by Wilkie Collins
PORTRAIT OF AN AUTHOR, PAINTED BY HIS PUBLISHER.
THE Author was born a Frenchman, and died in the year 1850. Over the whole continent of Europe, wherever the literature of France has penetrated, his readers are numbered by tens of thousands. Women of all ranks and orders have singled him out, long since, as the marked man, among modern writers of fiction, who most profoundly knows and most subtly appreciates their sex in its strength and in its weakness. Men whose critical judgment is widely and worthily respected have declared that he is the deepest and truest observer of human nature whom France has produced since the time of Molière. Unquestionably he ranks as one of the few great geniuses who appear by ones and twos, in century after century of authorship, and who leave their mark ineffaceably on the literature of their age. And yet, in spite of this widely-extended continental fame, and this indisputable right and title to enjoy it, there is probably no civilized country in the Old World in which he is so little known as in England. Among all the readers--a large class in these islands--who are, from various causes, unaccustomed to study French literature in its native language, there are probably very many who have never even heard of the name of HONORÉ DE BALZAC.
Unaccountable as it may appear at first sight, the reason why the illustrious author of "Eugenie Grandet," "Le Père Goriot," and "La Recherche de l'Absolu" happens to be so little known to the general public of England is, on the surface of it, easy enough to discover. Balzac is little known, because he has been little translated. An English version of "Eugenie Grandet" was advertised lately as one of a cheap series of novels. And the present writer has some indistinct recollection of meeting, many years since, with a translation of "La Peau de Chagrin." But so far as he knows, excepting the instances of these two books, not one other work out of the whole number of ninety-seven fictions, long and short, which proceeded from the same fertile pen, has been offered to our own readers in our own language. Immense help has been given in this country to the reputations of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Eugène Sue; no help whatever, or next to none, has been given to Balzac, although he is regarded in France (and rightly regarded, in some respects) as a writer of fiction superior to all three.
Many causes, too numerous to be elaborately traced within the compass of a single article, have probably contributed to produce this singular instance of literary neglect. It is not to be denied, for example, that serious difficulties stand in the way of translating Balzac, which are caused by his own peculiarities of style and treatment. His French is not the clear, graceful, neatly-turned French of Voltaire and Rousseau. It is a strong, harsh, solidly vigorous language of his own; now flashing into the most exquisite felicities of expression, and now again involved in an obscurity which only the closest attention can hope to penetrate. A special man, not hurried for time, and not easily brought to the end of his patience, might give the English equivalent of Balzac with admirable effect. But ordinary translating of him by average workmen would only lead, through the means of feeble parody, to the result of utter failure.*
* This sentence has unfortunately proved prophetic. Cheap translations of "Le Père Goriot" and "Le Recherche de l'Absolu" were published soon after the present article appeared in print, with extracts from the opinions here expressed on Balzac's writings appended by way of advertisement. Critical remonstrance in relation to such productions as these would be remonstrance thrown away. It will be enough to say here, by way of warning to the reader, that the experiment of rendering the French of Balzac into its fair English equivalent still remains to be tried.
The difficulties, again, caused by his style of treatment are not to be lightly estimated, in considering the question of presenting this author to our own general public. The peculiarity of Balzac's literary execution is, that he never compromises the subtleties and delicacies of Art for any consideration of temporary effect. The framework in which his idea is set is always wrought with a loving minuteness which leaves nothing out. Everything which in this writer's mind can even remotely illustrate the characters that he depicts, must be elaborately conveyed to the minds of his readers before the characters themselves start into action. This quality of minute finish, of reiterated refining, which is one of Balzac's great merits, so far as foreign audiences are concerned, is another of the hinderances, so far as an English audience is concerned, in the way of translating him.
Allowing all due weight to the force of these obstacles; and further admitting that Balzac lays himself open to grave objection (on the part of that unhappily large section of the English public which obstinately protests against the truth wherever the truth is painful) as a writer who sternly insists on presenting the dreary aspects of human life, literally, exactly, nakedly, as he finds them--making these allowances, and many more if more be needful--it is still impossible not to regret, for the sake of readers themselves, that worthy English versions of the best works of this great writer are not added to the national library of translated literature. Toward the latter part of his career, Balzac's own taste in selection of subject seems to have become vitiated. His later novels, consummately excellent as some of them were in a literary sense, are assuredly, in a moral sense, not to be defended against the grave accusation of being needlessly and even horribly repulsive. But no objections of this sort apply to the majority of the works which he produced when he was in the prime of his life and his faculties. The conception of the character of "Eugenie Grandet" is one of the purest, tenderest, and most beautiful things in the whole range of fiction, and the execution of it is even worthy of the idea. If the translation already accomplished of this book be only creditably executed, it may be left to speak for itself. But there are other fictions of the writer which deserve the same privilege, and which have not yet obtained it. "La Recherche de l'Absolu"--a family picture which, for truth, delicacy, and pathos, has been surpassed by no novelist of any nation or any time; a literary achievement in which a new and an imperishable character (the exquisitely beautiful character of the wife) has been added to the great gallery of fiction--remains still unknown to the general public of England. "Le Père Goriot"--which, though it unveils some of the hidden corruptions of Parisian life, unveils them nobly in the interests of that highest morality belonging to no one nation and no one sect--"Le Père Goriot," which stands first and foremost among all the writer's works, which has drawn the tears of thousands from the purest sources, has its appeal still left to make to the sympathies of English readers. Other shorter stories, scattered about the "Scenes de la Vie Privee," the "Scenes de la Vie de Province," and the "Scenes de la Vie Parisienne," are as completely unknown to a certain circle of readers in this country, and as unquestionably deserve careful and competent translation, as the longer and more elaborate productions of Balzac's inexhaustible pen. Reckoning these shorter stories, there are at least a dozen of his highest achievements in fiction which might be safely rendered into English; which might form a series by themselves; and which no sensible Englishwoman could read and be, either intellectually or morally, the worse for them.
Thus much, in the way of necessary preliminary comment on the works of this author, and on their present position in reference to the English public. Readers who may be sufficiently interested in the subject to desire to know something next about the man himself may now derive this information from a singular, and even from a unique source. The Life of Balzac has been lately written by his publisher, of all the people in the world! This is a phenomenon in itself; and the oddity of it is still further increased by the fact that the publisher was brought to the brink of ruin by the author, that he mentions this circumstance in writing his life, and that it does not detract one iota from his evidently sincere admiration for the great man with whom he was once so disastrously connected in business. Here is surely an original book, in an age when originality grows harder and harder to meet with--a book containing disclosures which will perplex and dismay every admirer of Balzac who cannot separate the man from his works--a book which presents one of the most singular records of human eccentricity, so far as the hero of it is concerned, and of human credulity so far as the biographer is concerned, which has probably ever been published for the amusement and bewilderment of the reading world.
The title of this singular work is, "Portrait Intime De Balzac; sa Vie, son Humeur et son Caractere. Par Edmond Werdet, son ancien Libraire-Editeur." Before, however, we allow Monsieur Werdet to relate his own personal experience of the celebrated writer, it will be advisable to introduce the subject by giving an outline of the struggles, the privations, and the disappointments which marked the early life of Balzac, and which, doubtless, influenced his after-character for the worse. These particulars are given by Monsieur Werdet in the form of an episode, and are principally derived, on his part, from information afforded by the author's sister.
Honoré de Balzac was born in the city of Tours, on the sixteenth of May, seventeen hundred and ninety-nine. His parents were people of rank and position in the world. His father held a legal appointment in the council-chamber of Louis XVI. His mother was the daughter of one of the directors of the public hospital of Paris. She was much younger than her husband, and brought him a rich dowry. Honoré was her first-born; and he retained throughout life his first feeling of childish reverence for his mother. That mother suffered the unspeakable affliction of seeing her illustrious son taken from her by death at the age of fifty years. Balzac breathed his last in the kind arms which had first caressed him on the day of his birth.
His father, from whom he evidently inherited much of the eccentricity of his character, is described as a compound of Montaigne, Rabelais, and Uncle Toby--a man in manners, conversation, and disposition generally, of the quaintly original sort. On the breaking out of the Revolution, he lost his court situation, and obtained a place in the commissariat department of the Army of the North. This appointment he held for some years. It was of the greater importance to him, in consequence of the change for the worse produced in the pecuniary circumstances of the family by the convulsion of the Revolution.
At the age of seven years, Balzac was sent to the College of Vendome; and for seven years more there he remained. This period of his life was never a pleasant one in his remembrance. The reduced circumstances of his family exposed him to much sordid persecution and ridicule from the other boys, and he got on but little better with the masters. They reported him as idle and incapable--or, in other words, as ready enough to devour all sorts of books on his own desultory plan, but hopelessly obstinate in resisting the educational discipline of the school. This time of his life he has reproduced in one of the strangest and the most mystical of all his novels, "La Vie Intellectuellede Louis Lambert."
On reaching the critical age of fourteen, his intellect appears to have suffered under a species of eclipse, which occurred very suddenly and mysteriously, and the cause of which neither his masters nor the medical men were able to explain. He himself always declared in after-life, with a touch of his father's quaintness, that his brain had been attacked by "a congestion of ideas." Whatever the cause might be, the effect was so serious that the progress of his education had to be stopped, and his removal from the college followed as a matter of course. Time, care, quiet, and breathing his native air, gradually restored him to himself, and he was ultimately enabled to complete his studies at two private schools. Here again, however, he did nothing to distinguish himself among his fellow-pupils. He read incessantly, and preserved the fruits of his reading with marvelous power of memory; but the school-teaching, which did well enough for ordinary boys, was exactly the species of teaching from which the essentially original mind of Balzac recoiled in disgust. All that he felt and did at this period has been carefully reproduced by his own pen in the earlier pages of "Le Lys dans la Vallee."
Badly as he got on at school, he managed to imbibe a sufficient quantity of conventional learning to entitle him, at the age of eighteen, to his degree of Bachelor of Arts. He was destined for the law; and after attending the legal lectures in the various Institutions of Paris, he passed his examination by the time he was twenty, and then entered a notary's office in the capacity of clerk. There were two other clerks to keep him company, who hated the drudgery of the law as heartily as he hated it himself. One of them was the future author of "The Mysteries of Paris," Eugène Sue; the other was the famous critic, Jules Janin.
After he had been engaged in this office and in another for more than three years, a legal friend, who was under great obligations to Balzac the father, offered to give up his business as a notary to Balzac the son. To the great scandal of the family, Honoré resolutely refused the offer--for the one sufficient reason that he had determined to be the greatest writer in France. His relations began by laughing at him, and ended by growing angry with him. But nothing moved Honoré. His vanity was of the calm, settled sort; and his own conviction that his business in life was simply to be a famous man, proved too strong to be shaken by anybody.
While he and his family were at war on this point, a change for the worse occurred in the elder Balzac's official circumstances. He was superannuated. The diminution of income thus produced was followed by a pecuniary catastrophe. He had embarked almost the whole of his own little remaining property and his wife's in two speculations, and they both failed. No resource was now left him but to retire to a small country house in the neighborhood of Paris, which he had purchased in his prosperous days, and to live there as well as might be on the wreck of his lost fortune. Honoré, sticking fast to the hopeless business of becoming a great man, was, by his own desire, left alone in a Paris garret, with an allowance of five pounds English a month, which was all the kind father could spare to feed, clothe, and lodge the wrong-headed son.
And now, without a literary friend to help him in all Paris; alone in his wretched attic, with his deal table and his truckle-bed, his dog-eared books, his bescrawled papers, his wild vanity, and his ravenous hunger for fame, Balzac stripped resolutely for the great fight. He was then twenty-three years old--a sturdy fellow to look at, with a big, jovial face, and a strong, square forehead topped by a very untidy and superfluous allowance of long, tangled hair. His only difficulty at starting was what to begin upon. After consuming many lonely months in sketching out comedies, operas, and novels, he finally obeyed the one disastrous rule which seems to admit of no exception in the early lives of men of letters, and fixed the whole bent of his industry and his genius on the production of a tragedy. After infinite pains and long labor, the great work was completed. The subject was Cromwell; and the treatment, in Balzac's hands, appears to have been so inconceivably bad, that even his own family--to say nothing of other judicious friends --told him in the plainest terms, when he read it to them, that he had perpetrated a signal failure. Modest men might have been discouraged by this. Balzac took his manuscript back to his garret, standing higher in his own estimation than ever. "I will give up being a great dramatist," he told his parents at parting, "and I will be a great novelist instead." The vanity of the man expressed itself with this sublime disregard of ridicule all through his life. It was a precious quality to him--it is surely (however unquestionably offensive it may be to our friends) a precious quality to all of us. What man ever yet did anything great without beginning with a profound belief in his own untried powers?
Confident as ever, therefore, in his own resources, Balzac now took up the pen once more--this time in the character of a novelist. But another and a serious check awaited him at the outset. Fifteen months of solitude, privation, and reckless hard writing--months which are recorded in the pages of "La Peau de Chagrin" with a fearful and pathetic truth, drawn straight from the bitterest of all experiences, the experience of studious poverty--had reduced him to a condition of bodily weakness which made all present exertion of his mental powers simply hopeless, and which obliged him to take refuge--a worn-out, wasted man, in his twenty-fifth year, in his father's quiet little country house. Here, under his mother's care, his exhausted energies slowly revived; and here, in the first days of his convalescence, he returned, with the grim resolution of despair, to working out the old dream in the garret, to resuming the old hopeless business of making himself a great man.
It was under his father's roof, during the time of his slow recovery, that the youthful fictions of Balzac were produced. The strength of his belief in his own resources and his own future gave him also the strength, in relation to these first efforts, to rise above his own vanity, and to see plainly that he had not yet learned to do himself full justice. His early novels bore on their title pages a variety of feigned names; for the starving, struggling author was too proud to acknowledge them, so long as they failed to satisfy his own conception of what his own powers could accomplish. These first efforts--now included in the Belgian editions of his collected works, and comprising among them two stories, "Jane la Pâle" and "Le Vicaire des Ardennes," which show unquestionable dawnings of the genius of a great writer--were originally published by the lower and more rapacious order of booksellers, and did as little toward increasing his means as toward establishing his reputation. Still, he forced his way slowly and resolutely through poverty, obscurity, and disappointment, nearer and nearer to the promised land which no eye saw but his own--a greater man, by far, at this hard period of his adversity than at the more trying after-time of his prosperity and his fame. One by one the heavy years rolled on, till he was a man of thirty; and then the great prize which he had so long toiled for dropped within his reach at last. In the year eighteen hundred and twenty-nine, the famous "Physiologie du Mariage" was published; and the starveling of the Paris garret became a name and a power in French literature.
In England this book would have been universally condemned as an unpardonable exposure of the most sacred secrets of domestic life. It unveils the whole social side of Marriage in its innermost recesses, and exhibits it alternately in its bright and dark aspects with a marvelous minuteness of observation, a profound knowledge of human nature, and a daring eccentricity of style and arrangement which amply justify the extraordinary success of the book on its first appearance in France. It may be more than questionable, judging from the English point of view, whether such a subject should ever have been selected for any other than the most serious, reverent, and forbearing treatment. Setting this objection aside, however, in consideration of the French point of view, it cannot be denied that the merits of the "Physiology of Marriage," as a piece of writing, were by no means overestimated by the public to which it was addressed. In a literary sense, the book would have done credit to a man in the maturity of his powers. As the work of a man whose intellectual life was only beginning, it was such an achievement as is not often recorded in the history of modern literature.
This first triumph of the future novelist--obtained, curiously enough, by a book which was not a novel--failed to smooth the way onward and upward for Balzac as speedily and pleasantly as might have been supposed. He had another stumble on that hard road of his before he fairly started on the career of success. Soon after the publication of "The Physiology of Marriage" an unlucky idea of strengthening his resources by trading in literature, as well as by writing books, seems to have occurred to him. He tried bookselling and printing; proved himself to be, in both cases, probably the very worst man of business who ever lived and breathed in this world; failed in the most hopeless way, with the most extraordinary rapidity; and so learned at last, by the cruel teaching of experience, that his one fair chance of getting money lay in sticking fast to his pen for the rest of his days. In the next ten years of his life that pen produced the noble series of fictions which influenced French literature far and wide, and which will last in public remembrance long after the miserable errors and inconsistencies of the writer's personal character are forgotten. This was the period when Balzac was in the full enjoyment of his matured intellectual powers and his enviable public celebrity; and this was also the golden time when his publisher and biographer first became acquainted with him. Now, therefore, Monsieur Werdet may be encouraged to come forward and take the post of honor as narrator of the strange story that is still to be told; for now he is placed in the fit position to address himself intelligibly, as well as amusingly, to an English audience.
The story opens with the starting of Monsieur Werdet as a publisher in Paris on his own account. The modest capital at his command amounted to just one hundred and twenty pounds English; and his leading idea, on beginning business, was to become the publisher of Balzac.
He had already entered into transactions on a large scale with his favorite author, in the character of agent for a publishing house of high standing. He had been very well received, on that first occasion, as a man representing undeniable capital and a great commercial position. On the second occasion, however, of his representing nobody but himself, and nothing but the smallest of existing capitals, he very wisely secured the protection of an intimate friend of Balzac's, to introduce him as favorably as might be for the second time. Accompanied by this gentleman, whose name was Monsieur Barbier, and carrying his capital in his pocketbook, the embryo publisher nervously presented himself in the sanctum sanctorum of the great man.
Monsieur Barbier having carefully explained the business on which they came, Balzac addressed himself, with an indescribable suavity and grandeur of manner, to anxious Monsieur Werdet.
"Just so," said the eminent man. "You are doubtless possessed, sir, of considerable capital? You are probably aware that no man can hope to publish for ME who is not prepared to assert himself magnificently in the matter of cash? I sell high--high--very high. And, not to deceive you--for I am incapable of suppressing the truth--I am a man who requires to be dealt with on the principle of considerable advances. Proceed, sir--I am prepared to listen to you."
But Monsieur Werdet was too cautious to proceed without strengthening his position before starting. He intrenched himself instantly behind his pocketbook.
One by one the notes of the Bank of France which formed the poor publisher's small capital were drawn out of their snug hiding-place. Monsieur Werdet produced six of them, representing five hundred francs each (or, as before mentioned, a hundred and twenty pounds sterling), arranged them neatly and impressively in a circle on the table, and then cast himself on the author's mercy in an agitated voice, and in these words:
"Sir, behold my capital. There lies my whole fortune. It is yours in exchange for any book you please to write for me--"
At that point, to the horror and astonishment of Monsieur Werdet, his further progress was cut short by roars of laughter--formidable roars, as he himself expressly states--bursting from the lungs of the highly-diverted Balzac.
"What astonishing simplicity!" exclaimed the great man. "Do you actually believe, sir, that I--De Balzac--can so entirely forget what is due to myself as to sell you any conceivable species of fiction which is the product of MY PEN for the sum of three thousand francs? You have come here, Monsieur Werdet, to address an offer to me, without preparing yourself by previous reflection. If I felt so disposed, I should have every right to consider your conduct as unbecoming in the highest degree. But I don't feel so disposed. On the contrary, I can even allow your honest ignorance, your innocent confidence, to excuse you in my estimation. Don't be alarmed, sir. Consider yourself excused to a certain extent."
Between disappointment, indignation, and astonishment, Monsieur Werdet was struck dumb. His friend, Monsieur Barbier, therefore spoke for him, urging every possible consideration; and finally proposing that Balzac, if he was determined not to write a new story for three thousand francs, should at least sell one edition of an old one for that sum. Monsieur Barbier's arguments were admirably put; they lasted a long time; and when they had come to an end, they received this reply:
"Gentlemen!" cried Balzac, pushing back his long hair from his heated temples, and taking a fresh dip of ink, "you have wasted an hour of MY TIME in talking of trifles. I rate the pecuniary loss thus occasioned to me at two hundred francs. My time is my capital. I must work. Gentlemen! leave me." Having expressed himself in these hospitable terms, the great man immediately resumed the process of composition.
Monsieur Werdet, naturally and properly indignant, immediately left the room. He was overtaken, after he had proceeded a little distance in the street, by his friend Barbier, who had remained behind to remonstrate.
"You have every reason to be offended," said Barbier. "His conduct is inexcusable. But pray don't suppose that your negotiation is broken off. I know him better than you do; and I tell you that you have nailed Balzac.
He wants money, and before three days are over your head he will return your visit."
"If he does," replied Werdet, "I'll pitch him out window."
"No, you won't," said Barbier. "In the first place, it is an extremely uncivil proceeding to pitch a man out of window; and, as a naturally polite gentleman, you are incapable of committing a breach of good manners. In the second place, rude as he has been to you, Balzac is not the less a man of genius; and as such, he is just the man of whom you, as a publisher, stand in need. Wait patiently; and in a day or two you will see him, or hear from him again."
Barbier was right. Three days afterward, the following satisfactory communication was received by Monsieur Werdet:
"My brain, sir, was so prodigiously preoccupied by work uncongenial to my fancy, when you visited me the other day, that I was incapable of comprehending otherwise than imperfectly what it was that you wanted of me.
"To-day my brain is not preoccupied. Do me the favor to come and see me at four o'clock.
"A thousand civilities.
DE BALZAC. "
Monsieur Werdet viewed this singular note in the light of a fresh impertinence. On consideration, however, he acknowledged it, and curtly added that important business would prevent his accepting the appointment proposed to him.
In two days more friend Barbier came with a second invitation from the great man. But Monsieur Werdet steadily refused it. "Balzac has already been playing his game with me," he said. "Now it is my turn to play my game with Balzac. I mean to keep him waiting four days longer."
At the end of that time Monsieur Werdet once more entered the sanctum sanctorum. On this second occasion, Balzac's graceful politeness was indescribable. He deplored the rarity of intelligent publishers. He declared his deep sense of the importance of an intelligent publisher's appearance on the literary horizon. He expressed himself as quite enchanted to be now enabled to remark that appearance, to welcome it, and even to deal with it. Polite as he was by nature, Monsieur Werdet had no chance this time against Monsieur De Balzac. In the race of civility the publisher was now nowhere, and the author made all the running.
The interview, thus happily begun, terminated in a most agreeable transaction on both sides. Balzac cheerfully locked up the six bank-notes in his strong-box. Werdet as cheerfully retired, with a written agreement in his empty pocket-book, authorizing him to publish the second edition of "Le Medecin de Campagne"--hardly, it may be remarked in parenthesis, one of the best to select of the novels of Balzac.
Once started in business as the happy proprietor and hopeful publisher of the second edition of "Le Medecin de Campagne," Monsieur Werdet was too wise a man not to avail himself of the only certain means of success in modern times. He puffed magnificently. Every newspaper in Paris was inundated with a deluge of advertisements, announcing the forthcoming work in terms of eulogy such as the wonderstruck reader had never met with before. The result, aided by Balzac's celebrity, was a phenomenon in the commercial history of French literature at that time. Every copy of the second edition of "Le Medecin de Campagne" was sold in eight days.
This success established Monsieur Werdet's reputation. Young authors crowded to him with their manuscripts, all declaring piteously that they wrote in the style of Balzac. But Monsieur Werdet flew at higher game. He received the imitators politely, and even published for one or two of them; but the high business aspirations which now glowed within him were all concentrated on the great original. He had conceived the sublime idea of becoming Balzac's sole publisher; of buying up all his copyrights held by other houses, and of issuing all his new works that were yet to be written. Balzac himself welcomed this proposal with superb indulgence. "Walter Scott," he said in his grandest way, "had only one publisher--Archibald Constable. Work out your idea. I authorize it; I support it. I will be Scott, and you shall be Constable!"
Fired by the prodigious future thus disclosed to him, Monsieur Werdet assumed forthwith the character of a French Constable, and opened negotiations with no less than six publishers who held among them the much-desired copyrights. His own enthusiasm did something for him; his excellent previous character in the trade, and his remarkable success at starting, did much more. The houses he dealt with took his bills in all directions, without troubling him for security. After innumerable interviews and immense exercise of diplomacy, he raised himself at last to the pinnacle of his ambition; he became sole proprietor and publisher of the works of Balzac.
The next question--a sordid, but, unhappily, a necessary question also--was how to turn this precious acquisition to the best pecuniary account. Some of the works, such as "La Physiologie du Mariage" and "La Peau de Chagrin," had produced, and were still producing, large sums. Others, on the contrary, such as the "Contes Philosophiques" (which were a little too profound for the public) and "Louis Lambert" (which was intended to popularize the mysticism of Swedenborg), had not yet succeeded in paying their expenses. Estimating his speculation by what he had in hand, Monsieur Werdet had not much chance of seeing his way speedily to quick returns. Estimating it, however, by what was coming in the future--that is to say, by the promised privilege of issuing all the writer's contemplated works--he had every reason to look happily and hopefully at his commercial prospects. At this crisis of the narrative, when the publisher's credit and fortune depended wholly on the pen of one man, the history of that man's habits of literary composition assumes a special interest and importance. Monsieur Werdet's description of Balzac at his writing-desk presents by no means the least extraordinary of the many singular revelations which compose the story of the author's life.
When he had once made up his mind to produce a new book, Balzac's first proceeding was to think it out thoroughly before he put pen to paper. He was not satisfied with possessing himself of the main idea only; he followed it mentally into its minutest ramifications, devoting to the process just that amount of patient hard labor and self-sacrifice which no inferior writer ever has the common sense or the courage to bestow on his work. With his note-book ready in his hand, Balzac studied his scenes and characters straight from life. General knowledge of what he wanted to describe was not enough for this determined realist. If he found himself in the least at fault, he would not hesitate to take a long journey merely to insure truth to nature in describing the street of a country town, or in painting some minor peculiarity of rustic character, In Paris he was perpetually about the streets, perpetually penetrating into all classes of society, to study the human nature about him in its minutest varieties. Day by day, and week by week, his note-book and his brains were hard at work together, before he thought of sitting down to his desk to begin. When he had finally amassed his materials in this laborious manner, he at last retired to his study; and from that time till his book had gone to press society saw him no more.
His house door was now closed to everybody except the publisher and the printer, and his costume was changed to a loose white robe, of the sort which is worn by the Dominican monks. This singular writing-dress was fastened round the waist by a chain of Venetian gold, to which hung little pliers and scissors of the same precious metal. White Turkish trousers, and red morocco slippers, embroidered with gold, covered his legs and feet. On the day when he sat down to his desk the light of heaven was shut out, and he worked by the light of candles in superb silver sconces. Even letters were not allowed to reach him. They were all thrown, as they came, into a japan vase, and not opened, no matter how important they might be, till his work was all over. He rose to begin writing at two in the morning, continued with extraordinary rapidity, till six; then took his warm bath, and stopped in it, thinking, for an hour or more. At eight o'clock his servant brought him up a cup of coffee. Before nine his publisher was admitted to carry away what he had done. From nine till noon he wrote on again, always at the top or his speed. At noon he breakfasted on eggs, with a glass of water and a second cup of coffee. From one o'clock to six he returned to work. At six he dined lightly, only allowing himself one glass of wine. From seven to eight he received his publisher again: and at eight o'clock he went to bed. This life he led, while he was writing his books, for two months together, without intermission. Its effect on his health was such that, when he appeared once more among his friends, he looked, in the popular phrase, like his own ghost. Chance acquaintances would hardly have known him again.
It must not be supposed that this life of resolute seclusion and fierce hard toil ended with the complexion of the first draught of his manuscript. At the point where, in the instances of most men, the serious part of the work would have come to an end, it had only begun for Balzac.
In spite of all the preliminary studying and thinking, when his pen had scrambled its way straight through to the end of the book, the leaves were all turned back again, and the first manuscript was altered into a second with inconceivable patience and care. Innumerable corrections and interlinings, to begin with, led, in the end, to transpositions and expansions which metamorphosed the entire work. Happy thoughts were picked out of the beginning of the manuscript, and inserted where they might have a better effect at the end. Others at the end would be moved to the beginning, or the middle. In one place, chapters would be expanded to three or four times their original length; in another, abridged to a few paragraphs; in a third, taken out altogether or shifted to new positions. With all this mass of alterations in every page, the manuscript was at last ready for the printer. Even to the experienced eyes in the printing-office, it was now all but illegible. The deciphering it, and setting it up in a moderately correct form, cost an amount of patience and pains which wearied out all the best men in the office, one after another, before the first series of proofs could be submitted to the author's eye. When these were at last complete, they were sent in on large slips, and the indefatigable Balzac immediately set to work to rewrite the whole book for the third time!
He now covered with fresh corrections, fresh alterations, fresh expansions of this passage, and fresh abridgments of that, not only the margins of the proofs all round, but even the little intervals of white space between the paragraphs. Lines crossing each other in indescribable confusion were supposed to show the bewildered printer the various places at which the multitude of new insertions were to be slipped in. Illegible as Balzac's original manuscripts were, his corrected proofs were more hopelessly puzzling still. The picked men in the office, to whom, alone they could be intrusted, shuddered at the very name of Balzac, and relieved each other at intervals of an hour, beyond which time no one printer could be got to continue at work on the universally execrated and universally unintelligible proofs. The "revises"--that is to say, the proofs embodying the new alterations--were next pulled to pieces in their turn. Two, three, and sometimes four, separate sets of them were required before the author's leave could be got to send the perpetually rewritten book to press at last, and so have done with it. He was literally the terror of all printers and editors; and he himself described his process of work as a misfortune, to be the more deplored, because it was, in his case, an intellectual necessity. "I toil sixteen hours out of the twenty-four," he said, "over the elaboration of my unhappy style; and I am never satisfied myself when all is done." Looking back to the school-days of Balzac, when his mind suffered under the sudden and mysterious shock which has already been described in its place; remembering that his father's character was notorious for its eccentricity; observing the prodigious toil, the torture almost of mind which the act of literary production seems to have cost him all through life, it is impossible not to arrive at the conclusion that in his case there must have been a fatal incompleteness somewhere in the mysterious intellectual machine. Magnificently as it was endowed, the balance of faculties in his mind seems to have been even more than ordinarily imperfect. On this theory, his unparalleled difficulties in expressing himself as a writer, and his errors, inconsistencies, and meannesses of character as a man, become, at least, not wholly unintelligible. On any other theory, all explanation both of his personal life and his literary life appears to be simply impossible.
Such was the perilous pen on which Monsieur Werdet's prospects in life all depended. If Balzac failed to perform his engagements punctually, or if his health broke down under his severe literary exertions, the commercial decease of his unfortunate publisher followed either disaster, purely as a matter of course.
At the outset, however, the posture of affairs looked encouragingly enough. On its completion in the Revue de Paris, "Le Lys dans la Vallee" was republished by Monsieur Werdet, who had secured his interest in the work by a timely advance of six thousand francs. Of this novel (the most highly valued in France of all the writer's fictions) but two hundred copies of the first edition were left unsold within two hours after its publication. This unparalleled success kept Monsieur Werdet's head above water, and encouraged him to hope great things from the next novel, "Seraphita," which was also begun periodically in the Revue de Paris. Before it was finished, however, Balzac and the editor of the Review quarreled. The long-suffering publisher was obliged to step in and pay the author's forfeit-money, obtaining the incomplete novel in return, and with it Balzac's promise to finish the work offhand. Months passed, however, and not a page of manuscript was produced. One morning at eight o'clock, to Monsieur Werdet's horror and astonishment, Balzac burst in on him in a condition of sublime despair, to announce that he and his genius had to all appearance parted company forever.
"My brain is empty!" cried the great man. "My imagination is dried up! Hundreds of cups of coffee and two warm baths a day have done nothing for me. Werdet, I am a lost man!"
The publisher thought of his empty cash-box, and was petrified. The author proceeded:
"I must travel!" he exclaimed, distractedly. "My genius has run away from me--I must pursue it over mountains and valleys. Werdet! I must catch my genius up!"
Poor Monsieur Werdet faintly suggested a little turn in the immediate neighborhood of Paris --something equivalent to a nice airy ride to Hampstead on the top of an omnibus. But Balzac's runaway genius had, in the estimation of its bereaved proprietor, got as far as Vienna already; and he coolly announced his intention of traveling after it to the Austrian capital.
"And who is to finish 'Seraphita?'" inquired the unhappy publisher. "My illustrious friend, you are ruining me!"
"On the contrary," remarked Balzac, persuasively, "I am making your fortune. At Vienna I shall find my genius. At Vienna I shall finish 'Seraphita,' and a new book besides. At Vienna I shall meet with an angelic woman who admires me--she permits me to call her 'Carissima'--she has written to invite me to Vienna. I ought, I must, I will, accept the invitation."
Here an ordinary acquaintance would have had an excellent opportunity of saying something smart. But poor Monsieur Werdet was not in a position to be witty; and, moreover, he knew but too well what was coming next. All he ventured to say was:
"But I am afraid you have no money."
"You can raise some," replied his illustrious friend. "Borrow--deposit stock in trade--get me two thousand francs. Everything else I can do for myself. Werdet, I will hire a post-chaise --I will dine with my dear sister--I will set off after dinner--I will not be later than eight o'clock --click-clack!" And the great man executed an admirable imitation of the cracking of a postilion's whip.
There was no resource for Monsieur Werdet but to throw the good money after the bad. He raised the two thousand francs; and away went . Balzac to catch his runaway genius, to bask in the society of a female angel, and to coin money in the form of manuscripts.
Eighteen days afterward a perfumed letter from the author reached the publisher. He had caught his genius at Vienna; he had been magnificently received by the aristocracy; he had finished "Seraphita," and nearly completed the other book; his angelic friend, Carissima, already loved Werdet from Balzac's description of him; Balzac himself was Werdet's friend till death; Werdet was his Archibald Constable; Werdet should see him again in fifteen days; Werdet should ride in his carriage in the Bois de Boulogne, and meet Balzac riding in his carriage, and see the enemies of both parties looking on at the magnificent spectacle and bursting with spite. Finally, Werdet would have the goodness to remark (in a postscript) that Balzac had provided himself with another little advance of fifteen hundred francs, received from Rothschild in Vienna, and had given in exchange a bill at ten days' sight on his excellent publisher, on his admirable and devoted Archibald Constable.
While Monsieur Werdet was still prostrate under the effect of this audacious postscript, a clerk entered his office with the identical bill. It was drawn at one day's sight instead of ten; and the money was wanted immediately. The publisher was the most long-suffering of men; but there were limits even to his patient endurance. He took Balzac's letter with him, and went at once to the office of the Parisian Rothschild. The great financier received him kindly, admitted that there must have been some mistake, granted the ten days' grace, and dismissed his visitor with this excellent and sententious piece of advice:
"I recommend you to mind what you are about, sir, with Monsieur De Balzac. He is a highly inconsequent man."
It was too late for Monsieur Werdet to mind what he was about. He had no choice but to lose his credit, or pay at the end of the ten days. He paid; and ten days later Balzac returned, considerately bringing with him some charming little Viennese curiosities for his esteemed publisher. Monsieur Werdet expressed his acknowledgments, and then politely inquired for the conclusion of "Seraphita," and the manuscript of the new novel.
Not a single line of either had been committed to paper.
The farce (undoubtedly a most disgraceful performance, so far as Balzac was concerned) was not played out even yet. The publisher's reproaches seem at last to have awakened the author to something remotely resembling a sense of shame. He promised that "Seraphita," which had been waiting at press a whole year, should be finished in one night. There were just two sheets of sixteen pages each to write. They might have been completed either at the author's house or at the publisher's, which was close to the printer's. But no--it was not in Balzac's character to miss the smallest chance of producing a sensation anywhere. His last caprice was a determination to astonish the printers. Twenty-five compositors were called together at eleven at night, a truckle-bed and table were set up for the author--or, to speak more correctly, for the literary mountebank--in the workshop; Balzac arrived, in a high state of inspiration, to stagger the sleepy journeymen by showing them how fast he could write; and the two sheets were completed magnificently on the spot. By way of fit and proper climax to this ridiculous exhibition of literary quackery, it is only necessary to add that, on Balzac's own confession, the two concluding sheets of "Seraphita" had been mentally composed and carefully committed to memory, two years before he affected to write them impromptu in the printer's office. It seems impossible to deny that the man who could act in this outrageously puerile manner must have been simply mad. But what becomes of the imputation when we remember that this very madman has produced books which, for depth of thought and marvelous knowledge of human nature, are counted deservedly among the glories of French literature, and which were never more living and more lasting works than they are at this moment!
"Seraphita" was published three days after the author's absurd exhibition of himself at the printer's office. In this novel, as in its predecessor--"Louis Lambert"-- Balzac left his own firm ground of reality, and soared, on the wings of Swedenborg, into an atmosphere of transcendental obscurity impervious to all ordinary eyes. What the book meant the editor of the periodical in which part of it originally appeared never could explain. Monsieur Werdet, who published it, confesses that he was in the same mystified condition; and the present writer, who has vainly attempted to read it through, desires to add in this place his own modest acknowledgment of inability to enlighten English readers in the smallest degree on the subject of "Seraphita." Luckily for Monsieur Werdet, the author's reputation stood so high with the public that the book sold prodigiously, merely because it was a book by Balzac. The proceeds of the sale, and the profits derived from new editions of the old novels, kept the sinking publisher from absolute submersion, and might even have brought him safely to land, but for the ever-increasing dead-weight of the author's perpetual borrowings on the security of forthcoming works which he never produced.
No commercial success, no generous self-sacrifice could keep pace with the demands of Balzac's insatiate vanity and love of show, at this period of his life. He had two establishments, to begin with, both splendidly furnished, and one adorned with a valuable gallery of pictures. He had his box at the French Opera, and his box at the Italian Opera. He had a chariot and horses, and an establishment of men-servants. The panels of the carriage were decorated with the arms, and the bodies of the footmen were adorned with the liveries, of the noble family of D'Entragues, to which Balzac persisted in declaring that he was allied, although he never could produce the smallest proof in support of the statement. When he could add no more to the sumptuous magnificence of his houses, his dinners, his carriage, and his servants; when he had filled his rooms with every species of expensive knickknack; when he had lavished money on all the known extravagances which extravagant Paris can supply to the spendthrift's inventory, he hit on the entirely new idea of providing himself with such a walking-stick as the world had never yet beheld.
His first proceeding was to procure a splendid cane, which was sent to the jeweler's, and was grandly topped by a huge gold knob. The inside of the knob was occupied by a lock of hair presented to the author by an unknown lady admirer. The outside was studded with all the jewels he had bought, and with all the jewels he had received as presents. With this cane, nearly as big as a drum-major's staff, and all ablaze at the top with rubies, diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires, Balzac exhibited himself, in a rapture of satisfied vanity, at the theaters and in the public promenades. The cane became as celebrated in Paris as the author. Madame de Girardin wrote a sparkling little book all about the wonderful walking-stick. Balzac was in the seventh heaven of happiness; Balzac's friends were either disgusted or diverted, according to their tempers. One unfortunate man alone suffered the inevitable penalty of this insane extravagance: need it be added that his name was Werdet?
The end of the connection between the author and the publisher was now fast approaching. All entreaties or reproaches addressed to Balzac failed in producing the slightest result. Even confinement in a sponging-house, when creditors discovered, in course of time, that they could wait no longer, passed unheeded as a warning. Balzac only borrowed more money the moment the key was turned on him, gave a magnificent dinner in prison, and left the poor publisher, as usual, to pay the bill. He was extricated from the sponging-house before he had been there quite three days; and in that time he had spent over twenty guineas on luxuries which he had not a farthing of his own to purchase. It is useless, it is even exasperating, to go on accumulating instances of this sort of mad and cruel prodigality; let us advance rapidly to the end. One morning Monsieur Werdet balanced accounts with his author from the beginning, and found, in spite of the large profits produced by the majority of the works, that fifty-eight thousand francs were (to use his own expression) paralyzed in his hands by the life Balzac persisted in leading; and that fifty-eight thousand more might soon be in the same condition, if he had possessed them to advance. A rich publisher might have contrived to keep his footing in such a crisis as this, and to deal, for the time to come, on purely commercial grounds. But Monsieur Werdet was a poor man; he had relied on Balzac's verbal promises when he ought to have exacted his written engagements; and he had no means of appealing to the author's love of money by dazzling prospects of bank-notes awaiting him in the future, if he chose honestly to earn his right to them. In short, there was but one alternative left, the alternative of giving up the whole purpose and ambition of the bookseller's life, and resolutely breaking off his ruinous connection with Balzac. Reduced to this situation, driven to bay by the prospect of engagements falling due which he had no apparent means of meeting, Monsieur Werdet answered the next application for an advance by a flat refusal, and followed up that unexampled act of self-defense by speaking his mind at last, in no measured terms, to his illustrious friend. Balzac turned crimson with suppressed anger, and left the room. A series of business formalities followed, initiated by Balzac, with the view of breaking off the connection between his publisher and himself, now that he found there was no more money to be had; Monsieur Werdet being, on his side, perfectly ready to "sign, seal, and deliver," as soon as his claims were properly satisfied in due form of law.
Balzac had now but one means of meeting his liabilities. His personal reputation was gone; but his literary reputation remained as high as ever, and he soon found a publisher, with large capital at command, who was ready to treat for his copyrights. Monsieur Werdet had no resource but to sell or be bankrupt. He parted with all the valuable copyrights for a sum of sixty thousand and odd francs, which sufficed to meet his most pressing engagements. Some of the less popular and less valuable books he kept, to help him, if possible, through his daily and personal liabilities. As for gaining any absolute profit, or even holding his position as a publisher, the bare idea of securing either advantage was dismissed as an idle dream. The purpose for which he had toiled so hard and suffered so patiently was sacrificed forever, and he was reduced to beginning life again as a country traveler for a prosperous publishing house. So far as his main object in existence was concerned, Balzac had plainly and literally ruined him. It is impossible to part with Monsieur Werdet, imprudent and credulous as he appears to have been, without a strong feeling of sympathy, which becomes strengthened to something like positive admiration when we discover that he cherished, in after life, no unfriendly sentiments toward the man who had treated him so shamefully; and when we find him, in the Memoir now under notice, still trying hard to make the best of Balzac's conduct, and still writing of him in terms of affection and esteem to the very end of the book.
The remainder of Balzac's life was, in substance, merely the lamentable repetition of the personal faults and follies, and the literary merits and triumphs, which have already found their record in these pages. The extremes of idle vanity and unprincipled extravagance still alternated, to the last, with the extremes of hard mental labor and amazing mental productiveness. Though, he found new victims among new men, he never again met with so generous and forbearing a friend as the poor publisher whose fortunes he had destroyed. The women, whose impulses in his favor were kept alive by their admiration of his books, clung to their spoiled darling to the last--one of their number even stepping forward to save him from a debtors' prison, at the heavy sacrifice of paying the whole demand against him out of her own purse. In all cases of this sort, even where men were concerned as well as women, his personal means of attraction, when he chose to exert them, strengthened immensely his literary claims on the sympathy and good-will of others. He appears to have possessed in the highest degree those powers of fascination which are quite independent of mere beauty of face and form, and which are perversely and inexplicably bestowed in the most lavish abundance on the most unprincipled of mankind. Poor Monsieur Werdet can only account for half his own acts of indiscretion by declaring that his eminent friend wheedled him into committing them. Other and wiser men kept out of Balzac's way through sheer distrust of themselves. Virtuous friends who tried hard to reform him retreated from his presence, declaring that the reprobate whom they had gone to convert had all but upset their moral balance in a morning's conversation. An eminent literary gentleman, who went to spend the day with him to talk over a proposed work, rushed out of the house after a two hours' interview, exclaiming, piteously: "The man's imagination is in a state of delirium--his talk has set my brain in a whirl--he would have driven me mad if I had spent the day with him!" If men were influenced in this way, it is not wonderful that women (whose self-esteem was delicately flattered by the prominent and fascinating position which they hold in all his books) should have worshiped a man who publicly and privately worshiped them.
His personal appearance would have recalled to English minds the popular idea of Friar Tuck --he was the very model of the conventional fat, sturdy, red-faced, jolly monk. But he had the eye of a man of genius, and the tongue of a certain infernal personage, who may be broadly hinted at, but who must on no account be plainly named. The Balzac candlestick might be clumsy enough; but when once the Balzac candle was lit, the moths flew into it, only too readily, from all points of the compass.
The last important act of his life was, in a worldly point of view, one of the wisest things he ever did. The lady who had invited him to Vienna, and whom he called Carissima, was the wife of a wealthy Russian nobleman. On the death of her husband, she practically asserted her admiration of her favorite author by offering him her hand and fortune. Balzac accepted both; and returned to Paris (from which respect for his creditors had latterly kept him absent) a married man, and an enviable member of the wealthy class of society. A splendid future now opened before him--but it opened too late. Arrived at the end of his old course, he just saw the new career beyond him, and dropped on the threshold of it. The strong constitution which he had remorselessly wasted for more than twenty years past gave way at length, at the very time when his social chances looked most brightly. Three months after his marriage, Honoré de Balzac died, after unspeakable suffering, of disease of the heart. He was then but fifty years of age. His fond, proud, heart-broken old mother held him in her arms. On that loving bosom he had drawn his first breath. On that loving bosom the weary head sank to rest again, when the wild, wayward, miserable, glorious life was over.
The sensation produced in Paris by his death was something akin to the sensation produced in London by the death of Byron. Mr. Carlyle has admirably said that there is something touching in the loyalty of men to their Sovereign Man. That loyalty most tenderly declared itself when Balzac was no more. Men of all ranks and parties, who had been shocked by his want of principle and disgusted by his inordinate vanity while he was alive, now accepted universally the atonement of his untimely death, and remembered nothing but the loss that had happened to the literature of France. A great writer was no more; and a great people rose with one accord to take him reverently and gloriously to his grave. The French Institute, the University, the scientific societies, the Association of Dramatic Authors, the Schools of Law and Medicine, sent their representatives to walk in the funeral procession. English readers, American readers, German readers, and Russian readers, swelled the immense assembly of Frenchmen that followed the coffin. Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas were among the mourners who supported the pall. The first of these two celebrated men pronounced the funeral oration over Balzac's grave, and eloquently characterized the whole series of the dead writer's works as forming, in truth, but one grand book, the text-book of contemporary civilization. "With that just and generous tribute to the genius of Balzac, offered by the most illustrious of his literary rivals, these few pages may fitly and gracefully come to an end. Of the miserable frailties of the man, enough has been recorded to serve the first of all interests, the interest of truth. The better and nobler part of him calls for no further comment at any writer's hands. It remains to us in his works, and it speaks with deathless eloquence for itself.