by W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
OF ALL the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world Balzac is to my mind the greatest. He had genius. There are writers who have achieved fame on the strength of one or two books; sometimes because from the mass they have written, only a fragment has proved of enduring value; sometimes because their inspiration, growing out of a singular experience or owing to a peculiarity of temper, only served for a production of little bulk. They say their say once for all, and if they write again, repeat themselves. Fertility is a merit in a writer and Balzac’s fertility was prodigious. His field was the whole life of his time, and his range as extensive as the frontiers of his country. His knowledge of men was vast, but in some directions less exact than in others, and he knew the middle class of society — doctors, lawyers, clerks and journalists, shopkeepers, village priests — better than he knew either the great world or the world of the city workers or the tillers of the soil. Like all novelists he wrote of the wicked more successfully than of the good. His observation was precise and minute. His invention was stupendous and the list of characters he created is staggering.
But I don’t believe he was a very interesting man. There were no great complications in his character, no puzzling contradictions and no intricate subtleties. He was in fact rather obvious. I am not sure even that he was very intelligent; his ideas were commonplace and superficial. But he had a power of creation that was extraordinary. He was like a force of nature, a tumultuous river, for instance, overflowing its banks and sweeping everything before it, or a hurricane blustering its wild way across quiet country places or through the streets of populous cities. As a painter of society his distinctive gift was not only to envisage men in their relations to one another — all novelists except the writers of adventure stories pure and simple do that — but also and especially in their relations to the world they live in.
Most novelists take a group of persons, sometimes no more than two or three, and treat them as though they lived under a glass ball. It often produces an effect of intensity, but at the same time, unfortunately, one of artificiality. People do not only live in their own lives, but in the lives of others: in their own they play leading parts, but in those of others sometimes important, but it may be also very small ones. You go to the barber’s to get your hair cut, it means nothing to you, but it may conceivably be a turning point in the barber’s life. By realizing all that this implies, Balzac was able to give a vivid and exciting impression of the multifariousness of life, its confusions and crosspurposes, and of the remoteness of the causes that result in significant effects. I think he was the first novelist to notice the importance of economics in everybody’s life. He would not have thought it enough to say that money is a root of all evil; he thought the desire for money, the appetite for money, was the mainspring of human action. Money and ever money is the obsession of character after character in his novels. Their aim is to live in luxury and splendor, to have fine houses, fine horses, fine women; and all means to get what they want are good so long as they succeed. It is a vulgar aim, but I don’t suppose it is less common in our day than it was in his.
If you had met Balzac in his early thirties when he was already successful, this is the man you would have seen; a little fellow, already on the fat side, with powerful shoulders and a massive chest, so that he would not have struck you as small, with a neck like a bull’s, its whiteness contrasting with the redness of his face, and red lips, very red, thick and smiling. His nose was square with wide nostrils, his brow noble; his hair, very thick and black, swept back on his skull like a lion’s mane. His brown eyes, flecked with gold, had a life, a light, a magnetism that were extraordinary; they obscured the fact that his features were irregular and common. His expression was jovial, frank, and good-natured. His vitality was abounding, so that you would have felt it exhilarating merely to be in his presence. Then you might have noticed the beauty of his hands. He was very proud of them. They were like a bishop’s, small, white and fleshy and the nails were rosy. If you had met him in the evening you would have found him dressed in a blue coat with gold buttons, black pants, a white vest, black silk openwork socks, patent-leather shoes, fine white linen, and yellow gloves. But if you ran across him in the daytime you would have been surprised to see him in a shabby old coat, his pants muddy, his shoes uncleaned, and in a shocking old hat.
His contemporaries are agreed that at this time he was naive, childish, and a good sort. George Sand has said that he was sincere to the point of modesty, boastful to the point of braggadocio, confident, expansive, very good and quite crazy, drunk on water, intemperate in work and sober in other passions, equally matter-of-fact and romantic, credulous and skeptical, puzzling and contrary.
THE novelist’s real name was Balssa, and his ancestors were farm laborers; but his father, a pettifogging attorney, having after the Revolution come up in the world, changed his name to Balzac. He married an heiress and Honoré, the eldest of his four children, was born in 1799 at Tours, where his father was administrator of the hospital. After some years at school, where he was bad and idle, he entered a lawyer’s office in Paris, whither his father had been moved; but when, three years later, after he had passed the necessary examinations, it was proposed that he should make the law his profession, Balzac rebelled. He wanted to be a writer. There were violent, family scenes. At last, notwithstanding the continued opposition of his mother, a severe, practical woman whom he never liked, his father yielded so far as to give him a chance. He was to live by himself with an allowance just large enough to provide a bare subsistence and try his luck.
The first thing he did was to write a tragedy on Cromwell. He read it to his assembled family. They agreed that it was worthless. It was then sent to a professor whose verdict was that the author should do whatever else he liked, but not write. Angry and discouraged, Balzac decided, since he could not be a tragic poet, to be a novelist and he wrote two or three novels inspired by Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, and Byron. But his family had come to the conclusion that the experience had failed and they ordered him to come home by the first stagecoach. Balzac the elder had retired and they were living not far from Paris in a village called Villeparisis.
A friend of his, a hack writer, came to see him there and urged him to write another novel. He set to work. So began a long series of potboilers which he wrote sometimes alone, sometimes in collaboration, under a number of pseudonyms. No one knows how many books he turned out between 1821 and 1825. Some authorities claim as many as fifty. They were for the most part historical, for then Walter Scott was at the height of his renown, and they were designed to cash in on his fantastic vogue. They were very bad, but they had their use in teaching Balzac the value of swift action to hold the reader’s attention and the value of dealing with the subjects that people regard as of primary importance: love, wealth, honor, and life. It may be that they taught him too, what his own proclivities must also have suggested to him, that to be read the author must concern himself with passion. Passion may be base, trivial, or unnatural, but if violent enough is not without some trace of grandeur.
While he was living at Villeparisis with his family, Balzac made the acquaintance of a neighbor, a Madame de Berny, the daughter of a German musician who had been in the service of Marie Antoinette. She was forty-five. Her husband was sickly and querulous. She had had eight children by him and one by a lover. She became Balzac’s friend, then his mistress, and remained his friend till her death fourteen years later. It was a strange relation. He loved her as a lover, but he transferred to her, besides, all the love he had never felt for his mother. She was not only a mistress, but a devoted friend whose advice, encouragement, help, and disinterested affection were always his for the asking.
But the affair gave rise to scandal in the village and Madame Balzac, as was natural, did not approve of her son’s entanglement with a woman old enough to be his mother. His books, moreover, brought in very little money and she was concerned about his future. A friend suggested that he should go into business, and the idea seems to have appealed to him. Madame de Berny put up fortyfive thousand francs, nine thousand dollars, which then represented three or four times that amount; and with a couple of partners he became a publisher, a printer, and a type founder. He was not a businessman. He was wildly extravagant. He charged up to the firm his personal expenditures with tailors, bootmakers, jewelers, and even laundrymen. At the end of three years the firm went into liquidation and his mother had to provide fifty thousand francs in order to pay his creditors. The disastrous experience, however, provided him with a lot of special information and a knowledge of practical life which were useful to him in the novels he afterwards wrote.
AFTER the crash Balzac went to stay with friends in Brittany and there got the material for a novel, Les Chouans, which was his first serious work and the first which he signed with his own name. He was thirty. From then on he wrote with frenzied industry till his death twenty-one years later. The number of books, long and short, that he wrote is astounding. Every year produced one or two long novels and a dozen novelettes and short stories. Besides this he wrote a number of plays, some of which were never accepted, and of those that were, all, with one exception, lamentably failed; and for a brief period he ran a paper which appeared twice a week and most of which he wrote himself.
He was a great note-taker. Wherever he went he look his notebook and when he happened upon something that might be useful to him, got an idea of his own or was taken with someone else’s, he jotted it down. When possible he visited the scene of his stories and sometimes took considerable journeys to see a street or a house that he wanted to describe. Like all novelists, I think, his characters were modeled on people he had known, but by the time he had exercised his imagination upon them they were to all intents and purposes creatures of his own imagination. He took a lot of trouble over their names, for he had the notion that the name should correspond with the character and look of the individual who bore it.
When at work he led a chaste and regular life. He went to bed soon after his evening meal and was wakened by his servant at one. He got up, put on his white robe, spotless, for he claimed that to write one should be clad in garments without stain, and then by candlelight, fortifying himself with cup after cup of black coffee, wrote with a quill from a raven’s wing. He stopped writing at seven, took a bath, and lay down. Between eight and nine his publisher came to bring him proofs or to get a piece of manuscript from him; then he set to work again till noon, when he ate boiled eggs, drank water, and had more coffee; he worked till six, when he had his light dinner, which he washed down with a little Vouvray. Sometimes a friend or two would come in, but after a little conversation he went to bed.
He was not a writer who knew what he wanted to say from the start. He began with a rough draft, which he rewrote and corrected, changing the order of chapters, cutting, adding, altering, and finally sent to the printers a manuscript which it was almost impossible to decipher. The proof was returned to him and this he treated as if it were only an outline of the projected work. He not only added words, he added sentences, not only sentences, but paragraphs, and not only paragraphs but chapters. When his proofs were set up once more with all the alterations and corrections and a fair set delivered to him, he went to work on them again and made more changes. Only after this would he consent to publication, and then only on condition that in a future edition he should be allowed to make further revisions and improvements. The expense of this resulted in constant quarrels with his publishers.
The story of his relations with editors and publishers is long, dull and sordid, and I will deal with it, as shortly as I can, only because it had an influence on his life and work. He was more than a trifle unscrupulous. He would get an advance on a book and guarantee to deliver it on a certain date and then, tempted by quick money, would discontinue it to give to another editor or publisher a novel or a story he had written posthaste. Actions were brought against him for breach of contract, and the costs and damages he had to pay greatly increased his already heavy debts. For no sooner did success come to him, bringing him contracts for books he was going to write (and sometimes never did), than he moved into a spacious apartment which he furnished at great expense and bought a cabriolet and a pair of horses. He conceived a passion for interior decoration, and the description of his various establishments is as magnificent as it is tasteless. He engaged a groom, a cook, and a manservant, bought clothes for himself and a livery for his groom, and quantities of plate which he had embossed with arms which did not belong to him. They were those of an old family of the name of Balzac and he assumed them when he added the de, the particule, to his own name to pretend that he was of noble birth.
To pay for all this grandeur he borrowed from his sister, his friends, his publishers, and signed bills that he kept on renewing. His debts continued to increase, but he continued to buy — porcelain, cabinets, pieces of buhl, pictures, statues, jewelry; he had his books bound gorgeously in morocco and one of his many canes was studded with turquoises. For one dinner he gave he had his dining-room refurnished and the decoration entirely changed. In passing I may remark that when alone he ate soberly, but in company his appetite was voracious. One of his publishers declares that at one meal he saw him eat a hundred oysters, twelve cutlets, a duck, a brace of partridges, a sole, a number of desserts, and a dozen pears. It is not surprising that in time he grew very fat and his belly enormous.
At intervals, when his creditors were more than usually pressing, many of these possessions had to be pawned; now and then the brokers came in, seized his furniture and sold it by public auction. Nothing could cure him. To the end of his life he continued to buy with senseless extravagance. He was a shameless borrower, but so great was the admiration his genius excited, he seldom exhausted the generosity of his friends. Women are not as a rule willing lenders, but Balzac apparently found them easy. He was totally lacking in delicacy and there is no sign that he had any qualms about taking money from them.
IT will be remembered that his mother had cut into her small fortune to save him from bankruptcy; she had dowered her two daughters, and the time came when the only property she had left was a house she rented. At last she found herself so desperately in need that she wrote a letter to her son which Andre Billy has quoted in his Vie de Balzac and which I shall translate: —
“The last letter I had from you was in November 1834. In it you agreed to give me, from April 1st 1835, two hundred francs every quarter to help me with my rent and my maid. You understood that I could not live as became my poverty; you had made your name too conspicuous and your luxury too evident for the difference in our positions not to be shocking. Such a promise as you made was for you, I think, an admitted debt. It is now April 1837, which means that you owe me for two years. Of these 1600 francs you gave me last December 500 francs as though they were a charity ungraciously bestowed. Honoré, for two years my life has been a constant nightmare, my expenses have been enormous. You weren’t able to help me, I don’t doubt it, but the result is that the sums I’ve borrowed on my house have diminished its value and now I can raise no more, and everything of value I had is in pawn; and that I’ve at last come to the moment when I have to say to you: ‘Bread, my son.’ For several weeks I’ve been eating that which was given me by my good son-in-law; but, Honoré, it can’t go on like that: seeing that you have the means to make long and costly journeys of all sorts, costly in money and in reputation — for yours will be cruelly compromised when you come back because of the contracts you have failed to keep — when I think of all this my heart breaks! My son, as you’ve been able to afford yourself . . . mistresses, mounted canes, rings, silver, furniture, your mother may also without indiscretion ask you to carry out your promise. She has waited to do so till the last moment, but it has come. . . .”
To this letter he answered: “I think you’d better come to Paris and have an hour’s talk with me.”
What are we to say to this? His biographer says that since genius has its rights, the morality of Balzac should not be judged by ordinary standards. That is a matter of opinion. I think it is better to acknowledge that he was grossly selfish, very unscrupulous, and none too honest. The best excuse one can make for his financial shiftiness is that with his buoyant, optimistic temper he was always firmly convinced that he was going to make vast sums out of his writings (for the time he made a great deal) and fabulous amounts out of the speculations which one after another tempted his ardent imagination. Whenever, however, he actually engaged in one the result was to leave him still more heavily in debt. He could never have been the writer he was if he had been sober, practical, and thrifty. He was a show-off; he adored luxury and he could not help spending money. He worked like a dog to fulfill his obligations, but unfortunately, before ever he paid off his more pressing debts, he had contracted new ones.
There is one curious fact worth noticing. It was only under the pressure of debt that he could bring himself to write. Then he would work till he was pale and worn-out, and in these circumstances he wrote some of his best novels; but when by some miracle he was not in harrowing straits, when the brokers left him in peace, when editors and publishers were not bringing actions, his invention seemed to fail him and he could not bring himself to put pen to paper.
BALZAC’S literary success brought him, as success does, many new friends; and his immense vitality, his radiant good humor, made him a welcome guest in all but the most exclusive salons. One great lady to be attracted by his celebrity was the Marquise de Castries, the daughter of one duke and the niece of another who was a direct descendant of an English king. She wrote to him under an assumed name, he answered, and she wrote again disclosing her identity. He went to see her; they grew intimale and presently he went to see her every day. She was pale, blonde, and flowerlike. He fell in love with her, but though she allowed him to kiss her aristocratic hands she resisted his further advances. He scented himself, he put on new yellow gloves every day; it availed him nothing. He grew impatient and irritable and began to suspect she was playing with him. The fact is plain that she wanted an admirer and not a lover. It was doubtless flattering to have a clever young man, already famous, at her feet, but she had no intention of becoming his mistress.
The crisis came at Geneva, where, with her uncle the Duke of Fitz-James as a chaperon, they were staying on their way to Italy. No one knows exactly what happened. Balzac and the Marquise went for an excursion and he came back in tears.
It may be supposed that he made summary demands on her which she rejected in a manner that deeply mortified him. Pained and angry, feeling himself abominably used, he went back to Paris. But he was not a novelist for nothing: every experience, even the most humiliating, was grist to his mill, and the Marquise de Castries was to serve in future as a model for the heartless flirt of high rank.
While still laying fruitless siege to the great lady, Balzac had received a fan letter from Odessa signed L’Etrangère. A second, similarly signed, arrived after the break. He put an advertisement in the only French paper allowed to enter Russia: “M. de B has received the communication sent to him; he has only this day been able by this paper to acknowledge it and regrets that he does not know where to send his reply.” The writer was Evelina Hanska, a Polish lady of noble birth and immense wealth. She was thirty-two, and married, but her husband was much older. She had had five children, but only one, a girl, was living. She saw Balzac’s advertisement and so arranged that she might receive his letters if he wrote to her in care of a bookseller at Odessa. A correspondence ensued.
Thus began the great passion of Balzac’s life.
The letters the pair exchanged grew more intimate. In the rather exaggerated manner of the time, Balzac laid bare his heart in such a way as to arouse the lady’s pity and sympathy. She was romantic and bored with the monotony of domestic life in the great château in the Ukraine in the middle of fifty thousand acres of flat land. She admired the author, she was interested in the man. When they had been exchanging letters for a couple of years Madame Hanska with her husband, who was in bad health, her daughter, a governess, and a retinue of servants went to Neuchâtel in Switzerland; and there on her invitation Balzac went too. There is a romantic account of how they met. He was walking in the public gardens when he saw a lady sitting on a bench reading a book. She dropped her handkerchief, and on picking it up he noticed that the book was one of his. He spoke. It was the woman he had come to see.
At this time she was a handsome creature, of somewhat opulent charms; her eyes were fine, though with ever so slight a cast, her hair was beautiful and her mouth lovely. She may have been a trifle taken aback at the first sight of the fat, red-faced man, like a butcher in appearance, who had written her such lyrical and passionate letters, but if she was, the brilliance of his goldflecked eyes, his abounding vitality, made her forget it and in no long time he became her lover. After some weeks he was obliged to go back to Paris and they parted with the arrangement that they should meet again early in the winter at Geneva. He arrived for Christmas and spent another six weeks there during which he wrote La Duchesse de Langeais, in which he revenged himself on Madame de Castries for the affront she had made him suffer.
On his return to Paris he met a Countess Guidoboni-Visconti. She was an ash-blonde, but voluptuous, an Englishwoman, notoriously unfaithful to an easygoing husband, and Balzac was immediately fascinated by her. She was more than kind. But the romantics of those days conducted their love affairs as it were on the front page of a tabloid, and before long Madame Hanska, then in Vienna, heard of Balzac’s new infatuation. She wrote a letter to him, full of bitter reproaches, in which she announced that she was about to go back to the Ukraine. It was a shock. He had been counting upon marrying her on the death of her husband and being put in possession of her vast fortune. He borrowed two thousand francs and hurried off to Vienna to make his peace. He traveled as the Marquis de Balzac, with his bogus coat of arms on his luggage; and a valet; this added to the expense of the journey since it was beneath his dignity to haggle and he had to give tips suitable to the rank he had assumed. He arrived penniless. Madame Hanska heaped more reproached on him and he had to lie his head off to allay her suspicions. Three weeks later she left for the Ukraine and they did not meet again for eight years.
BALZAC went back to Paris and immediately resumed his relations with the Countess Guidoboni. For her sake he indulged in extravagance wilder than ever. He was arrested for debt and she paid the sum necessary, a considerable one, to save him from going to prison. From then on, from time to time, she came to the rescue when his financial situation was desperate. In 1836, to his great grief, Madame de Berny, his first mistress, died, and he said of her that she was the only woman he had ever loved: others have said that she was the only woman who had ever loved him. In the same year the blonde Countess informed him that she was with child by him. When it was born, her husband, a tolerant man, remarked: “Well, I knew that Madame wanted a dark child. So she’s got what she wanted.”
In passing it may be mentioned that in the course of his amorous career the great novelist had by different mistresses one boy and three girls. He seems to have taken singularly little interest in them. Of his other affairs I will only mention one, with a widow called Hélène de Valette, because it began as had those with the Marquise de Castries and Madame Hanska by a fan letter. It is odd that three of his five chief love affairs should have started in this way. It may be that that is why they were unsatisfactory. When a woman is attracted to a man by his fame she is too much concerned with the credit she may get through the connection with him to be capable of that blessed something of disinterestedness that genuine love evokes. She is a thwarted exhibitionist who snatches at a chance to gratify her instinct. The affair with Hélène de Valette did not last long and seems to have come to an end in a dispute over ten thousand francs Balzac had borrowed from her.
At last the moment he had been so long awaiting arrived. Monsieur Hanska died in 1842. At last Balzac’s dreams were to come true. At last he was going to be rich. At last he was going to be free of his petty, bourgeois debts. But the letter in which Evelina told him of the death of her husband was followed by another in which she told him that she would not marry him. She could not forgive him his infidelities, his extravagance, his debts. He was reduced to despair. She had told him in Vienna that she did not expect him to be physically faithful so long as she had his heart. Well, that she had always had. He was outraged by her injustice. He came to the conclusion that he could only win her back by seeing her, and so, after a good deal of correspondence, notwithstanding her reluctance, he made the journey to St. Petersburg, where she was then living. He was forty-three and she was fortytwo. They were fat and middle-aged. His calculations were correct. It looks as though when with him she could refuse him nothing. They became lovers again and again she promised to marry him.
It was seven years before she kept her promise. The biographers have been puzzled to know why she hesitated so long, but surely the reasons are not far to seek. She was a great lady, proud of her noble lineage; it is likely enough that she saw a big difference between being the mistress of a celebrated author and the wife of a vulgar upstart. Her family must have done all they could to persuade her not to contract such an unsuitable alliance. She had a marriageable daughter whom it was her duty to settle in accordance with her rank and circumstances. Balzac was a notorious spendthrift; she may well have feared that he would play ducks and drakes with her fortune. He was always wanting money from her. He did not dip into her purse, he plunged both hands in it. She was rich and herself extravagant, but it is very different to fling your money about for your own pleasure and to have someone else fling it about for his.
The strange thing is not that Evelina Hanska waited so long to marry Balzac, but that she married him at all. During those seven years they saw one another from time to time and as a result of one of these meetings she became pregnant. Balzac was enchanted. He thought he had won at last and begged her to marry him at once; but she, unwilling to have her hand forced, wrote to tell him that after her confinement she intended to go back to the Ukraine to economize and would marry him later. The child was born dead. This was in 1845 or 1846.
She married him in 1850. Balzac had spent the winter with her in the Ukraine and the ceremony took place there.
Why did she finally consent? His prolonged and arduous labor had at length shattered his vigorous constitution, and his health for some time had been failing. During the winter he was very ill, and though he recovered it was evident that he had not long to live. Perhaps she was moved to pity for a dying man who notwithstanding his infidelities had loved her so long and constantly; perhaps her confessor, for she was a devout woman, urged her to regularize her unconventional situation. Anyhow she married him and they went back to Paris, where on her money he had bought and expensively furnished a large house. But she was no longer a rich woman. She had dispossessed herself of her vast possessions in favor of her daughter and retained only a moderate annuity. If Balzac was disappointed he made no sign of it.
It is lamentable to have to relate that after all this eager waiting, when at last his hopes wore realized, the marriage was not a success. Evelina made him unhappy. He fell ill again and this time he did not recover. He died on August 17, 1850. Evelina was heartbroken and in a letter to a friend wrote that now she desired nothing but to rejoin her husband in the world beyond; she consoled herself, however, sufficiently to take as her lover a painter called Jean Gigoux and nicknamed Pou-Gris (Gray Louse) on account of his ugliness. He does not appear to have been a good painter.
IT IS not easy out of Balzac’s immense production to choose the novel that best represents him. In almost all there are at least two or three characters that, because they are obsessed by a simple, primitive passion, stand out with unforgettable force. It was in the depiction of just such characters that his strength lay; when he had to deal with a character of any complexity he was less happy. In almost all his novels there are scenes of great power and in several an absorbing story. I have chosen Le Père Goriot for several reasons. The story it tells is continuously interesting. In some of his novels Balzac interrupts his narrative to discourse upon all kinds of irrelevant matters, but from this defect Le Pere Goriot is on the whole free. He lets his characters explain themselves by their words and actions as objectively as it was in his nature to do. Le Père Goriot is well constructed and the two threads, the old man’s self-sacrificing love for his ungrateful daughters, the ambitious Rastignac’s first steps in the crowded, corrupt Paris of his day, are plausibly interwoven.
Le Père Goriot is interesting also because it was in this novel that Balzac first systematically applied the notion of bringing the same characters into novel after novel. The difficulty is that you must create characters who interest you so much that you want to know what happens to them as their lives go on. Balzac here triumphantly succeeds and, speaking for myself, I read with added enjoyment the novels in which I learn what has become of certain persons, Rastignac for instance, whose future I have been eager to know about.
The device is useful because it is an economy of invention, but I don’t believe Balzac, with his inexhaustible fertility, resorted to it on that account. I think he felt it added reality to his narrative, for in the ordinary course of events we do have repeated contacts with a fair proportion of the same people; but more than that, 1 think his main object was to knit his whole work together in a comprehensive unity. His aim was not to depict a group, a set, a class, or even a society, but a period and a civilization. He suffered from the delusion, too common to his countrymen, that France, whatever disasters had befallen it, was the center of the universe; but perhaps it was just on that account that he had the self-assurance to create a world, multicolored, various, and profuse, and the power to give it the convincing throb of life.
But this concerns The Human Comedy as a whole. Here I am concerned only with Le Père Goriot. I believe Balzac to have been the first novelist to use a boardinghouse as the setting for a story. It has been used since many times, for it is a convenient way of enabling the author to present together a variety of characters in various predicaments, but I don’t know that it has ever been used as in Le Père Goriot.
Balzac started his novels slowly. His method was to begin with a detailed description of the scene of action. He apparently took so much pleasure in these descriptions that he often tells you more than you want to know. He never learned the art of saying only what has to be said and not saying what needn’t be said. Then he tells you what his characters look like, what their dispositions are, their origins, their habits, their ideas, their defects; and only after this, sets out to tell his story. His characters are seen through his own exuberant temperament and their reality is not quite that of real life; they are painted in primary colors, vivid and sometimes garish, and they are more exciting than ordinary people; but they live and breathe; and you believe in them, I think, because Balzac so intensely believed in them himself. In several of his novels a clever, honest doctor called Bianchon appears; when Balzac was dying he said: “Send for Bianchon. Bianchon will save me.”
Le Père Goriot is noteworthy also because in it we meet for the first time one of the most thrilling characters Balzac ever created: Vautrin. The type has been reproduced a thousand times but never with such striking and picturesque force, not with such convincing realism. Vautrin has a good brain, will power, and immense vitality. It is worth the reader’s while to notice how skillfully Balzac, without giving away a secret he wanted to keep till the end of the book, has managed to suggest that there is something sinister in the man. He is jovial, generous, and good-natured; he is strong, uncommonly clever, self-possessed; you not only admire him, you sympathize with him, and yet he is strangely frightening. You are fascinated by him, as was Rastignac, the ambitious, well-born young man who comes to Paris to make his way in the world; but you feel the same instinctive uneasiness as Rastignac felt. Vautrin may be a figure of melodrama, but he is a great creation.
It is generally agreed that Balzac wrote badly. He was a vulgar man (but was not his vulgarity an integral part of his genius?) and his prose was vulgar. It was prolix, pretentious, and too often incorrect. Émile Faguet, a very distinguished critic, in his book on Balzac has given a whole chapter to the faults of taste, style, syntax and language of which the author was guilty. And indeed some of them are so gross that it needs no profound knowledge of French to perceive them. They are frankly shocking. Now it is admitted that Charles Dickens wrote English none too well and I have been told by cultivated Russians that Tolstoi and Dostoevski wrote Russian very indifferently. It is odd that the four greatest novelists the world has known should have written their respective languages so ill. It looks as though to write well were not the essential part of the novelist’s equipment; but that vigor and vitality, imagination, creative force, observation, knowledge of human nature, with an interest in it and sympathy with it are more important. All the same it is better to write well than badly.
(The next novel to be discussed by Mr. Maugham will be Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.)