
that carried you off: no objection was possible with him;
he would immediately drown you in such a deluge of
words that you were compelled to be silent. Besides he
had an answer for everything; then he would cast upon
you glances that were so sharp, so brilliant, so full of a
mysterious power that he would infuse you with his own

The association which counted among its members G. de
C., L. G., L. D., J. S., Merle, who was called Handsome
Merle, myself, and a few others who it is not necessary to
name, was called Le Cheval Rouge. Why Le Cheval Rouge,
you are going to say, rather than Le Lion d'Or or La Croix
de Malte? The first meeting of the members took place at
a restaurant on the Quai de l'Entrepôt, at the end of the
Pont de la Tournelle, whose sign was a carrier’s horse,
and this had given Balzac the idea of that
somewhat bizarre, unintelligible, and cabalistic

When it was necessary to organize a project, to agree on
certain steps, Balzac, elected by acclamation grandmaster
of the order, sent by one of the members to each horse
(that was the slang name used by the members among
themselves) a letter on which was drawn a small red
horse with the words: "Stable, at such and such a day, at
such and such a location”; the place changed each time, out
of fear of awakening curiosity or suspicion. In the society,
although we all knew each other and for a long time for
the most part, we were to avoid speaking to each other or
approaching each other except in the most distant
manner to avoid any idea of complicity. Often, in the
middle of a salon, Balzac would pretend to meet me for
the first time, and by blinks of the eye and facial
expressions such as actors make in their asides, he would
call my attention to his finesse and seem to say to me:
"See how well I play my game!"

What was the goal of Le Cheval Rouge? Did it wish to
change the government, set forth a new religion, found a
philosophical school, master men, seduce women? Far
less than that. It sought to take control of the
newspapers, take control of the theatres, sit in the seats
of the Academy, receive an array of decorations, and end
modestly as a peer of France, minister and millionaire. All
this was easy, according to Balzac; we had only to work
in harmony with each other, and by such modest
ambition we should prove well the moderation of our
characters. This devil of a man had such a powerful
vision that he described to each of us, in the most minute
details, the splendid and glorious life that the association
would procure for us. As we listened to him, we believed
ourselves already leaning, at the heart of a beautiful
mansion, against the white marble of the fireplace, red
ribbons around our necks, a shining badge over our hearts,
receiving with an affable air the greatest politicians,
artists and writers, who were shocked by our rapid and
mysterious fortune. For Balzac, the future did not exist,
everything was in the present; he drew it out of the mists
and made it palpable; an idea was so vivid that it became
real in a certain way: in speaking of a dinner, he ate it as
he told its story; of a carriage, he felt the soft cushions
under him and the steady ride; a perfect well-being, a
profound jubilation were then shown on his face,
although often he was hungry and walking over a rough
pavement with worn-out shoes.

The whole association would push, praise, and extol, by
articles, advertisements and conversations, any one of its
members who had just published a book or staged a
drama. Whoever showed himself to be hostile to one of
the horses would provoke the kicks of the entire stable; Le
Cheval Rouge would not forgive: the culpable became the
target of insults, cutting remarks, pin pricks, taunts and
other means of driving a man to despair, which are well
known by the smaller newspapers.

I smile while betraying after so many years the innocent
secret of this literary freemasonry, which had no other
result than some persuasive words for a book whose
success did not require them. But, at that time, we
took the thing seriously, we imagined ourselves to be the
Treize themselves in person, and I was surprised to find
that obstacles still existed; but the world is so badly
designed! What an important and mysterious air we had
in challenging other men, poor conventional men who in
no way doubted our power.

After four or five meetings, Le Cheval Rouge ceased to
exist; most of the chevaux could not afford to pay for their
oats in this symbolic manger, and the association which
was going to seize total control was dissolved, because its
members often lacked the fifteen francs to pay their
share. Each one now dove back alone into the chaos of
life, fighting his own fight,  and it is this that explains why
Balzac was not a member of the Academy and died a
simple knight of the Legion of Honor.

The idea however was good, for Balzac, as he himself
says of Nucingen, could not have a bad idea. Others who
have succeeded have set to work without surrounding
themselves with the same romantic fantasies.

Thrown off of one chimera, Balzac very quickly mounted
a new one, and he set out for another voyage in the blue
with that childlike innocence which in him was combined
with the profoundest sagacity and the shrewdest intellect.

So many bizarre projects he has described to me, so
many strange paradoxes he has defended to me, always
with the same good faith! Sometimes he would maintain
that one should live on nine sous a day, sometimes he
would require one hundred thousand francs in order to
be most comfortable. Once, when I asked him to
reconcile the accounting, he responded to the objection
that thirty thousand francs still remained unallocated.
"Ah well! That is for the butter and the radishes. In what
even slightly proper house does one not eat thirty
thousand francs of radishes and butter?" I wish I could
portray the look of sovereign disdain he cast on me as he
gave that triumphal reason; that look said: "Decidedly
Theo is nothing but a contemptible person, a skinned rat,
a pitiful spirit; he understands nothing of a grand
existence and he has all his life eaten only the salted
butter of Brittany."

Les Jardies attracted a great deal of attention from the
public when Balzac bought it with the honorable
intention of making an investment for his mother. While
riding on the railway that passes Ville-d'Avray, every
passenger would look with curiosity at that little house,
half cottage, half chalet, which rose in the middle of a
clay slope.

This plot of land, in Balzac's opinion, was the best in the
world; formerly, he asserted, a certain celebrated wine
was grown there, and the grapes, thanks to an
unparalleled exposure, baked like the grapes of Tokaj on
the Bohemian hills. The sun, it is true, had the freedom
to ripen the crop in this place, where there existed only a
single tree. Balzac tried to enclose this property with
walls, which became famous for obstinately collapsing or
sliding all in one piece down the steep escarpment, and
he dreamed of the most fabulous and the most exotic
crops for this heavenly place. Here comes naturally the
anecdote of the pineapples, which has been so often
repeated that I would not tell it again except to add one
truly characteristic trait. Here is the project: one hundred
thousand feet of pineapples were planted within the
boundaries of Les Jardies, transformed into greenhouses
that required only limited heat due to the sunniness of
the site. The pineapples were going to be sold for five
francs instead of the one louis that they ordinarily cost,
for a total of five hundred thousand francs; from this
sum it was necessary to deduct one hundred thousand
francs for the costs of cultivation, equipment, and coal;
there remained therefore a net profit of four hundred
thousand francs which would constitute a splendid profit
for the happy proprietor, "without the least bit of
writing," he added. That was nothing, Balzac had a
thousand projects like this; but the beauty of this was that
we sought together, on the Boulevard Montmartre, a
shop for the sale of the pineapples that were still in the
form of seeds. The shop was to be painted black with
thin gold stripes, and carry on its sign, in enormous

For Balzac, the one hundred thousand pineapples were
already raising their plumes of serrated leaves above their
great lozenged cones under immense glass roofs: he saw
them; he swelled in the high temperature of the
greenhouse, he breathed in the tropical scent through his
passionately open nostrils; and when, having returned to
his home, he watched, while leaning on the window, the
snow descend silently onto the bare slopes, he still only
gave up his illusion with difficulty.

Yet he followed my advice to hold off on renting the
shop until the following year in order to avoid an
unnecessary expense.

I write my reminiscences as they return to me, without
trying to place in order things which are better left apart.
Besides, as Boileau said, transitions are the great difficulty
of poetry, and of newspaper articles too, I will add; but
modern journalists have neither as much conscience nor
even more importantly as much leisure as the legislator of

Madame de Girardin professed for Balzac a lively
admiration that he appreciated and that he acknowledged
with his frequent visits, he who was so justifiably stingy
with his time and his working hours. Never did a woman
possess to such a high degree as Delphine, as I permitted
myself to call her familiarly when we were together, the
ability to stir the minds of her guests. With her, we always
found ourselves to be particularly eloquent and each left
her salon enthralled with himself. There was no stone so
hard that she could not make a spark fly from it, and with
Balzac, as you would expect, it was not necessary to strike
the stone for very long: he sparkled and then lit up right
away. Balzac was not precisely what one would call a
talker, but he was quick with a reply, throwing a fine and
decisive word into a discussion, changing the thread of
the discourse, touching everything with lightness, and
never going past a half smile: he had a verve, an
eloquence, and an irresistible brio; and, as each person
became silent to listen to him, with him, to the general
satisfaction, the conversation would quickly descend into
a soliloquy. The starting point was soon forgotten and he
passed from an anecdote into a philosophical reflection,
from an observation on manners to a local description; as
he spoke his complexion would redden, his eyes would
develop a distinctive luminosity, his voice would take on
different inflections, and sometimes he would roar with
laughter, amused by comic images that he saw before he
described them. He announced in this way, like a sort of
fanfare, the entry of his characters and his humorous
comments, and his hilarity was soon shared by his
assistants. Although this was the age of dreamers with
hair hanging loosely like a willow, of weepers in their
garrets and of disillusioned Byronians, Balzac had that
robust joy and power that one would attribute to
Rabelais, and that Molière did not show except in his
plays. His loud laugh coming from his sensual lips was
that of a kindly god amused by the spectacle of the
human marionettes, and who is distressed by nothing
because he understands everything and grasps at once
both sides of things. Neither the worries of an often
precarious situation, nor the tedium of money, nor the
fatigue of excessive work, nor the confinement of the
study, nor the renunciation of all of the pleasures of life,
nor even sickness could strike down this Herculean
joviality, in my opinion one of the most striking
characteristics of Balzac. He knocked out the hydras
while laughing, happily tore the lions in two, and carried
as if it were a hare the boar of Erymanthe on the
mountainous muscles of his shoulders. At the least
provocation this gaiety would burst forth and cause his
strong chest to heave, which might surprise a person with
a delicate constitution, but it had to be shared, no matter
how much effort one made to remain serious. Do not
believe however that Balzac was seeking to entertain his
audience: he obeyed, affected by a kind of internal
euphoria and painting with rapid strokes, with a comic
intensity and an incomparable talent for satire, the bizarre
phantasmagoria that danced in the dark chamber of his
brain. I do not know how to better compare the
impression produced by certain of his conversations than
with that which one experiences while leafing through the
strange drawings of Songes Drolatiques, by the master
Alcofribas Nasier. These are of monstrous personages,
composed of the most hybrid elements. Some have for a
head a bellows in which the hole represents the eye, while
others have an alembic flute for a nose; these ones walk
with wheels in place of feet; those ones have the rounded
belly of a cooking pot and wear a lid in place of a hat, but
an intense life animates these fanciful beings, and one
recognizes in their grimacing faces the vices, the follies
and the passions of man. Some, although absurdly
outside the realm of possibility, stop you like a portrait.
One could give them a name.

When one listened to Balzac, a whole carnival of
extravagant and real puppets frolicked before your eyes,
wearing on their shoulders a colorful phrase, waving long
sleeves of epithets, blowing their noses noisily with an
adverb, smacking themselves with a bat of antitheses,
pulling you by the tail of your coat, and whispering into
your ear your secrets in a disguised and nasal voice,
pirouetting, whirling in the midst of a sparkle of lights
and of glitter. Nothing was more vertiginous, and at the
end of one half hour, one felt, like the student after the
speech of Méphistophélès, a millstone turning in the

He was not always so spirited, and on those occasions
one of his favorite jokes was to imitate the German
jargon of Nucingen or Schmucke, or otherwise to speak
in rama, like the clients of the middle class boarding
house of Madame Vauquer (née de Conflans). At the time
that he wrote Un Début dans la Vie based on an outline of
Madame de Surville, he was seeking proverbs that were
slightly off for the art student Mistigris, to whom later,
having found him to be full of spirit, he gave a fine place
in La Comédie Humaine, under the name of the great
landscape painter Léon de Lora. Here are some of his
nonsensical proverbs: "He is like an ass on a plain." "I am
like the hare, I die or I flee." "Good Counts make good
sieves." "Extremes become blocked." "The slap always
smells the herring"; and so on like this. A discovery of
this type put him in a good humor, and he would
pleasantly frolic like an elephant through the furniture
and around the salon. For her part, Madame de Girardin
was in quest of sayings for the the famous lady of the
seven little chairs of Le Courrier de Paris. She sometimes
required my assistance, and if a stranger had entered,
seeing this beautiful Delphine painting spirals through
her golden hair with her white fingers, with a profoundly
dreamlike air; Balzac, seated on one of the arms of the
great upholstered chair on which Monsieur Girardin
usually slept, his hands clenched in the bottoms of his
pockets, his waistcoat turned back from his stomach,
swinging his leg with a uniform rhythm, expressing with
the tense muscles of his face an extraordinary mental
focus; me planted between two cushions of the divan,
like an opium eater seen in a hallucination; that stranger,
certainly, could never have suspected what we were doing
there, in so great a meditation; he would have supposed
that Balzac was thinking of a new Madame Firmiani,
Madame de Girardin of a role for Mademoiselle Rachel,
and me of some sonnet. But it was nothing of the kind.
As for the puns, Balzac, although his secret ambition was
to create them, had, after painstaking efforts, to recognize
his notorious incapacity in this area, and to keep to the
slightly off proverbs, which preceded the rough puns
brought into fashion by the school of good sense. What
beautiful evenings that will never return! We were then
far from foreseeing that this great and superb woman,
carved fully out of marble from antiquity, that this stocky,
robust, lively man, who combined in himself the vigor of
the boar and the bull, half Hercules, half satyr, built to
last longer than one hundred years, would soon sleep,
one at Montmartre, the other at Père-Lachaise, and that,
of the three, I alone would remain to preserve those
memories that were already so distant and close to being

Like his father, who died accidentally at more than eighty
years of age, and who had flattered himself that he would
become wealthy from the annuity scheme of Lafarge,
Balzac believed in his longevity. Often he planned with
me projects for the future. He was going to finish La
Comédie Humaine, write the Théorie de la Démarche, compose
the Monographie de la Vertu, fifty dramas, attain a great
fortune, marry and have two children, "but not more;
two children look good," he said, "on the front of a
carriage." All of this could not fail to take a long time,
and I pointed out that, once these tasks were
accomplished, he would be around eighty years of age.
"Eighty years!" he cried, "Bah! It's the flower of age."
Monsieur Flourens, with his comforting theories, did not
say it better.

One day that we dined together at the home of M. E.
de Girardin, he told us a story about his father to show
us the strength of the stock to which he belonged.
Balzac's father, who had been hired to work in a
prosecutor's office, ate following the custom of the time
at the table of the master with the other clerks. Partridges
were served. The prosecutor's wife, who had her eye on
the new arrival, said to him: "Monsieur Balzac, do you
know how to carve?" "Yes, Madame," responded the
young man, blushing up to his ears; and he bravely took
hold of the knife and fork. Entirely ignorant of culinary
anatomy, he divided the partridge into four pieces, but
with so much strength that he split the plate, sliced the
tablecloth, and cut into the wood of the table. He was
not nimble, but he was strong: the prosecutor's wife
smiled, and from that day, Balzac, the young clerk, was
treated with great kindness in that house.

This story that I have told seems lukewarm, but it is
necessary to see the pantomime of Balzac as he imitated
on his own plate his father's actions, with an air that was
both frightened and resolute, mimicking the manner in
which he seized his knife after having rolled up his
sleeves and in which he sunk his fork into an imaginary
partridge; Neptune hunting the monsters of the sea did
not wield his trident with a more vigorous fist, and with
what an immense weight he bore down with it! His
cheeks became purple, his eyes left his head, but the
operation ended with him casting upon the guests a look
of innocent satisfaction trying to conceal itself in the
guise of modesty.

Moreover, Balzac had in him the makings of a great
actor: he possessed a full, sonorous, resonant voice, with
a rich and powerful timbre, that he knew how to
moderate and soften as needed, and he read in an
admirable manner, a talent that most actors lack.
Whatever he related, he performed it with intonations,
grimaces and gestures that no comedian has surpassed in
my opinion.

I find in Marguerite, by Madame de Girardin, this
remembrance of Balzac. It is a character from the book
who speaks.

"He related that Balzac had dined at his house on the
preceding day, and that he had been more brilliant, more
scintillating than ever. He very much amused us with the
story of his trip to Austria. What fire! What verve! What
power of imitation! It was marvelous. His manner of
paying the postilions is an invention that only a novelist
of genius could have discovered. ‘I was very embarrassed
at each stopping point,' he said, ‘how was I going to pay?
I did not know a word of German, I did not know the
currency of the country. It was very difficult. Here is
what I invented. I had a bag full of small silver coins,
some kreuzers … When I arrived at the stopping point, I
would take up my bag; the postilion would come to the
window of the carriage; I would watch his eyes
attentively, and I would put in his hand one kreuzer, …
two kreuzer, … then three, then four, etc., until I saw
him smile … when he smiled, I understood that I had
given him one kreuzer too much … quickly I would take
back my coin and my man was paid.'"

At Les Jardies, he read Mercadet to me, the original
Mercadet, by far more sweeping, complicated and dense
than the piece arranged for the Gymnase by d'Ennery,
with so much delicacy and skill. Balzac, who read like
Tieck, without indicating acts, scenes, or names, utilized a
voice that was particular to and perfectly recognizable for
each character; the voices that he gave to the different
kinds of creditors were hilariously funny: there were the
hoarse, the honeyed, the hasty, the slow, the menacing,
the pleading. They shrieked, wailed, scolded, muttered,
screamed in every possible and impossible tone. Debt
first sang a solo that soon an immense choir took up. He
brought out creditors from everywhere, from behind the
stove, from below the bed, from the drawers of the
commode; they came from the chimney; they passed
through the keyhole; others entered through the window
like lovers; these sprung from the bottom of a trunk like
those devilish toys that take you by surprise, those moved
across the walls as if they were passing by an English
ambush, it was a mob, an uproar, an invasion, truly a
rising tide. Mercadet might well have shaken them off,
when others always returned to start an assault, and as far
as the horizon one could make out a somber swarm of
creditors on the march, arriving like legions of termites to
devour their prey. I do not know if this piece was better
when performed this way, but no other performance
produced such an effect.

Balzac, during this reading of Mercadet, occupied, partially
reclining, a long divan in the salon of Les Jardies because
he had sprained his ankle when he slipped, like his walls,
on the clay of his property. A stray hair, sticking through
the fabric, poked the skin of his leg and bothered him.
"The fabric is too thin, the hay passes through it; you will
need to put a thick canvas beneath it," he said while
pulling at the hair that annoyed him.

François, the Caleb of this Ravenswood, would not listen
to this mocking of the splendors of the manor. He
corrected his master and said: horsehair. "The upholsterer
has cheated me?" responded Balzac. "They are all the
same. I had insisted that he use hay! Cursed thief!"

The splendors of Les Jardies were mostly imaginary. All
of the friends of Balzac remember having seen written in
charcoal upon the bare walls or veneer of gray paper:
"Rosewood paneling, tapestry of the Gobelins, Venetian
mirrors, paintings by Raphaël." Gerard de Nerval had
already decorated an apartment in this manner, so this
did not shock me. As for Balzac, he believed literally in
the gold, the marble and the silk; but, he did not
complete Les Jardies and if he led others to laugh at his
pipe dreams, he knew at least that he had built himself an
eternal home, a monument "more durable than iron," an
immense city, populated with his creations and gilded by
the rays of his glory.


Due to an oddity of nature that he shared with several of
the most poetic writers of this age, such as
Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël, George Sand, Mérimée,
Janin, Balzac possessed neither the gift nor the love of
verse, despite the effort that he otherwise made to attain
them. On this point, his judgment that was so fine, so
profound, so sagacious was at fault; he admired work
somewhat aimlessly and in a way in line with public
notoriety. I did not believe, even though he professed a
great respect for Victor Hugo, that he had ever truly
appreciated the lyrical qualities of the poet, while at the
same time the sculpted and colored prose amazed him.
He, who was so laborious and who rewrote a sentence as
many times as a versifier could rework an Alexandrine on
an anvil, found working on meter to be puerile, tedious,
and without utility. He would have voluntarily awarded a
bushel of peas to those who could manage to pass an
idea through the narrow ring of rhythm, as Alexander did
for the Greek who was trained to throw a ball through a
ring from a long distance; verse, with its fixed and pure
form, its elliptical speech little suited to a multiplicity of
details, seemed to him to be an obstacle invented on a
whim, an unnecessary difficulty or a mnemonic device
taken from primitive times. His doctrine was in that way
nearly the same as that of Stendhal: "Does the idea that a
work has been made while hopping on one leg add to the
pleasure that it produces?" The Romantic school holds in
its heart some followers, partisans of the absolute truth,
who rejected verse as trivial or unnatural. If Talma said:
"I do not want fine verses!" Beyle said: "I do not want
verses at all." This was the basis of the sentiments of
Balzac, however in order to appear open-minded,
comprehensive, universal, he sometimes in society
pretended to admire poetry, just as the middle class
simulate great enthusiasm for music that bores them
profoundly. He was always shocked to see me write verse
and take pleasure from it. "That is not copy," he would
say, and if he held me in any esteem, I owed it to my
prose. All of the writers, young then, who associated
themselves with the literary movement represented by
Hugo, used, like the master, the lyre or the pen: Alfred de
Vigny, Sainte-Beuve, Alfred de Musset, spoke
interchangeably the language of the gods and the
language of men. I too, if I am permitted to mention
myself after such glorious names, have had since the
beginning this double aptitude. It is always easy for poets
to descend to prose. The bird may walk as needed, but
the lion cannot fly. Those who are born to write prose
never rise to poetry however poetic they may be
elsewhere. Rhythmic speech is a particular gift, and one
can possess it without being a great genius, while it is
often refused to superior minds. Among the proudest
who appear to disdain it, more than one keeps to himself
a secret resentment to not possess it.

Among the two thousand characters in La Comédie
Humaine, one finds two poets: Canalis, of Modeste Mignon,
and Lucien de Rubempré, of Splendeurs et Misères des
Courtisanes. Balzac portrayed both of them as having traits
that were not particularly favorable. Canalis is dry, cold,
sterile, petty, an adroit arranger of words, a maker of
imitation jewelry, who sets rhinestones in gilded silver,
and makes necklaces of artificial pearls. His volumes,
with many blank spaces, wide margins, and large gaps,
contain only a melodious nothingness, monotonous
music, suitable only to cause young boarders to fall asleep
or dream. Balzac, who ordinarily shapes with warmth the
interests of his characters, seems to take a secret pleasure
in ridiculing this one and putting him in embarrassing
positions: he challenges his vanity with a thousand ironies
and a thousand sarcasms, and finishes by taking from
him Modeste Mignon with her great fortune, to give her
to Ernest de la Brière. This conclusion, in contrast to the
beginning of the story, sparkles with concealed malice
and fine mockery. One would say that Balzac is
personally happy at the good trick that he has played on
Canalis. He avenges, in his own way, the angels, the
sylphs, the lakes, the swans, the willows, the skiffs, the
stars and the lyres that had been used so abundantly by
the poet.

If in Canalis we have the false poet, reserving his meager
inspiration and putting it behind a dam so that it can
flow, foam and sound for a few minutes in order to seem
like a cascade, the man used to taking advantage of his
laboriously wrought literary successes to serve his
political ambitions, the man with material interests who is
in love with money, medals, pensions and honors, despite
his elegiac attitudes and pose as an angel who misses
being in heaven, Lucien de Rubempré shows us the poet
who is lazy, frivolous, oblivious, capricious, and as
nervous as a woman, incapable of prolonged effort,
without moral force, living in the hooks of actresses and
courtesans, a puppet whose strings the terrible Vautrin,
under the pseudonym Carlos Herrera, pulls as he
pleases. Despite all of his vices, Lucien is seductive;
Balzac has equipped him with spirit, beauty, youth, and
elegance; women adore him; but he ends by hanging
himself at the Conciergerie. Balzac did everything he
could to successfully complete the marriage of Clotilde
de Grandlieu with the author of Marguerite; unfortunately
the demands of morality intervened, and what would the
Faubourg Saint-Germain have said of La Comédie Humaine
if the student of Jacques Collin the convict had married
the daughter of a duke?

Regarding the author of Marguerite, I will note here a bit
of information that could amuse those who are interested
in literature. The few sonnets that Lucien de Rubempré
shows as a sample of his volume of verse to the
bookseller Dauriat are not the work of Balzac, who did
not write verse, and asked his friends for those that he
happened to need. The sonnet on the daisy is by
Madame de Girardin, the sonnet on the camellia is by de
Lassailly, and the one on the tulip is by myself.

Modeste Mignon also contained a piece of verse, but I do
not know the author.

As I have said regarding Mercadet, Balzac was an
admirable reader, and he very much wanted, one day, to
read some of my own verses. He read to me, among
others, La Fontaine du Cimitière. Like all prose writers, he
read only for the meaning, and tried to conceal the
rhythm that poets, when they deliver their verses out
loud, in contrast accentuate in a manner intolerable to
everyone, but which delights them alone, and we had
together, on this point, a long discussion, which, like
always, served only to cause each of us to persist in our
particular opinion.

The great literary man of La Comédie Humaine is Daniel
d'Arthez, a writer who was serious, a hard worker, and
for a long time buried, before achieving his success, in
immense studies of philosophy, history and linguistics.
Balzac feared facility, and he did not believe that a rapidly
produced work could be good. In this context, journalism
held a singular repugnance for him, and he regarded the
time and talent consecrated to it to be wasted; he didn't
hold journalists in any higher regard, and he, who was
however such a great critic, despised criticism. The
unflattering portraits that he has drawn of Etienne
Loustau, of Nathan, of Vernisset, of Andoche Finot,
represent fairly well his true opinion of the place of the
press. Emile Blondet, introduced into that bad company
to represent the good writer, is compensated for his articles
in the imaginary Débats of La Comédie Humaine with a rich
marriage to the widow of a general, which permits him to
leave journalism.

Moreover, Balzac never worked toward the point of view
of a newspaper. He brought his novels to the magazines
and daily newspapers as they had come to him, without
preparing any breaks or interesting twists at the end of
each installment, to increase the desire for the
continuation. His work was broken up into sections that
were roughly the same length, and sometimes the
description of an armchair would start on one day and
finish the next. With justification, he did not want to
divide his work into little dramatic or vaudevillian
tableaus; he thought of nothing but the book. This
working method was often to the detriment of the
immediate success that journalism requires of the authors
it employs. Eugène Sue, Alexandre Dumas were more
frequently victorious in the battles each morning that
then captivated the public. He did not obtain
immense popularity, like that of Les Mystères de Paris and
Le Juif-Errant, of Les Mousquetaires and of Monte-Cristo. Les
Paysans, a masterpiece, even caused a great number of
readers to cancel their subscriptions to the Presse, where
the first installment appeared. Its publication had to be
suspended. Every day letters arrived that demanded that
it be ended. Balzac was found to be boring!

There was still not a good understanding of the great idea
of La Comédie Humaine, to take on modern society and
write about Paris and our times the book that sadly no
ancient civilization has left for us. The collected edition
of La Comédie Humaine, by assembling all of the scattered
works, put into relief the philosophical intention of the
writer. From that date forward, Balzac grew considerably
in public opinion, he finally ceased being considered "the
most productive of our novelists," a stereotyped phrase
that irritated him as much as "the author of Eugénie

There have been a number of critiques on Balzac and he
has been discussed in many ways, but in my opinion one
very characteristic feature has not been emphasized: this
point is the absolute modernity of his genius. Balzac
owes nothing to antiquity; for him there are neither
Greeks nor Romans, and he has no need to cry for
deliverance from them. One does not find in the
composition of his talent any trace of Homer, of Virgil,
of Horace, not even of De Viris Illustribus; nobody was
ever less classical.

Balzac, like Gavarni, observed his contemporaries; and,
in art, the supreme difficulty is to portray that which one
sees before one's eyes; one can pass through one's time
without appreciating it, and that is what many eminent
minds have done.

To be of his time, nothing would appear to be simpler
but nothing is more difficult! To wear no glasses, neither
blue nor green, to think with his own brain, to use the
speech of the present day, not stitch together a colorful
fabric from the phrases of his predecessors! Balzac
possessed this rare merit. The ages have their perspective
and their distance; at that distance the great masses move
away, the lines end, the flickering details disappear; with
the help of classical memories, of melodious names from
antiquity, the least rhetorician could create a tragedy, a
poem, an historical study. But, to find yourself in the
crowd, to be elbowed by it, and to appreciate its features,
understand its flow, sort out its personalities, outline the
features of so many diverse beings, to show the motives
for their actions, that demands an entirely special genius,
and this genius, the author of La Comédie Humaine had to
a degree that no one has equaled and probably no one
will equal.

This profound understanding of modern things rendered
Balzac, it must be said, insensitive to sculptural beauty.
He read with a careless eye the stanzas of white marble
with which Greek art sung the perfection of the human
form. In the museum of antiquities, he looked at the
Venus de Milo without great ecstasy, but the Parisian
woman who has stopped in front of the immortal statue,
draped in her long cashmere shawl running without a
crease from the neck to the heel, wearing her hat with a
veil from Chantilly, gloved with her tight Jouvin gloves,
showing from under the hem of her flounced dress the
polished tip of her worn boots, made his eyes sparkle
with pleasure. He analyzed her coquettish allure, he
savored at length her skillful graces, only to find as she
did that the goddess was too heavyset and would not be
an attractive addition to the homes of Mesdames de
Beauséant, de Listomère, or d'Espard. Ideal beauty, with
its serene and pure lines, was too simple, too cold, too
harmonious for this complicated, exuberant and diverse
genius. He also says somewhere: "It is necessary to be
Raphaël to portray many virgins." Character pleased him
more than style, and he preferred looks to beauty. In his
portraits of women, he never fails to put a mark, a crease,
a wrinkle, a red blemish, a softened and tired corner, a
vein that is too apparent, some detail indicating the
bruises of life that a poet, in tracing the same image,
would surely have suppressed, mistakenly without a

I do not intend to criticize Balzac in this. This fault is his
principal strength. He accepted nothing of the mythologies
and traditions of the past, and he did not know, happily
for us, that ideal that was achieved with the verses of the
poets, the marbles of Greece and Rome, the paintings of
the Renaissance, which stands between the eyes of artists
and reality. He loved the woman of our day just as she is,
and not as a pale statue; he loved her for her virtues, for
her vices, for her fantasies, for her shawls, for her
dresses, for her hats, and followed her across her life, far
beyond the point in the journey where love abandons
her. He prolonged her youth by many seasons, gave her
springs with the summers of Saint-Martin, and gilded her
twilight years with the most splendid rays. We are so
classical, in France, that we have not perceived, after two
thousand years, that roses, in our climate, do not bloom
in April as in the descriptions of poets of antiquity, but in
June, and that our women begin to be beautiful at the age
at which those of Greece, who are more precocious,
cease to be. How many charming types he has imagined
or reproduced! Madame Firmiani, the Duchesse de
Maufrigneuse, the Princess de Cadignan, Madame de
Morsauf, Lady Dudley, the Duchess de Langeais,
Madame Jules, Modeste Mignon, Diane de Chaulieu,
without counting the middle class women, the
seamstresses and the ladies of ill repute.

And how he loved and knew that modern Paris, whose
beauty the amateurs of local color and the picturesque of
that time appreciated so little! He roamed across it in
every direction night and day; there is not a forgotten
alley, a foul passage, a narrow, muddy and black street
which did not become under his pen an etching of
Rembrandt, full of teeming and mysterious darkness or
sparkling with a trembling star of light. Wealth and
poverty, pleasure and suffering, shame and glory, grace
and ugliness, he knew all of his beloved town; it was for
him an enormous, hybrid, formidable monster, an
octopus with one hundred thousand arms that he heard
and saw as a living thing, and which constituted in his
eyes an immense individual. See with regard to this the
marvelous pages placed at the beginning of La Fille aux
Yeux d'Or, in which Balzac, impinging on the art of the
musician, had wanted, as in a grand orchestral symphony,
to make all of the voices sing together, all of the sobbing,
all of the cries, all of the rumors, all of the grinding of
Paris at work!

From this modernity on which I purposefully dwell arose,
without his suspecting it, a difficulty in labor that Balzac
experienced in his efforts to complete his work: the
French language as refined by the classics of the
seventeenth century is not suitable, when one conforms
to it, other than to express general ideas, and to portray
conventional figures in a vague setting. To describe this
multiplicity of details, of characters, of types, of
architectures, of furnishings, Balzac was obliged to create
for himself a special language, composed of all of the
technical terms, all of the argots of science, of the
workshop, of the theater, even of the lecture hall. Every
word that said something was welcomed, and the
sentence, in order to receive it, opened a space, a
parenthetic expression, and lengthened itself obligingly. It
is this that made superficial critics say that Balzac did not
know how to write. He possessed, even though he did
not know it, a style and a very beautiful style, the
necessary, inevitable, and mathematical style of his ideas!


No one could have the ambition to write a complete
biography of Balzac; any relationship with him was
necessarily limited by gaps, absences, disappearances.
Work absolutely ruled the life of Balzac, and if, as he
himself says with touching sensitivity in a letter to his
sister, he has painlessly sacrificed the joys and distractions
of existence to this jealous god, it cost him to renounce
all company that might have led to friendship. To reply with a few
words to a long letter became for him who was
overburdened with labor a prodigality that he could rarely
permit himself; he was the slave of his work and a
voluntary slave. He had, with a very good and very tender
heart, the selfishness of the great worker. And who could
have dreamed of being mad at his pressured negligences
and his apparent forgetfulness, when one saw the results
of his escapes or his seclusions? When, the work
completed, he would reappear, one would have said that
he had left you the day before, and he would take up the
interrupted conversation once again, as if sometimes six
months and more had not passed. He made trips within
France to study localities that he included in Scènes de
Province, and he withdrew to the houses of friends, in
Touraine, or in the Charente, finding there a calm that
the creditors did not always allow him in Paris. After
some great work, he permitted himself, occasionally, a
longer excursion to Germany, northern Italy, or
Switzerland; but these rapid excursions, made with the
preoccupations of bills that were due to be paid,
contracts to fulfill, and limited funds for travel, may have
fatigued him more than they gave him rest. His vast gaze
took in the skies, the horizons, the mountains, the
countryside, the monuments, the houses, the interiors to
commit them to that universal and meticulous memory
that never failed him. Superior in this to descriptive
poets, Balzac saw man at the same time as nature; he
studied the physiognomies, the manners, the passions,
the characters in the same glance as locations, clothing
and furnishings. One detail sufficed for him, as the least
fragment of bone did for Cuvier, to accurately imagine
and reconstitute a personality glimpsed while passing.
Balzac has often been praised, and rightly so, for his
power of observation; but, however great he was, it is not
necessary to imagine that the author of La Comédie
Humaine always drew from nature his portraits whose
truth was so clearly from elsewhere. His process did not
resemble in any way that of Henri Monnier, who
followed in real life an individual in order to make a
sketch with a pencil and a pen, drawing his least gestures,
writing down his most insignificant phrases in order to
obtain at the same time a photographic plate and a page
of shorthand notes. Buried most of the time in the
excavations of his work, Balzac could not materially
observe the two thousand characters who play their role
in his comedy of one hundred acts; but every man, when
he looks inward, contains humanity: it is a microcosm in
which nothing is missing.

He has, not always, but often observed within himself the
numerous types that live in his work. That is why they are
so complete. No one could absolutely comprehend the
life of another; in such a case, there are motives that
remain obscure, unknown details, actions of which one
loses track. In even the most faithful portrait, some
creativity is necessary. Balzac has thus created much
more than he saw. His rare faculties of the analyst, of the
physiologist, of the anatomist, have merely served the
poet in him, just as the assistant serves the professor at
his lectern when he passes him the substances that he
needs for his demonstrations.

Perhaps this could be the place to define the truth as
understood by Balzac; in this time of realism, it is good to
be understood on this point. The truth of art is not that
of nature; everything that is represented through the
means of art necessarily contains some element of the
conventional; make it as small as possible, it still exists, be
it perspective in painting, language in literature. Balzac
accentuates, magnifies, enlarges, prunes, adds, shadows,
illuminates, avoids or approaches men or things
according to the effect that he wants to produce. He is
truthful, without doubt, but with augmentations and
sacrifices for art. He prepares backgrounds that are
somber and darkened with charcoal for his luminous
figures, he puts white backgrounds behind his dark
figures. Like Rembrandt, he sets the light of day on the
brow or nose of the character; sometimes, in his
description, he obtains fantastic and bizarre results, by
placing, without saying anything, a microscope under the
eye of the reader; the details then appear with a
supernatural clarity, an amplified minutia, some
unbelievable and formidable magnifications; the tissues,
the scaliness, the pores, the veins, the blemishes, the
fibers, the capillaries take on an enormous importance,
and turn a visage that is insignificant to the naked eye
into a sort of fanciful mask as amusing as those that were
sculpted under the cornice of the Pont-Neuf and
vermiculated by time. The characters are also pushed to
excess, as it is suited to each type: if Baron Hulot is a
libertine, he additionally personifies lust: he is a man and
a vice, an individual and an abstraction; he unites in
himself all of the scattered traits of the character. Where
a writer of lesser genius would have drawn a portrait,
Balzac has created a figure. Men do not have as many
muscles as Michelangelo gives them to suggest the idea
of strength. Balzac is full of such useful exaggerations, of
those dark strokes that enhance and support the outline;
he dreams while writing, like the masters, and leaves his
mark on everything. As this is not a literary critique, but a
biographical study that I am writing, I will not take these
remarks farther than necessary. Balzac, whom the Realist
school seems to wish to claim as its leader, has no
connection to its features.

Unlike certain literary persons who feed on nothing but
their own genius, Balzac read a great deal and with a
prodigious rapidity. He loved books, and he created a
beautiful library that he intended to leave to the town of
his birth, an idea that the indifference of the townspeople
made him later abandon. He absorbed in a few days the
voluminous works of Swedenborg, which were owned by
his mother, who was rather preoccupied with mysticism
at that time, and that reading was responsible for
Séraphita-Séraphitus, one of the most astonishing products
of modern literature. Never did Balzac approach, or
move closer to ideal beauty than in that book: the
ascension of the mountain has a quality that is ethereal,
supernatural, and luminous that lifts you from the earth.
The only two colors that are employed are celestial blue
and snow white with a few pearlescent tones for shadow.
I know nothing more intoxicating than this beginning.
The panorama of Norway, with its sharply cut coastline
seen from this height, dazzles and gives one vertigo.

Louis Lambert was also influenced by the reading of
Swedenborg; but soon Balzac, who had taken on the
eagle wings of the mystics to soar into the infinite,
descended to the earth that we inhabit, even though his
robust lungs could have breathed indefinitely the thin air
that is deadly for the weak: he abandoned the world
beyond after that flight and returned to real life. Perhaps
his remarkable genius would have gone out of view too
quickly if he had continued to soar toward the
unfathomable immensities of metaphysics, and we should
be happy that he limited himself to Louis Lambert and
Séraphita-Séraphitus, which represent sufficiently, in La
Comédie Humaine, the supernatural side, and open a
door that is sufficiently large into the invisible world.

I now move on to a few more intimate details. The great
Goethe had a horror of three things: one of the things
was tobacco smoke, I am not permitted to say the two
others. Balzac, like the Jupiter of the German poetic
Olympus, could not stand tobacco in any form at all; he
denounced the pipe and forbid the cigar. He did not
tolerate even a light Spanish cigarette; the Asian hookah
alone found favor with him, and yet he only tolerated
that as a curiosity and because of its local color. In his
diatribes against the herb of Nicot, he did not imitate the
doctor who, during a dissertation on the dangers of
tobacco, does not hesitate to take ample doses from a
large box of tobacco near him: he never smoked. His
Théorie des Excitants contains an indictment against
tobacco, and there is no doubt that if he had been Sultan,
like Amurath, he would have beheaded relapsed and
obstinate smokers. He reserved all of his predilections for
coffee, which did him so much harm and might have
killed him, although he was built to become a

Was Balzac wrong or right? Is tobacco, as he maintained,
a deadly poison and does it intoxicate those that it does
not turn stupid? Is it the opium of the Occident that dulls
the will and the intelligence? These are questions that I
cannot answer; but I am going to list here the names of
some celebrated personages of our age, some of whom
smoked while the others did not smoke: Goethe, Heinrich
Heine, uniquely for Germans, did not smoke; Byron
smoked; Victor Hugo does not smoke, neither does
Alexandre Dumas père; on the other hand Alfred de
Musset, Eugène Sue, Georges Sand, Mérimée, Paul de
Saint-Victor, Emile Augier, Ponsard, smoked and still
smoke; however they are not exactly imbeciles.

This aversion, moreover, was shared by nearly all men
who were born in our century or a little before. Only
sailors and soldiers smoked then; at the odor of the pipe
or the cigar, women fainted: they have become much
tougher since then, and more than one pair of rosy lips
has pressed with love the golden tip of a cigar, in a sitting
room turned into a smoking room. Dowagers and
turbaned mothers alone have preserved their old
antipathy, and stoically watch their unfashionable salons
be deserted by the youth.

Every time that Balzac is obliged, for the credibility of
the story, to allow one of his characters to indulge in this
horrible habit, his brief and disdainful sentence betrays a
secret disapproval: "As for de Marsay," he said, "he was
busy smoking cigars." And he must have really loved this
captain of dandyism to permit him to smoke in his work.

A fragile and elegant young woman had without doubt
inspired this aversion in Balzac, although that is a
question that I cannot answer definitively. Still it's true
that the tax collector never earned a sou from him. Regarding
women, Balzac, who described them so well, must have
known them, and one understands the sense that the
Bible attaches to this word. In one of the letters that he
writes to Madame de Surville, his sister, Balzac, quite
young and completely unknown, sets down an ideal for
his life in two words: "To be celebrated and to be loved."
The first part of this program, which all artists map out
for themselves, had been realized in every way. Was the
second also accomplished? The opinion of the most
intimate friends of Balzac is that he practiced the chastity
that he recommended to others, and shared at most
platonic love; but Madame de Surville laughs at this idea,
with a smile of feminine delicacy and full of discreet
reserve. She maintains that her brother was unfailingly
discreet, and that if he had wanted to speak, he would
have had many things to say. This must be true, and
without doubt the safe of Balzac contained more of the
notes with delicate, sloping handwriting than the
lacquered box of Canalis. There is, in his work, the scent
of a woman: odor di femina; when one enters there, one
hears behind the doors that close on the hidden staircase
the rustling of silk and the creaking of shoes. The
semicircular and padded salon on the Rue de Batailles, of
which I have quoted the description inserted by the
author in La Fille aux Yeux d'Or, did not remain
completely virginal, as many of us had assumed. In the
course of our close friendship, which lasted from 1836
until his death, only once did Balzac make allusion, with
the most respectful and the most tender terms, to an
attachment of his early youth, and even then he gave me
only the first name of the person whose memory, after so
many years, still made his eyes moisten. Had he said any
more to me, I certainly would not have abused his
confidences; the genius of a great writer belongs to all of the
world, but his heart is his own. I touch only briefly on
this tender and delicate side of Balzac's life, because I
have nothing to say that does not honor him. This
reserve and this mystery are those of a gentleman. If he
was loved as he wished in the dreams of his youth, the
world knows nothing of it.

Do not imagine after these reflections that Balzac was
austere and prudish in his speech: the author of Les Contes
Drolatiques had been nourished with too much Rabelais
and was too pantagruelistic to be unable to laugh; he
knew good stories and invented them: his broad jokes
interspersed with Gallic crudities would have made the
sanctimonious and horrified members of society cry out
shocking; but his laughing and talkative lips were sealed
like a tomb when there was a question of a serious
sentiment. He scarcely allowed his closest friends to
surmise his love for a foreign woman of distinction, a
love of which one can speak, since it was crowned by
marriage. It was that passion that had been felt for a long
time that necessitated his distant excursions, although
their object remained until the last day a mystery for his

Absorbed by his work, Balzac did not think until rather
late of the theater, for which the general opinion judged
him, wrongly to my mind, after a few more or less risky
efforts, to be hardly suited. He who created so many
types, analyzed so many characters, gave life to so many
people, should succeed on the stage; but, as I have said,
Balzac was not spontaneous, and one cannot correct the
proofs of a drama. If he had lived, after a dozen works,
he would assuredly have found his form and attained
success; La Marâtre that played at the Théâtre-Historique
was close to a masterpiece. Mercadet, lightly edited by an
intelligent arranger, enjoyed a long posthumous success
at the Gymnase.

Nevertheless, the factor that motivated his efforts was
mostly, I must say, the idea of a windfall that would
liberate him all at once from his financial predicament
rather than a real vocation. Theater, as we know, is much
more profitable than books; the continuing nature of the
performances, on which a rather large royalty is drawn,
produces quickly by accumulation some considerable
sums. If the strategic work is greater, the material labor is
less. Several dramas are necessary to fill a volume, and
while you promenade or rest idly with slippers on your
feet, the footlights are illuminated, the scenery descends
from the ceiling, the actors recite and gesticulate, and you
find yourself having made more money than you would
have by scribbling for an entire week bent painfully over
your desk. Such melodrama has more value to its author
than Notre-Dame de Paris to Victor Hugo and Les Parents
Pauvres to Balzac.

It's curious that Balzac who contemplated, elaborated,
and corrected his novels with such unrelenting
meticulousness, seemed, when it concerned the theater,
to become dizzy from the rapidity of his work. Not only
did he not rewrite his theater pieces eight or ten times
like his books, he really did not write them at all. Having
just come upon his first idea, he chose a day for the
reading and called his friends to request their assistance
in the project; Ourliac, Lassailly, Laurent-Jan, myself and
others, have often been summoned in the middle of the
night or at fabulously early times of the morning. It was
necessary to drop everything; every minute of delay
caused the loss of millions.

A pressing note from Balzac summoned me one day to
come right away to 104 Rue de Richelieu, where he had a
lodging in the house of Buisson the tailor. I found Balzac
wrapped in his monastic frock, and hopping up and
down with impatience on the blue and white rug of a tidy
attic room that had walls upholstered in light brown
percale embellished with blue, because, despite his
apparent neglectfulness, he had an understanding of
interior design, and always prepared a comfortable den
for his laborious vigils; in none of his lodgings was there
the picturesque disorder dear to artists.

"Finally, here is Theo!" he cried when he saw me. "You
are lazy, slow, slothlike, an obstacle, hurry up then; you
should have been here an hour ago. Tomorrow I am
reading Harel a great drama in five acts."

"And you would like to have my advice," I responded
while settling myself into an armchair like a man who is
preparing himself to endure a long lecture.

From my attitude Balzac understood my thought, and he
said to me in the most straightforward way, "The drama
is not written."

"The devil," I said. "Oh well, you will need to delay the
reading for six weeks."

"No. We are going to rush the dramorama to get paid. At
this time I have a heavy debt that is due."

"From now until tomorrow, it's impossible; there would
not be time to copy it."

"Here is how I have arranged things. You will do an act,
Ourliac another, Laurent-Jan the third, de Belloy the
fourth, me the fifth, and I will read at noon as agreed.
One act of a drama has no more than four or five
hundred lines; one can write five hundred lines of
dialogue in a day and in a night."

"Tell me the subject, outline the plan, describe to me in a
few words the characters, and I will get to work," I
responded to him, somewhat alarmed.

"Ah!" he cried with an air of superb weariness and
magnificent disdain, "if I need to tell you the subject, we
will never be finished."

I did not think I was being inappropriate in posing that
question, which seemed quite pointless to Balzac.

After a brief instruction that I obtained with difficulty, I
set to work to put together a scene from which only a
few words remained in the final work, which was not
read the next day, as one might well believe. I do not
know what the other collaborators did; but the only one
who seriously joined in, this was Laurent-Jan, to whom
the play is dedicated.

That play, it was Vautrin. Everyone knows that the
dynastic and pyramidal tuft of hair that Frédérick
Lemaître fantasized wearing in his disguise as a Mexican
general brought down on the work the criticism of the
authorities; Vautrin, forbidden, had only a single
performance, and poor Balzac remained like Perrette in
front of his overturned milk jug. The prodigious
proceeds that he had anticipated as the probable product
of his drama vanished into ciphers, which did not stop
him from refusing very nobly the compensation offered
by the ministry.

At the beginning of this study, I told you about the
tendencies toward dandyism that were demonstrated by
Balzac, I spoke of his blue coat with solid gold buttons,
his monstrous cane topped with a group of turquoise
stones, his appearances in society and in the extravagant
salon; this splendor lasted only for a period of time, and
Balzac recognized that he was not suited to play the role
of Alcibiades or Brummel. Everyone could encounter
him, particularly in the morning, when he rushed to the
printers carrying copy or seeking proofs, in an infinitely
less splendid outfit. I recall the green hunting jacket, with
brass buttons representing the head of a fox, the black
and gray checked pants that extended to his feet, which
were encased in large laced shoes, the red scarf wrapped
around the neck like a rope, and the hat that was at the
same time both bristly and smooth, its blue bleached by
sweat, which covered rather than clothed "the most
fertile of our novelists." Despite the disorder and poverty
of his dress, nobody would have been tempted to take
for an unknown commoner this large man with the
blazing eyes, flaring nostrils, and cheeks struck with
violent tones, all illuminated by genius, who passed while
carried away by his dream like a whirlwind! At the sight
of him, the mocking stopped on the urchin's lips, and the
serious man did not begin to smile. Everyone recognized
one of the kings of thought.

Sometimes, to the contrary, he would be seen walking
with slow steps, his nose in the air, his eyes searching,
following one side of the street then examining the other,
not daydreaming, but looking at the signs. He was
looking for names to christen his characters. He
maintained with some justification that a name could not
be invented any more than a word. According to him,
names arose on their own like languages; besides real
names possessed a life, a meaning, a destiny, a mystical
significance, and it was impossible to place too much
importance on their choice. Léon Gozlan has told in a
charming way, in his Balzac en Pantoufles, how the famous
Z. Marcas of the Revue Parisienne was found.

A sign of a chimney man provided the name of Gubetta
that had long been sought by Victor Hugo, who was no
less careful than Balzac in the names of his characters.

This demanding life of nocturnal work had, despite his
strong constitution, left its traces on the features of
Balzac, and we find in Albert Savarus a portrait of him,
written by himself, that represents him such as he was at
that time (1842), with some minor differences:

"… A superb head, black hair already streaked with some
white, hair like that of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in our
paintings, with thick shining curls, stiff like horsehair, a
round white neck like that of a woman, a magnificent
forehead, divided by the powerful furrows that great
projects, great thoughts, strong reflections inscribe on the
the foreheads of great men; an olive complexion marbled
with red marks, a square nose, eyes of fire, then the
hollow cheeks, with two long lines full of suffering, a
mouth with a sardonic smile and a small chin that was
narrow and too short; crow's feet at his temples, sunken
eyes, rolling under the eyebrow arches like two burning
globes; but despite all of these signs of violent passion, a
calm manner, profoundly accepting, the voice of a
penetrating sweetness which surprised me with its facility,
the true voice of an orator, sometimes pure and astute,
sometimes insinuating, and thunderous when necessary,
then pliant with sarcasm, and then becoming incisive.
Monsieur Albert Savaron is of middle height, neither fat
nor thin; finally, he has the hands of a prelate."

In this portrait, which is incidentally very faithful, Balzac
idealizes himself a little for the needs of the novel, and
subtracts from himself a few kilograms of portliness,
license which is certainly permitted to a beloved hero of
the Duchess d'Argaiolo and Mademoiselle Philomène de
Watteville. This novel of Albert Savarus, one of the least
known and least quoted of Balzac, contains many
transposed details on his habits of life and of work; one
could even see there, if it was permissible to lift those
veils, secrets of another kind.

Balzac had left the Rue des Batailles for Les Jardies; he
then went to live at Passy. The house in which he lived,
situated on a steep slope, offered a unique architectural
layout. One entered there

    A little like wine enters bottles

It was necessary to descend three floors to reach the first.
The entry door, which was on the side of the house that
faced the road, opened nearly into the roof, like a
mansard. I dined there once with L. G. It was a strange
dinner, with its dishes based on economical recipes
invented by Balzac. At my express request, the famous
onion purée, endowed with so many healthy and
symbolic qualities and which almost killed Lassailly, did
not appear. But the wines were marvelous! Each bottle
had a story, and Balzac told it with an eloquence, a verve,
a conviction without equal. The wine of Bordeaux had
gone around the world three times; the Châteauneuf-du-Pape
traced back to legendary times; the rum came from
a barrel rolled for more than a century by the sea, which
had to be opened with blows from an axe, because the
crust that had been formed around it by shellfish, coral
and seaweed was thick. My palate, surprised, irritated by
the acidic flavors, protested in vain against these
illustrious origins. Balzac maintained the solemnity of a
soothsayer, and despite the proverb, I kept my eyes fixed
on him, but I did not make him laugh!

For dessert, we had pears of a ripeness, a size, a
tenderness and a quality that would do honor to a royal
table. Balzac devoured five or six of them with the juice
running down his chin; he believed that this fruit was
good for him, and he ate them in such a quantity as much
for health as for sweetness. Already he felt the first
effects of the illness that would take him. Death, with its
skeletal fingers, was touching this robust body to know
where to attack it, and finding no weakness there, killed it
through excess and hypertrophy. The cheeks of Balzac
were already lined and marked with those red spots that
simulate health to inattentive eyes; but for the observer,
the yellow tones of hepatitis surrounded the tired eyelids
with their golden halo; the expression, brightened by this
warm sepia hue, appeared even more vivacious and
shining and lessened anxieties.

At that time, Balzac was very preoccupied with the occult
sciences, palmistry, and card reading; he had been told of
an oracle even more astonishing than Mademoiselle
Lenormand, and he persuaded me, as well as Madame E.
de Girardin and Méry, to go and consult her with him.
The prophetess lived in Auteuil, I no longer know in
which street; that matters little to my story, because the
address that was given was false. We came upon an
honorable middle class family on holiday: the husband,
the wife, and an old mother in whom Balzac, sure of his
facts, persisted in finding a mystical air. The good
woman, not flattered to have been taken for a sorceress,
became angry; the husband took us for tricksters or
crooks; the young woman laughed loudly, and the servant
hastened prudently to lock up the silver. We had no
choice but to withdraw after our blunder; but Balzac
maintained that we were in the right place, and having
climbed back into the carriage, muttered insults at the old
lady: "Demon, harpy, magician, vampire, worm, monster,
lemur, ghoul, snake charmer, creature," and all of the
bizarre terms that a familiarity with the litanies of
Rabelais could suggest to him. I said: "If she is a
sorceress, she hides her game well." "Of cards," added
Madame de Girardin with a quickness of mind that never
failed her. We tried some further explorations, always
fruitlessly, and Delphine asserted that Balzac had
imagined this resource of Quinola in order to be driven by
carriage to Auteuil, where he had business, and to
procure some pleasant traveling companions. It is
necessary to believe, however, that Balzac alone found
that Madame Fontaine that we were all seeking together,
because, in Les Comédiens Sans le Savoir, he depicted her
between her hen Bilouche and her toad Astaroth with a
fantastic and frightening truthfulness, if those two words
can go together. Did he consult her seriously? Did he go
to see her as a simple observer? Many passages in La
Comédie Humaine seem to suggest that Balzac had a kind
of faith in the occult sciences, about which the official
sciences have still not said their last word.

Around this time, Balzac began to show a taste for old
furniture, chests, vases; the least piece of worm-eaten
wood that he bought on the Rue de Lappe always had an
illustrious provenance, and he created detailed
genealogies for his lesser knickknacks. He hid them here
and there, always because of those fantastical creditors
that I was starting to doubt. I even amused myself by
spreading the rumor that Balzac was a millionaire, that he
was buying old stockings from dealers in caterpillars to
hide onces, quadruples, génovines, crusades, colonnates,
double louis, in the manner of Père Grandet; I said
everywhere that he had three cisterns, like Aboul-Casem,
filled to the brim with garnets, dinars and rials. "Théo will
get my throat cut with his jokes!" said Balzac, annoyed
and charmed.

That which gave some veracity to my jokes was the new
house in which Balzac lived, on the Rue Fortunée, in the
Beaujon quarter, less populated then than it is today. He
occupied a mysterious little house there that would have
suited the fantasies of an ostentatious financier. From
outside, one saw over the wall a sort of cupola formed by
the arched ceiling of a sitting room and fresh paint on the
closed shutters.

When one entered this small house, which was not easy,
because the master of this dwelling hid himself with
extreme care, one discovered a thousand details of luxury
and comfort that contradicted the poverty that he
affected. He received me however one day, and I could
see a dining room adorned with old oak, with a table, a
fireplace, some buffets, some sideboards and some chairs
of sculpted wood, that would have made Berruguète,
Cornejo Duque and Verbruggen envious; a salon of
golden yellow damask, with doors, cornices, plinths and
window frames of ebony; a library arranged in armoires
inlayed with shell and brass in the style of Boule, and
whose door, hidden by the shelves, once closed, could
not be found; a bathroom in yellow Breccia, with bas-reliefs
of stucco; a domed sitting room, whose old
paintings had been restored by Edmond Hédouin; a
gallery lit from above, that I recognized later in the
collection of Le Cousin Pons. There were on the shelves all
sorts of curiosities, porcelain from Dresden and Sèvres,
horns of crackled celadon, and on the stairway, which
was covered with a rug, some great vases from China and
a magnificent lantern suspended by a cable of red silk.

"So have you emptied one of the caches of Aboul-Casem?"
I said to Balzac, laughing, confronted with these
splendors. "You can see well that I was right to suggest
that you are a millionaire."

"I am poorer than ever," he responded while taking on a
humble and pious air. "None of this is mine. I have
furnished the house for a friend that I await. I am only
the caretaker and porter of the building."

I quote here his exact words. This response, he made it in
passing to many people who were as shocked as me. The
mystery was soon explained by the marriage of Balzac to
the woman whom he had loved for a long time.

There is a Turkish proverb that says: "When the house is
finished, death enters." It is for this reason that the
sultans always have a palace in the course of construction
that they are very careful not to complete. Life seems to
want nothing to be complete – except misfortune.
Nothing is as dreaded as a wish fulfilled.

The notorious debts were finally paid, the dream union
completed, the nest made for happiness padded and
covered with down; as if they had foreseen his
approaching end, those who envied Balzac started to
praise him: Les Parents Pauvres, Le Cousin Pons, where the
genius of the author shines in all its radiance, united all
opinions. It was too beautiful; nothing more remained
for him but to die.

His illness made rapid progress, but nobody believed that
there would be a fatal outcome, so much we all trusted in
the athletic constitution of Balzac. I thought firmly that
he would bury us all.

I was going to take a trip to Italy. And before leaving I
wanted to say goodbye to my illustrious friend. He had
left in a carriage to collect from customs some exotic
curiosity. I drew away reassured, and at the moment that
I returned to my carriage, I was given a note from
Madame de Balzac, which explained to me obligingly and
with polite regrets why I had not found her husband at
home. At the bottom of the letter, Balzac had scrawled
these words.

    "I can neither read, nor write.
    "De Balzac."

I have preserved like a relic that ominous line, probably
the last that was written by the author of La Comédie
Humaine; it was, and I did not understand it right away,
the final cry, "My God, why have you forsaken me!" of
the thinker and of the worker. The idea that Balzac could
die did not even occur to me.

A few days after that, I was eating ice cream at the Café
Florian, on the Piazza Saint Marco; in my hand I found
the Journal des Débats, one of the few French papers that
was available in Venice, and I saw in it the announcement
of the death of Balzac. I almost fell from my chair onto
the stones of the Piazza at this sudden news, and my pain
was quickly mixed with an impulse of indignation and
outrage that was not very Christian, because all souls
have an equal value before God. I had just visited the
insane asylum on the island of San-Servolo, and I saw
there decrepit idiots, doddering octogenarians, human
worms who are not even guided by animal instinct, and I
asked myself why this luminous brain was extinguished
like a flame on which one blows, while tenacious life
persisted in these murky heads that were dimly traversed
by fickle rays.

Nine years have already passed since that fatal date.
Posterity has commenced for Balzac; every day he seems
greater. When he was in the company of his
contemporaries, he was poorly appreciated, he was seen
only in fragments under sometimes unfavorable
circumstances: now the edifice that he built rises as one
draws further away, like the cathedral of a city that
conceals the neighboring houses, and which on the
horizon appears immense above the flattened roofs. The
monument is not completed, but, such as it is, it terrifies
by its enormity, and surprised generations will ask
themselves who is the giant who alone has raised these
formidable blocks and built so high this Babel that made
all of society sing.

Although he is dead, Balzac still has detractors; on his
memory are thrown the banal reproach of immorality,
the last insult of powerless and jealous mediocrity, or
even of total stupidity. The author of La Comédie Humaine
not only is not immoral, but he is actually a strict
moralist. Monarchical and catholic, he defends authority,
exalts religion, preaches duty, reprimands passion, and
does not accept happiness except in marriage and the

"Man," he says, "is neither good, nor bad; he is born with
instincts and aptitudes; society, far from corrupting him,
as Rousseau maintained, improves him, makes him
better; but self-interest develops also his evil tendencies.
Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, being, as I said
in Le Médecin de Campagne, a complete system for the
repression of the depraved tendencies of man, is the
most important component of social order."

And with the ingenuity that suits a great man, anticipating
the reproach of immorality that will be addressed to him
by shoddy spirits, he numbers the irreproachably virtuous
characters who are found in La Comédie Humaine: Pierrette
Lorrain, Ursule Mirouët, Constance Birotteau, la
Fosseuse, Eugénie Grandet, Marguerite Claës, Pauline de
Villenoix, Madame Jules, Madame de la Chanterie, Eve
Chardon, Mademoiselle d'Esgrignon, Madame Firmiani,
Agathe Rouget, Renée de Maucombe, without counting
among the men, Joseph Le Bas, Genestas, Benassis, the
cleric Bonnet, Dr. Minoret, Pillerault, David Séchard, the
two Birotteaus, the cleric Chaperon, the judge Popinot,
Bourgeat, the Sauviats, the Tascherons, etc.

Rogues are not missing, it is true, in La Comédie Humaine.
But is Paris populated only with angels?


[Copyright notice: David Desmond is the sole copyright
holder for this English translation of the book "Honoré
de Balzac" by Théophile Gautier. He grants Doctrine Publishing Corporation
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