Making the world

Christopher Prendergast

  • Gillette, or The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Anthony Rudolf
    Menard Press, 64 pp, £5.95, December 1988, ISBN 0 903400 99 5

In his Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne, Emile Bernard records a conversation in which he raised with Cézanne the topic of Balzac’s Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu – the story of the fictional painter Frenhofer, who spends ten years trying to create the perfect picture of a woman but ends up painting what, in the story itself (which mixes fiction with 17th-century fact), the young Nicolas Poussin describes as ‘nothing [ ... ] but confused masses of colour contained by a multitude of strange lines, forming a high wall of paint’. Cézanne, who, Gasquet informs us, had a copy of the book tout fripé, sâli et décousu almost permanently by his bedside, said not a word but rose to his feet, pointing agitatedly, and tearfully, at himself: il se leva de table, se dressa devant moi, et frappant sa poitrine avec son index, il s’accusa, sans un mot, mais par son geste multiplié, le personnage du roman. Il en était si ému que des larmes emplissaient ses yeux. More eloquent testimony to the enduring power and relevance of Balzac’s story could scarcely be imagined. In the essay Anthony Rudolf appends to his new translation, this anecdote figures as exemplary, and serves to buttress the case for Balzac’s story as exemplary anticipation of the adventure of modern painting.

It is unlikely – to use that normally absurd conditional perfect which, however, here both raises and begs interesting questions about the significance of the story – that Balzac himself would have approved of this alignment with Modernism. In the preface to another work he described Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu as a cautionary tale designed to illustrate ‘the laws which produce the suicide of art’. This is emphatically not a case of Frenhofer, c’est moi, but rather the robustly commonsensical approach of a writer who, despite the famous exotic accoutrements of work (monk’s habit, nocturnal regime and endless cups of black coffee), nevertheless construed work itself on the model of the industrious bourgeois; who perceived himself as less the Frenhofer (or even the Napoleon) than the Birotteau of art, for whom getting the job done was the task to hand and the main danger, not derailment by demonic possession, but exhaustion from overwork. But, if that image has encouraged an interpretation of Frenhofer as the embodiment of an ‘error’ and a ‘failure’ (notably in that brand of justemilieu criticism for which the new is always an overrated fiction and any form of passionate ‘excess’ the sign of a lack of intellectual and social good manners), this edits out all manner of ambiguity and complexity. For instance, whatever we think has happened on the canvas which the two other painters in the story find unintelligible (a reaction that precipitates Frenhofer’s death and the destruction of his whole oeuvre), there is nevertheless a substantial oeuvre; Frenhofer’s studio seems as packed with canvases as the Comédie Humaine with novels, and according to the two other painters, they all – apart from the final picture – seem to be masterpieces. Whatever Frenhofer’s ‘problem’, it doesn’t appear to be his work rate or the quality of his output.

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