A Passion for Pears

John Sturrock

  • Balzac by Graham Robb
    Picador, 521 pp, £20.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 330 33237 6
  • Honoré de Balzac by Roger Pierrot
    Fayard, 582 pp, frs 180.00, March 1994, ISBN 2 213 59228 4
  • César Birotteau by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Robin Buss
    Penguin, 279 pp, £6.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 14 044641 9

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.

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