If Balzac had had his way, the real Paris would have become a little more like the visionary Paris of his novels. He thought a spiral staircase should be built, leading down from the Luxembourg Gardens into the catacombs, whose verminous labyrinth stretched from there indiscriminately beneath the plush hôtels of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the slums of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. This forthright scheme of urban integration was pure metaphor, or else an inspired advertisement for the astounding construction of the Comédie Humaine, where all that is most arrogant and wealthy in Paris is obliged to cohabit with all that is most vile, the peers, ministers and salonardes from one side of the tracks with the jailbirds, usurers and tarts from the other.
The Paris catacombs were more an idea for Balzac than a local fact: they formed a system of hidden – ‘repressed’ might be the word – connections between the high-placed and the low both morally and socially, between the safe parts of town and the dangerous, the honest people and the crooked. They brought these contraries together within a single frame, exactly as Balzac planned it in his novels. For in the Comédie Humaine he calls in the underworld to redress the balance of the surface world of Restoration France, the surface world not as it may actually have been but the shrunken, partial and too lenient view he supposed his contemporaries to take of it. Where their view was accepting for being incomplete, his would be damning for being total. Thanks to his imaginary staircase into the lower depths, the mental geography of those who read him would be redrawn and milieux previously as distinct from one another as Saint-Germain and Saint-Marceau aggressively juxtaposed. One of the last titles to appear in the Comédie was L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine, ‘The Other Side of Contemporary History’. It is the title of a late volume that Balzac never finished, but it might have stood above the whole. The Other Side is the one his fellow citizens would have been deprived of had the novelist not come forward to unmask it for them.
Official history exists in order to cleanse, to reassure; what Balzac claims to write is something less reassuring, what Vautrin, his louche alter ego, calls in Lost Illusions ‘the secret History, where the true causes of events are, a shameful History’. All the most lurid devices of plot and character in the Comédie Humaine – the demonic Vautrin among them, who came more and more over time to resemble his author physically – serve to reveal beyond need of further argument the depravity of the times. This point having been taken, Balzac’s contemporary readers were asked to accede to his reactionary, absolutist politics, as the one plausible means of reversing what he saw as the catastrophic social and moral disorder set in train by the events of 1789.
All of which makes Balzac sound like a very serious writer indeed. In his own eyes he was so: a social prophet, a fervent moralist, perhaps even a saviour, prepared if called on to abandon literature and go into politics in the legitimist or Bourbon interest (he wasn’t called on). Happily, however, it is impossible to read about the way in which he lived his life and continue to take him as seriously as he took himself. Once he is seen as a whole, and the image of the fearsomely boisterous social climber, lover and businessman is overlaid on the more familiar image of the chastely deskbound author, Balzac appears as a monstre sacré, hypnotic and appalling by turns in his unpuncturable self-regard. He was a monster of excess, capable when he was behind on a deadline of writing day in day out for 18 hours out of the 24, and of sleeping for just as long in his intervals of exhaustion. If his complaining correspondence were to be believed, you might assume that writing and sleeping were all he had time for, so desperate was he to work off his debts. Balzac didn’t want to earn only money from his books, however, he wanted to earn fame and the good things that followed from it: to mix with the aristocracy, to appear at the Opera, to dine luxuriously, to have affairs, to travel.
And a European celebrity he duly became, an acclaimed tourist in Italy, Germany and Austria as well as in France. He had a problem, however, with his body, which was no fit receptacle for his mind – something that shouldn’t have happened to the physiognomist creator of the Comédie Humaine, one of whose guiding principles is that the face and body are an index to the mind, the material equivalent of a psychology. With the author himself it was not so. He had the mind of a genius and the humiliating body of a Silenus, short, with an abnormally large head, little or no neck – that was a good sign, he thought: it brought the seething brain closer to the source of its blood-supply – and an uncontainable paunch. He was a bohemian malgré lui, someone who spent freely on getting clothes made for him, in hopes of being mistaken for one of his fictional dandies, yet always looked a mess; who was a tremendous talker (if chiefly about himself) yet who, according to the snobbish Alfred de Vigny, salivated as he spoke because he had lost his top teeth; who had consuming passions where others settle merely for tastes, so that a liking for pears meant that at one time he had fifteen hundred of them stored in his house, waiting to be eaten.
Would that I had been fed consoling trivia such as these long years ago, to ease my schoolboy way as I read piously through my first Balzac: the provincial tragedy of Eugénie Grandet, with its never-to-be-forgotten frontispiece of a glowering, berobed author. There is, I’m glad to say, no evidence of any inhibiting piety in Graham Robb’s dashing new Life of this monumental figure, the first to have been written in English for more than sixty years. This is a delightfully free and easy biography that takes firm hold of its subject by his more clownish side. It is written with humour – too much humour in places – and with an intelligent sense of the realities as opposed to the mythology of the literary life, but Robb is never in any doubt that Balzac was a phenomenon, productive to a scarcely credible degree, ideologically fertile and eccentric, a maker of wonderfully robust and capacious fictions. Robb provides little by way of commentary on individual stories or novels, except to fit the details of their publication into the larger story, but he enjoys himself, as who wouldn’t, describing the generally frantic conditions under which they were written, the endless dramas that Balzac survived in his fraught dealings with publishers, with editors, once he began publishing his books in serial form in the new feuilleton-craving press, with creditors and not least with the buildings he lived in – he was often on the move, avoiding, if not the bailiffs then his paramilitary duties in the National Guard.
Hard times, however, these weren’t. Something of what Balzac endured as a young writer on the make in Paris after 1820 is reflected in the bad experiences of the far more beautiful but far less determined Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions; but Lucien is made to suffer worse poverty and extremes of journalistic spite than ever Balzac was exposed to. Indeed, Balzac had rather little first-hand experience of the Other Side of Parisian life, beyond what he saw of it when he walked about in the poor quarters of the city, hungrily engaged on his ‘optical gastronomy’. He had some useful second-hand experience of it, however, from the short time that he had spent in his late teens working in the office of a lawyer. Here again, it was more the idea than the reality of the lawyer’s life that he capitalised on once he started on the Comédie Humaine. In it lawyers are the professional men who, day by day, get the deepest insight into the real, shameful History of the age. They are the members of the bourgeoisie best placed to take the sordid measure of their class, the repositories of murky family secrets and the arbiters in callous disputes over money between kith and kin. They are also the fixers who smoothe the path of the speculators, that small, secretive band of predatory initiates who rule the financial roost in Balzac – see, among other novels, César Birotteau. The office of the notaire is a place of privilege in the Comédie Humaine, because it is the point of articulation between the licit and the shady agents of Balzac’s alternative France.
Whether they are bent or honest, his lawyers can but do well. It takes money to buy into the law, but once established in a practice, the ambitious young man is made for life and becomes instantly marriageable. Such was the family plan for young Honoré once he had started on a law degree; such, up to a point, had been Balzac’s father’s own story as a provincial boy drawn away to Paris and succeeding there. The Balzacs had been peasants near Albi, who at that time called themselves Balssa (that the bucolic double s should later have been exchanged for an upwardly mobile z is intriguing in the light of Roland Barthes’s S/Z). Balzac père began on his upward course by working as a clerk in a local lawyer’s office, and ended up running army supplies under both the Empire and the Restoration, having steered what Robb nicely calls a ‘prudently erratic’ course during the Revolutionary years. The Balzacs had prospered, indeed, out of the very disturbances in the social and moral fabric of France against which the novelist was later to rage. They had become sufficiently prosperous for the young Honoré to be given a small allowance to live off when, at the age of 20, he decided to abandon the law and become a writer.
It took him almost ten years to become the sort of writer his family, or at any rate his mother, didn’t need to feel embarrassed by. Balzac never liked his mother but he tried hard to please her. When he began publishing trashy novels for the new, low-brow cabinet de lecture market, he did so under the charmingly silly pseudonym of Lord R’Hoone. Not until 1829, when he was rising thirty, did he publish a novel that could later be recycled as a part of the Comédie Humaine. This was Les Chouans, a forest melodrama, Fenimore Cooper relocated to the West of France, set during the bloody and vindictive Royalist counter-revolution in the Vendée. Balzac went and lodged in the region before he wrote about it: a gesture towards authenticity he was never to find time to repeat. The novel’s subtitle is ‘La Bretagne en 1799’, which was the year of his birth, as well as of Napoleon’s coup d’état, and a doubly apt starting-point therefore for his vast enterprise of contemporary history. And it was entirely suitable that the Comédie Humaine should turn out to have opened with a tale of civil war and brigandage, when so much of the cycle’s sombre energy derives from the rapine practised under cover by Balzac’s dandified urban guerrillas.
In the extraordinary Preface to the Comédie, written only in 1842, when the larger part of the structure was already in place, Balzac claimed that the original idea for it ‘was with me at first like a dream, like one of those impossible projects that one caresses and allows to make its escape’. This is an extreme instance of his wish that the thought precede the reality, and a most misleading account of how the Comédie in fact took shape. At the outset, it wasn’t a unified work, even in embryo, but many separate works: stories, novels and a number of fascinating essays in social psychology. Balzac gave no sign at that time even of wishing to fit them together into a whole. The ‘dream’ came later, after part at least of the event. The key to it was Balzac’s eureka moment, when he got the idea of recurring characters – one day in 1835, according to his sister, who was the first to be told of it. Characters who return, who play a lead role in one novel and a bit-part in another, but who are always on hand even if not wanted on stage, and who become more recognisable the further into the Comédie Humaine that you read, they alone have the clarity of temperament and of function to create ‘the drama with three or four thousand characters’ which was what Balzac thought it would take to represent a whole society. The Comédie Humaine doesn’t, I daresay, run to quite as many characters as that, though as book followed book each new cast-list contained fewer and fewer unfamiliar names – there are said to be well over two hundred characters drawn from elsewhere in the late, especially populous Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.
This discovery was vital to the ‘unity of composition’ that Balzac claimed for his work, a unity comparable to that newly imposed on nature by the great scientific taxonomies of the 18th and early 19th centuries. A unity discovered only in mid-career, however, presented him with a difficulty: how was he to extend it to what he had already published? There was only one way, to take those earlier books back and rewrite them where necessary, so as to integrate them with the rest. This he chiefly did by reidentifying the characters in them with names taken from the later volumes, so that many a life-story received a sudden, unlooked-for extension into either the past or the future. That Balzac not only wrote as much as he did that was new in barely twenty years, but also re-ordered books that were already in print, makes him even more of a wonder. And as well as the vastness of the Comédie Humaine, we have also to reckon with the immense correspondence-cum-journal that he addressed to the obsessive, mainly absent love of his life, the Countess Eveline Hanska – enough to fill a thousand close-set pages of the modern edition for the three years 1845-8 alone, according to Roger Pierrot, whose sadly pedantic new biography is good for dry facts such as this, if not for very much else.
Balzac wanted it to be thought that the Comédie Humaine began as a dream for the good reason that, had it in fact done so, the turning of the dream into a reality could be seen only as a titanic, sustained act of will, of creation in its most godlike mode. The will was the human faculty that Balzac esteemed above all others, for making manifest in the world what had originated in privacy as a thought within the brain. The will is paramount in the Comédie Humaine, yet also exhaustible, a Nietzschean force for good or ill that can literally be spent, like money, but never replenished. That Balzac should in the end have lived out this materialist theory, by willing or desiring more and more pages of literature into existence as if they had been predetermined, and should then have died before his time, at the age of 51, is not the least Balzaquian thing about him.
Little wonder that some of those who knew or encountered him in person thought him interestingly deranged. One Englishman visiting Paris experienced him when he had the monological bit between his (inadequate) teeth and wrote of him ‘frequently degenerating into violence or rising into the ostentation of positive insanity’. Robb provides plenty of evidence of mania, if none quite of ‘positive insanity’. Mania showed itself most consistently perhaps in the way in which he bespoke the future, on the understanding that it could but deliver what he asked of it. His books were invariably finished in his own mind before he had begun to write them, as the publishers to whom they were promised learnt to their anguish and their cost. When he arrived for a read-through of one of his plays with only four of the five acts written, he triumphantly extemporised the fifth act while pretending to be reading it – and was then told it was the only good one. It was enough for Balzac that it should exist in the omnipotent brain that he once claimed was his qualification for being ranked as the equal of Napoleon, for having ‘carried within it an entire society’.
Money, too, was more often in his head than in his purse. He could never get clear of the serious debts he had run up in his twenties, when he failed as an entrepreneur. He longed, he said, to be free of them, to be released from having to write at the life-threatening tempo he did. In fact, to be in perpetual hock was exactly what Balzac required, because it meant that the supreme Law of Contraries was at work in his own affairs. ‘I shall be rich in 1836 – 1835 is still full of secret poverty (misères) though bursting with outward luxury,’ he wrote to one of his women friends in the year in question. Luxury on the outside, poverty within: the contrast is the same, almost word for word, as that which he later put into the title of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. And it is there again in the full title of César Birotteau, which is ‘The Greatness and Decline of César Birotteau’ – the admirable new Penguin translation sells Balzac short by reducing this to the name of the hero only. In the story itself the imperially named parfumier César Birotteau is introduced at the moment when his fortunes turn, and greatness reverses into rapid decline. He has overreached himself and has now to be seen to fall from grace. But the Law of Contraries being what it is, his young protégé Popinot will be enabled correspondingly to rise, to preserve the vital equilibrium of forces in Balzac’s total society.
Birotteau is punished for being lured into property speculation by one of Balzac’s vicious young commercial bandits. But he is at the same time a rare representative of financial probity in the Comédie Humaine and does an unheard-of thing: he pays off his creditors, so earning himself the congratulations and a cash sum from the (Bourbon) King of France. Was this another of Balzac’s dreams for himself, of a debt-ridden legitimist being graciously bailed out at the last by his monarch? In fact, his debts were eventually settled by the rich widow Hanska, by now the owner of a large estate in the Ukraine (near Chernobyl), who married Balzac some 17 years after their first meeting and only months before he died. The Comédie Humaine had already come to a stop, almost a hundred titles strong though still many volumes short of what Balzac had intended for it, supposing any intention of his could ever have been final. He died to mixed notices, honoured by many but deplored by the prudish, who thought that his entire oeuvre reeked of immorality. His funeral procession to the Père Lachaise included, it’s good to know, a contingent of typesetters, grateful representatives of a trade on which in his lifetime the ever-outgoing Balzac had bestowed unprecedented amounts of work.