Monday, 13 January 2014

BALZAC AND MODERN FRENCH LITERATURE.*

(From the Australasian).
FRENCH ignorance of English custom is proverbial. Despite all the railways, telegraphs, and handbooks, an ordinary Frenchman is still of opinion that his island neighbours are ruled over by le Lord Maire, are infatuated with le box, are patrons of le sport, drink porter-bière, and sell their wives at Smithfield.
Some modification in the original idea may have been made of late years, but Jules and Edouard are still of opinion that every second Englishman is called Sir Brown, is possessed of vast wealth, of a chateau on Manchestère, and a son who is entitled to jeune horse-guards, drinks unlimited "grogs," and divides his time between practising "le box with his servant Jon Jack," caressing his "boule dogue," and driving his " tocar." We, on the contrary, pride our selves on our intimate acquaintance with all things French. We adopt French fashions, French phrases, French dishes, and French wines. Every boarding-school girl fills her letters with French idioms. We cannot take up a newspaper without seeing French words scattered, like plums in a pudding, broadcast through its pages. To all outward appearance, an educated Englishman knows rather more about France than a Frenchman himself. The great names of the French literary world are bandied about on all sides, but they are but names. The average knowledge of French literature is most superficial. Everyone talks of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Moliére; but most persons, if closely questioned, would be obliged to confess that their knowledge of them was confined to the facts that the first was a little old man who wrote atheistical books and lived at Ferney ; that the second was the author of some unpleasant confessions; and that the third wrote laughable comedies and read them to his housekeeper. The works of Victor Hugo and Dumas are certainly well known to Englishmen; but only because their works are translated into the English language. French novels translated into English are admissible; but French novels in the original are considered the creme de la creme of iniquity. A book in a yellow cover causes as much rage to a British parent as a red rag does to a bull. In the prurient literature of the demi monde, French novels are exalted on a pinnacle of vicious cleverness which they are by no means qualified, as a rule, to occupy. The naughty heroine always reads French novels. The languid, clever man of the world retires from the contemplation of the hollowness of society to smile sardonically over a French novel. The fair demon who ruins a millionaire a year to keep herself in bouquets, soothes her moments of elegant repose with French coffee, a French poodle, and a French novel. To read French novels is to be out of the pale of respectable conventionality; to write them is to belong to that select circle of gay spirits whose deeds are written in letters of gold in the Newgate Calendar.
The prejudices of Englishmen are hard to uproot. Our forefathers cursed French "kickshaws" and French customs, and we have not made any very astonishing progress towards a better state of feeling. But the delicate-handed dilettante readers, who shudder at the impurities of the French press, would be astonished if they knew how much their own contemporary literature owes to it. Not to speak of the open plagiarism of the Albert Smith school from the novels of Paul de Kock, or the hints taken from Dumas by the sensationalists, the works of Honore de Balzac form the ground plan of modern realistic literature. No Frenchman, save perhaps Rabelais and Montaigne, has done more for English literature and been worse treated. To that class of moralists whose stronghold is in Clapham, and whose disciples tear Christianity to tatters from the platform of Exeter hall, the name of Balzac is synonymous with that of Asmodeus. He is regarded as the head and leader of that army of immoral and pernicious writers who paint life as they find it, and not as it ought to be found. Mention the author of La Physiologie du Mariage, and all Podsnappery is up in arms; hint at an acquaintance with La Femme de Trente Ans, and all the vials of virtuous stupidity empty themselves on your devoted head. Balzac is, in brief, regarded as infidelity, atheism, materialism, licentiousness, and Bohemianism compressed into one terrific whole. His works are pitfalls for the righteous youth of Britain. Matres metuunt juvencos. No booby of a collegian whose ill fated feet have led him into the flowery paths of French literature but is doomed by his shuddering parents a second Count de Grammont—a Don Juan in the provinces. With the usual ingenuity of the perverse and the ignorant, the errors of his disciples have been attributed to their leader.
Balzac was the apostle of realism. His disciples preached a gross materialism. They mistook the horrible for the sublime. In their eagerness to avoid all false sentiment, they rushed into depths from which only the genius of their leader could discover gems worth setting. They ignored the beautiful and the good, and elevated the hideous and the repulsive upon a pedestal of fine writing; and the impatient judgment of the majority accepted the copy for the original. Balzac was born when the world was tired of conventionalities—when the attempt to paint life as a bed of roses had failed. Fresh from the furious outburst of popular feeling which signalized the revolution, with the triumphant smoke of Napoleon's cannon yet before their eyes, men called for the material and the real. Sentimentality had exhausted itself. The ideal was worn threadbare. People, tired of one type of human nature, demanded its opposite, and found it. The school of Rousseau and St. Pierre worshipped the beautiful only; Balzac established the maxim—" le beau c'est le laid." He was to literature what the pre-Raphaelites were to art. He insisted upon the natural as opposed to the imaginative. Godlike men and things had gone out of fashion. The literary world was shaken to its foundations. The revolution of 1830 mitigated the censorship of the press, and hence arose the new censorship of criticism. Before this era there were no professional French critics, and freedom of authorship would have degenerated into license. The Revue des Deux Mondes, published in '31, and numbering among its writers such names as Jules Janin and Saint Beuve, stemmed the torrent and marked a new era in literature.
Never was talent so highly appreciated, and so well rewarded. The reign of birth was replaced by the reign of intellect and the union of polities and literature effected the revolution of '48. Of course the new-found liberty was abused, and the excess of realism, which the prurient and obscene followers of Balzac affected, disgraded, and still disgraces, French contemporary literature. But though the originator of the school, he was far removed from the errors of his disciples. He painted vice with voluptuousness; but he showed its hideousness with equal vigour. He overturned many prejudices; but he established many truths. He was born in a destructive age. All tender and social ties were openly violated, and the creeds of all sects attacked with equal impartiality. Balzac was the type of the bold thinkers of the day. His genius was revolutionary. He wished not to improve upon the old models, but to set up fresh ones. He was cradled in revolutions, and his works smell of the barricades. He struck fearlessly and struck hard, and his boldness and daring demolished at a blow the sickly sentimentalism of the school of Rousseau and St. Pierre. In his own person he was the incarnation of Parisian Bohemianism. Shrewd, observant, careless, generous, and defiant, he was the very man to grasp the anomalous life of the Parisian of the day. His Comedie Humaine was intended to pourtray all the phases of human life. It was a gigantic scheme, but the genius and industry of the schemer were as gigantic. But to foreigners the works of Balzac seem incomprehensible. His Commedie was a comedy played with Paris for a stage, and not the world. To a Frenchman the world is France; in France the world is Paris. To depict the ever-shifting scenes in that huge kaleidoscope was the task Balzac attempted, and it was no easy one. The indomitable industry of the man conquered at last. But the struggle for fame and bread killed him. The pages of his finest works are written with his life blood.
To the easy-going dilettante author who thinks to step into fame and name without an effort, the life of Balzac will seem terrible. It was one long struggle with debt and difficulty. From his earliest childhood he had decided upon authorship. Madame de Stael found him reading Swedenborg at four years old, and found, also, that his imagination had realised its visions. At nine he wrote an essay on the Power of Will, which he fondly thought would complete the theories of Bichat Lavater, and Descartes. His parents laughed at his attempts at writing. He fled to Paris, and lodged in a garret. "Here," he says, "I wrote night and day with no relaxation. My only solace was study." His sister was the only person who believed in his powers. To her he wrote— "In literature one must either be a scavenger or a king. I will be a king!" At length he completed his first work, Cromwell, a tragedy in five acts. This was to bring him fame and fortune. Alas for his hopes! Stanislaus Andrieux, professor of literature to the college of France, to whom the work was submitted, said, "I find in this work no evidence of a single germ of talent or capacity for composition." With his friends against him, and in the face of such a verdict as this, most men would have given up the contest. Not so did Balzac. Between the years '21 and '29 he wrote sixteen romances under various pseudonyms, but without success. He lived on three pennyworth of bread and a sausage a day. His lodging cost three sous a day. He lived the life of a Benedictine monk. He had no luxuries, no vices, no follies. His only amusements were writing and observation. "Dressed like a workman," he says, "I would mix among them in the various streets. I would listen to their conversation, and view their bargaining at shops. My power of observation seemed to be intuitive; it penetrated into the souls of others without overlooking their bodies; or rather, so quickly did it seize upon externals, that it went instantly beyond them. While listening to these people I was wedded, as it were, to their life. I felt my feet in their shoes. I felt their ragged clothes upon my back; their desires, their wants, their hopes, their fears, all passed into my soul, and my soul into theirs. There was to me a joy, a species of moral intoxication, to live the life of another, and to exercise this power at will." "Balzac," says Théophile Gautier, "like the Indian god Vishnu, possessed the gift of Avatar. He could transpose himself into a marquis, a banker, a bourgeois, a man of the people, a woman of the world, or a courtesan." It was this faculty which enabled him to describe so accurately. It is this faculty that gives to all great descriptive and dramatic geniuses their power of realising the feelings of others. While thus the future Grand Balzac laid up stores of information to be used in his future writings, he was in the depth of misery. He had written thirty volumes of etudes, for which he barely received the price of the paper. The publishers of Paris were at that time at the height of their power. They held the hopes of authors in their hands, and they cruelly abused the trust. Balzac felt the injustice done him, and his dearest hope was to realise enough by the sale of some of his works to print others in his own way. Urged by his friends to quit literature, he accepted a loan of 30,000 francs from his father, and established himself as a printer. Unhappily, political influences were at that time adverse to the press; he was compelled to sell his stock-in-trade at a ruinous loss, and return to his old vocation as author, poorer than ever and more deeply in debt than before. This burden of debt increased daily, and he would have succumbed under it altogether, had not the publication of Le Peau de Chagrin startled publishers and readers into attention. This book was followed by the biting satire La Physiologie du Mariage, and Balzac at once rose to fame and fortune.
This latter work was the herald and exponent of popular feeling in France. St. Simonism and Madame George Sand were just making themselves heard, and the revolution of July was about to work a change in the social polity of Paris. Women were on all sides exclaiming against the chains that had so long bound them. The Lettres Parisiennes of Madame de Girazdin were attacking all subjects, and the author of La Femme de Trente Ans and La Physiologie du Mariage was hailed at once as the apostle of the new creed. From this time his success was brilliant and rapid. He was rich, courted, and honoured; but his long struggle with ill fortune had left its mark upon him. Here is his portrait, painted by himself in Albert Savarus :— "A superb head, black hair prematurely tinged with white, like the hair of St. Paul or of St. Peter in pictures, but strong and curling; a throat round and white as that of a woman; a magnificent forehead, marked between the brows with that one powerful wrinkle which great thoughts and great projects inscribe on the foreheads of great men ; a complexion olive, but rosy; nostrils which dilate; eyes of fire; cheeks marked by two long lines ploughed by suffering; a mouth which smiles sardonically; eyes hollow, gleaming from beneath arched eyes brows like burning globes; a voice of penetrating sweetness, sometimes cold, and sometimes insinuating, but though thundering when used in sarcasm, soft and most incisive."
Having experienced the evils of poverty, he was now constantly engaged in preposterous schemes for the rapid accumulation of wealth. His works teem with descriptions of the miseries of poverty. Balzac-like, he made his sufferings productive. He wrote Mercadet, a comedy, which may be termed the incarnation of debt. His own generosity impoverished him. He was constantly spending, giving, flinging away money. While silk to others, he was adamant to himself. While working himself into a fever to pay a debt incurred to the former editor of the Chronique de Paris, he paid three thousand francs for Charles Bernard to enable him to write for that journal. It seemed as though debt would never leave him. The establishment of various papers, all edited with ability, only served to impoverish him. Le Feuilleton Litteraire, Le Revue Parisian, and La Chronique de Paris, were so much dead weight to drag him further into the mire. He was alternately between poverty and wealth, between a debtor's prison and a palace. It was with the hope of realising some of his golden dreams that he bought the little estate of the Jardies, on the road from Sèvres to Ville d'Avray. Here he intended to plant vines, to force 500 feet of pineapples, to be sold for five francs each, to realise a profit of 500,000 francs. On this estate he built his celebrated house, which was devised on his own principle; but which, when finished, was found to have no stair case !
"For years," says Leon Gozlan, "this house was furnished in imagination. On the bare walls were inscribed such sentences as these—"Here an image in pure Parian marble. Here a carpet of Aubusson. Here a coiling painted by Eugéne de la Croix. Here a mosaic inlaid floor formed of all the rare woods of the isles." It was in this house that he wrote the chief works of his later years. His work was murderous. Often in a morning he would be found with bare head, in dressing-gown and slippers, in the Place du Carrousel, having walked in meditation all through the night. During those wanderings he would invent a story, and rush home bareheaded to make it tangible in some fifty pages of manuscript, which would be the terror of printers and the delight of romance readers. His writing was most illegible, and the numerous corrections, emendations, and revisions with which he would scrawl the proof-sheets, caused the printers to bargain with the publishers that they "were only to have so many hours a day of Balzac." He was indefatigable in correction, wonderfully painstaking in re search. He would never describe any place within easy reach without first going to examine it minutely. He carried his realism to excess. At his house in the Rue des Batailles he fitted up a boudoir on the model of the one assigned by him to the heroine in his Fille aux Yeux d'or. "The carpet was like an Oriental shawl. A silver lustre hung from the coiling. The furniture was white cachémire relieved with black and scarlet." A little door, however, led into a room furnished only with a table and an iron bed. This was the study of Balzac. He was careless of his dress and appearance, not from affectation, but from insensibility. He would lounge in his gorgeous rooms, or pass through the well-dressed crowd, with his coat ill-cut and worse worn, his pockets crammed with proof-sheets, and his head teeming with projects, with his trousers inky, and his linen soiled, with no hat, with eyes staring into vacancy," a nondescript being, half Hercules, half Satyr." But yet no one presumed to take him for a common unknown. "At sight of him," says Theophile Gautier, "even the jeers of the gamins were hushed, and an attempted smile on the lips of serious men died out. His character was as outrè as his dress. Puerile and powerful, sincere to modesty, boasting to lies, very good and very foolish, cynical in chastity, drunk in drinking water, intemperate in work, and sober in all other things, positive and romantic, credulous and sceptical, he was by turns the most opposite of his own character.
But the terrible strain he put upon himself could not last long. His desperate struggle for fame wore him out just as he had grasped the crown. His early dreams were at length fulfilled. He was celebrated, he was loved. At Wierschowina, in Russia, he met the Countess Eveline von Hauska, to whom he was married in 1850. To this lady he dedicated some of his finest works. Pierrette and Sèraphita Sèraphitus were written under the influence of the passion with which she inspired him. Scarcely, however, had he brought home his bride, when envious fortune snatched him from her, and the political rivalries which it that time convulsed Paris were suspended for a moment over the coffin of Balzac.
The estimate which modern English readers have formed of the character of the author of the Comedie Humaine is a singularly unjust one. Balzac, who lived the life of a monk of La Trappe, is considered the epitome of impurity. The man who was the first advocate for the social regeneration of women, is regarded as the incarnation of oriental sensuality. The profound satirist who attacks vice with all the weapons that genius, industry, and observation place at his command, is sneered at as a profligate; and—acme of ignorance—the author of Le Medicin de Campagne is accused of in humanity ! The style of his writings in a great measure prevents his appreciation by the generality of English readers. As we have said, the Comedie Humaine is more properly a Comedie Francaise. But the profound knowledge of human nature that his works display redeems all their faults. He touches both extremes of feeling. The Rabelaisan humour of Les Contes Drolatiques is tempered by the sad philosophy of the Peau de Chagrin. He painted vice in glowing colours, but he gave the reverse of the medal with equal fidelity. He was the founder of the realistic school; and it is not going too far to assert that the pen of Balzac was the magic wand which called into existence the modern school of authors, not only in France but throughout Europe. His imitators ruined his reputation. Without his industry or his genius, they copied his treatment and travestied his errors. They hold up a cracked mirror, and the world took the distorted reflection for the reality. To copy Balzac's vices were easy, to copy his virtues difficult. "Pastiche!" cries Delatouche, "be Balzac if thou canst!" To be Balzac in debt," at war with duns and destiny, yes! To be Balzac the worker, Balzac the genius, no! The influence, of his writings upon the authors of the day is incalculable. Lammonais, Gozlan, Hugo, Gautier, Mdmne. George Sand, and Mdme. Girandin, all were, to more or less extent, his disciples ; and their reverence for his genius may be known from the panogyric pronunced by the greatest of all of them Victor Hugo:—
"All his books make but one book—a book living, luminous, profound, in which coming, walking, moving; real but terrible, is the whole of our contemporary civilisation; a wonderful book ! called by its author Comedie, but which is rather history—a book which takes all forms, all styles; which, passing beyond Tacitus, reaches to Suotonius; which, surpassing Beaumarchais, reaches unto Rabelais; a book which lavishly displays the true, the secret, the bourgeois, the trivial, the material, and which at some moments reveals all reality, at the next the most gloomy, tragic ideality. Bodily did Balzac seize modern society. From all things he plucks out something; from some illusions, from others hope; he rakes up vice, he dissects passion; he digs into the depth of man; he penetrates into the soul, the heart, the tenderness, the brain, the abyss which each man has in himself."
Like most geniuses, he was misrepresented. The Paris journals were full of accounts of his political perfidy and of his domestic inhumanity. His Vautrin was hissed off the stage by a packed house, and condemned by a venal Government. His private character was blackened, and his memory is to this day assailed. Prejudice and ignorance go hand-in-hand, and the consummate and impenetrable obstinacy of Englishmen has hitherto, in all ordinary cases, withstood all argument and proof. Let us hope that with the spread of national intercourse will come the removal of national prejudice. Honoré de Balzac did much for religion and humanity. The language of Coleridge concerning Rabelais may be applied with equal force to the author of Le Comedie Humaine :—" There are things in him which would make the church stare, and the conventicle groan, and yet be but the truth, and nothing more than the truth." He founded a dynasty of letters, and his throne was a tomb in the cemetery of Pére la Chaise. He shattered the chains of conventionality that bound mankind, and was reviled by the helots he had freed. Alas Balzac! As was said of Moliére—
Tu reformas et la ville et la cour,
Mais quelle en fut le récompense ?
* Œuvres do Theolophile Gautier. Critiques par Jules Janin. Les Causeries de Lundi par de Saint Beuve. French Authors at Home. Le Revue des Deux Mondes, &c. Œuvres de George Sand. Balzac in the Jardies.

 The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle 24 August 1867,

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