Balzac’s Business

BalzacCorrespondence II: 1836–1841Edited by Roger Pierrot and Hervé Yon1,400pp. Gallimard. 69 euros.

978 2 07 011819 9



Balzac’s business

Graham Robb

What does a novelist need? Balzac’s letters suggest the following: a peaceful place to work; a home full of beautiful, expensive objects to create “happiness and a sense of intellectual freedom”; coffee strong enough to maintain the flow of inspiration for two months; debts and publishers’ contracts with draconian penalty clauses to reinforce self-discipline with compulsion; several aliases and hiding places to prevent the creditors’ bailiffs from confiscating the expensive objects; and a constant state of romantic excitation without the time-consuming consequences of love.

This is the second of three volumes of Balzac’s Correspondance in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, painstakingly edited by Roger Pierrot (who produced the first scholarly edition of Balzac’s letters fifty years ago) and Hervé Yon. It contains 311 letters and documents that did not appear in the earlier edition, and a further 202 that have been completed or corrected. Despite this, there is nothing to alter the accepted view of Balzac. There are still very few letters to members of his family, whom he tended to see as a drain on time and money, and the more revealing and expansive correspondence with the Polish countess who became his wife is published separately as Lettres à Madame Hanska.

During the six hectic years covered by this volume (1836–41), Balzac wrote more than thirty novels and stories, including Le Curé de village, Ursule Mirouët and most of Illusions perdues. Some of the novels were written so quickly, or with so few interruptions, that they appear in his correspondence only as titles in contracts. Since the bottom was dropping out of the book market, according to Balzac, the future seemed to lie in newspapers and the theatre. Almost single-handedly, he ran the twice-weekly Chronique de Paris (“a journal staffed entirely by invalids”), wrote and directed a play about a social-climbing criminal, Vautrin, and published the first serial novel in France (La Vieille Fille, in 1836).

Balzac had not only the physique, but also the dynamism, of a sumo wrestler

When Henry James reviewed the first edition of Balzac’s letters, published in 1876, he noted, at some length, that this was not one of the great literary correspondences: “The grossly, inveterately professional character of all his activity, the absence of leisure, of contemplation, of disinterested experience, the urgency of his consuming money-hunger – all this is rudely exposed”. Balzac was never one to fritter away his inventiveness on notepaper. The moment he stopped writing a story, his study became a claustrophobic hall of mirrors which reflected nothing but a writer’s misery. His fleeting self-portraits are unrelentingly grim: he was a prisoner with “a ball and chain and no file”, a cloistered monk, a ship caught in the ice, a soldier stuck in barracks, “a drowning man”, “a dog”. Balzac had not only the physique, but also the dynamism, of a sumo wrestler. When he was writing his novels, chairs collapsed beneath him. “He was a man almost tragically uncomfortable”, said James, and – an image that might have come from one of Balzac’s pseudo-medieval Contes drolatiques – “the unsightly underside of his discomfort stares us in the face”.

The main task Balzac had set himself was to create a complete panorama of French society in a monumental series of novels and studies to be published under the title La Comédie humaine. Strange to say, the other projects were a form of avoidance, and, as any procrastinator knows, procrastination can be very hard work. It is probably just as well that his other ventures failed: the Chronique de Paris folded after six months, Vautrin was banned after one performance, supposedly because the main character was politically subversive, and the serial novel was a disaster. Balzac usually wrote his stories by expanding sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into chapters; it was practically impossible to deliver them one slice at a time. There was also the problem of censorship. Newspaper readers could be just as sensitive as the official “conseil de surveillance”. A letter from the literary editor of Le Siècle, in which the short novel Pierrette was serialized in 1840, is fairly typical: “Here’s tomorrow’s serial, which seems to me to be in need of attenuation – the risks that old maids run when they get married . . . the details about bones and muscles becoming too stiff for childbirth, the harm that the act of rubbing can do to young girls . . . . This is obviously too clear and carnal for Le Siècle”.

In this bulging file of frantic notes to publishers, typesetters, newspaper editors and exhausted collaborators and secretaries, the best letters are those to his female friends, especially Zulma Carraud, who later became a bestselling children’s author. She lived a lonely life with her depressed husband in Issoudun and served Balzac as an adviser, a research assistant and – knowing his novelistic needs – a genteel procuress. She tried to tempt him to her home with the promise of “a young enchantress”, “artistic to the roots of her hair”: “she will set the laziest of your fibres vibrating”. In 1839, Balzac asked her, “in all seriousness”, to find him a wife: “If you should come across a young girl of twenty-two [Balzac had recently turned forty], with 200,000 or even 100,000 francs, provided that the dowry could be applied to my business affairs, please think of me. I want a wife who could be whatever the events of my life might require: an ambassadress or a housekeeper . . . . She would have to be an ambitious, witty sort of girl”. Zulma refused to cooperate, having learned, from her own experience and from Balzac’s novels, that marriage could be hell: “I never attend a wedding without tears in my heart”. She could, however, offer him “a tall, rather pretty and distinguished” girl of seventeen, but “she has nothing to her name – what a pity”.

Balzac’s published correspondence is now ten times larger than it was when Henry James reviewed it, but the literary pickings are still poor. By far the most interesting letter on novel-writing is not by Balzac but by Stendhal, who thanked Balzac for his admiring review of La Chartreuse de Parme. This is the famous letter in which Stendhal revealed that, every morning, in order to “tune up”, he read the Code civil, and that a great deal of his novel had been dictated to a secretary and published without revision. He valued Balzac’s advice so much that he sent him a copy of the novel interleaved with blank sheets of paper on which Balzac was to answer questions about style and narrative technique. This priceless document has never come to light, and the novel-writing advice that can be gleaned from Balzac’s letters amounts to very little: be grammatically correct, don’t start writing until the first flush of enthusiasm is past, write as though your reader is a woman, work at least twelve hours a day, never read reviews, and treat your printer or your publisher as you would a lazy servant.

Since Balzac rarely wrote letters for posterity, it is no surprise to see him upstaged in his own correspondence

Since Balzac rarely wrote letters for posterity, it is no surprise to see him upstaged in his own correspondence, but even his readers seem to steal the show. By including a generous selection of fan mail, the editors have provided some relief from the teeming minutiae of debts and contracts. This has the effect of turning an otherwise tedious correspondence into a valuable source for social historians.

Most of his fan mail came from women. It is hard to tell whether they sound like characters from La Comédie humaine because they had consumed so many Balzac novels, or because the novels were such an accurate portrayal of the people who read them. Many of them thanked him for giving them a voice, and used his own words to describe their predicament: “A widow deprived of fortune, I may never be able to amass enough money to buy my child one of those male courtesans called ‘a husband’”. “You will be amazed that a young woman has dared to touch that book [Physiologie du mariage], but should one not read and think about all things to do with marriage before entering that temple whose door is opened again only by death?” Some of his readers seemed to inhabit a world in which reality naturally took a novelistic form: “One day, I was in a carriage, you in a cabriolet. Our wheels touched, and someone said, ‘That’s Balzac!’ I glanced at you quickly, out of curiosity. Our eyes met, our wheels parted, and we were separated by the crack of a whip”.

One woman belonged to a secret reading group: “Worldly inquisitors sometimes force us to condemn certain chapters of your works, but as soon as we’re alone together, we whisper to one another, ‘I love Balzac! He knows all the miseries of a woman’s lot’”. Admiring though they were, many of his correspondents could be astonishingly rude. A woman who asked him for an autograph, which she would have framed so that she could gaze at it every day of her life, regretted that M de Balzac felt it necessary to “soil” his “sublime genius” by writing “stupid and absurd things just so the public will understand”. Others assured him that many a subtle nuance of feminine psychology had escaped him. Perhaps what he needed, one suggested, was “a diary like the one I’ve been keeping for the last four years of my life, hour by hour, thought by thought – good as well as bad”. It was largely from these readers that Balzac learned about the hostile reviews he was receiving.

There were begging letters written in freezing hovels by people who claimed to be on the verge of suicide, letters asking for advice on love affairs and seduction techniques, offers of secretarial help, and requests for references. Some hoped that he would read their novels and even recommend them to a publisher. (“If I poured out my heart to you, you would feel sorry for me and become my friend . . . . I have written lots of pages and would like to send them to you.”) The woman who was about to be entombed in marriage asked Balzac to acknowledge receipt of her letter by naming his next female character “Irma”.

There are no Irmas in La Comédie humaine, and nothing to suggest that any of these letters provided the author with material. Compared to the characters of his novels, his correspondents sound flat and conventional. He kept their letters nonetheless, and he seems to have answered even the most insulting. This was how he came to know his future wife: she wrote to him anonymously in 1832, and they were finally married in 1850, five months before his death. In the meantime, priding himself on his powers of divination, he scanned his correspondence for likely partners, as though conducting interviews. He had affairs with at least three of his anonymous admirers. Perhaps there was an incestuous pleasure in making love to women who expressed themselves as though they were characters in a Balzac novel. Of course, not all the invitations were accepted. A woman called Marie wrote to him at his sister’s address, assuming Mme Surville to be his lover, and asked him to go and stand under the Arc de Triomphe between 2 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. “I shall pass by in a carriage. When I see you, I shall alight.” The novelist did not appear, and so she wrote again, “I cannot believe that someone who is so good at depicting respectable women would hesitate for a moment to seize the chance to make the acquaintance of one”.

The most Balzacian of all these invitations came from someone who had read and reread all his works, and who wanted to find out whether or not she had formed an accurate impression of his personality. “I should like to know whether your ravishing creations come from the heart or the head.” “I cannot tell you to come to my home: our society, with all its overbearing prejudices, would not permit it, but I can say this: present yourself in the foyer of the Opéra on Monday at 1 o’clock [in the morning] and come up to me. I shall be dressed in black from head to toe, with pink ribbons on my sleeves.” That particular Monday was the penultimate day of the carnival, when the great masked ball was held at the Opéra. Balzac may have taken the opportunity to indulge in his old pastime of observing without being seen, or he may have gone there to refresh his memory of the ball.

Two years later, he described it in the opening scene of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. “In 1824, at the last ball of the Opéra, many of the revellers were struck by the beauty of a young man who was walking about the corridors and the foyer with the appearance of someone looking for a woman who has been detained at home by unforeseen circumstances . . . . His beauty classed him among those exceptional people who go to the ball in search of adventure and who wait for it as people used to wait for a lucky stroke at roulette.” There are no pink-ribboned women in the opening scene of the novel, and the only character resembling a novelist is the “murderous-looking” individual who follows the young man at a distance – “short and fat, rolling along like a barrel”. The real romantic action took place in a small, candlelit room in the suburbs of Paris, where the only sounds came from the coffeepot and a chair that was groaning like a ship in a storm.

Graham Robb’s books include Balzac: A biography, 1994, and The Discovery of France, which appeared in paperback in 2008.