Rooting around in the basement of a Camden library a couple of decades ago I came across a set of shelves buckling under the weight of the handsome Caxton edition of Balzac’s Comédie humaine, published in 1899 to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. Inserted in the copy of Eugénie Grandet was a note from a senior librarian to the effect that once the present reader had finished going through them, the books could be pulped.
At the time, I thought it a stupefying act of literary vandalism; now, I fear, it would take an illegal substance to quell my anger. But such shabby treatment is not unusual where Balzac is concerned. To this day, the English reader is dependent on second-hand bookshops and uneven translations should he wish to immerse himself in the oeuvre of the man who famously, and with typical bravado, announced that what Napoleon had been unable to finish with the sword, he would accomplish with the pen.
As Graham Robb acknowledges in an appendix to his even-handed, sceptical and engrossing biography, Balzac, throughout his life and in the hereafter, inspired contrary views and violently differing opinions. Unsurprisingly, Zola saw him as the father of the Naturalist novel (with himself, no doubt, as its grandson), in Robb’s paraphrase, ‘the experimental scientist who funnelled the phantasmagoria of Romanticism into the test-tube of the modern novel’. Others, however, were more ambivalent. George Eliot deemed Le Père Goriot ‘a hateful book’, while a prissy Mrs Gaskell said, ‘His novels leave such a bad taste in the mouth.’ It took Flaubert to understand their true dynamic. ‘What a man he would have been had he known how to write!’ he wrote. ‘But that was the only thing he lacked. After all, an artist would never have accomplished so much nor had such breadth.’
Here Flaubert might have been speaking about himself. For where he, the self-conscious ‘artist’, prevaricated endlessly over whether or not to insert a comma, Balzac bulldozed ahead. In the time it might have taken Flaubert to finish a sentence, Balzac could complete a novel. He believed it was all to do with willpower and energy. Even sex might interrupt the creative process. ‘Sperm for him was an emission of pure cerebral substance,’ observed the brothers Goncourt, ‘a sort of filtering out and loss, through the penis, of a work of art. And after some misdemeanour or other, when he had neglected to apply his theory, he turned up at the home of [the critic] Latouche, crying, “I lost a book this morning!”’
This was just one of Balzac’s many potty theories. But it is largely futile to attempt to follow his labyrinthine logic. Like countless other great writers, Balzac had more theories than Einstein but he was rarely able to make one stick. He was, in any case, a mass of contradictions and potential paradoxes, depending on where one stands either a royalist or a republican, a capitalist or a Marxist (Marx marked him out for praise in Das Kapital), a dandy or a derelict, gay or straight.
Power, money, and sex are Balzac’s subjects, noted Anthony Powell, but not in that order. Money, or more precisely the quest for a fortune, was his first motivation. Had it not been for the fact that Balzac was perennially in debt there would have been no need for him to work at such a pace. But he did not have a businessman’s instinct for profit; money to Balzac was a means to the upper echelons of society. Like his hero Scott, he dearly wanted to be a part of the aristocracy.
To that end he spent heavily, acquiring a bulging wardrobe (he would buy eight pairs of gloves at a time), a team of horses and a carriage, a collection of canes with jewelled knobs, enough furniture to furnish Fontainebleau, servants and a cook, though he ate little more than a boiled egg on the rare occasions when he dined at home. Unlike Scott, however, who was imaginatively crippled by his efforts to pay off his debts through his writing, Balzac’s debts seemed to spur him on, his imagination fired by his desire to purchase and possess.
He had a genius for losing money. His commercial ventures invariably ended disastrously. He invested in publishing in the hope of making a killing on cheap editions of the classics. In the event the books were overpriced and the print was illegible. Next he bought a printing works, but within two years it failed. After Balzac sold out it developed into one of the most successful printers in Paris. Investments in property, shares and a tin mine left him strapped for cash and tied to his mother and various female benefactresses. Yet often history has proved that he was ahead of his time; had he been even a decade or so later with many of his ideas he might have made the fortune he so desperately desired. And ironically, as Robb comments, ‘A contemporary reader using La Comédie humaine as an investment guide would probably have made a handsome profit.’
Amid this welter of financial manipulation it is easy to let the work, the great cathedral of La Comédie humaine, serve as a backdrop. First there is the scale: more than ninety novels and shorter stories written in the period from 1828, when Balzac was twenty-nine, almost to his death in 1850. It is estimated that he created more than 2,500 characters. He wrote through the night dressed in a monk’s habit and supping copious cups of the strongest coffee he could find. Some years he published a book every two months. At nine in the morning he was brought proofs and he would pour over them, driving printers mad with his emendations. For César Birotteau, a comparatively minor novel, he went through seventeen sets. Often, chapters were sent to the printer while the ink was barely dry.
At times he would take to the streets to indulge in ‘optical gastronomy’. He was not averse to spying on people, attempting to build their characters from their physiognomies. Somehow he disappeared in the crowd, a short, portly man with bad teeth and blazing eyes. ‘Balzac’s descent into the street is a great moment in literature,’ writes Graham Robb with an omniscience worthy of his subject, and how right he is.