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La Comédie humaine

La Comédie humaine

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La Comédie humaine

Longueur:
7,068 pages
117 heures
Sortie:
Jun 16, 2020
ISBN:
9780599909885
Format:
Livre

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La Comédie humaine.

Honoré de Balzac was a French novelist and playwright. The novel sequence La Comédie humaine, which presents a panorama of post-Napoleonic French life, is generally viewed as his magnum opus.


Sortie:
Jun 16, 2020
ISBN:
9780599909885
Format:
Livre

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La Comédie humaine - Honoré de Balzac

La Comédie humaine

Honoré de Balzac

Spartacus Books

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ISBN 10: 0599909889

ISBN 13: 9780599909885

La Comédie humaine is the title of Honoré de Balzac's multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories depicting French society in the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy. The Comédie humaine consists of 91 finished works and 46 unfinished works.

Honoré de Balzac, original name Honoré Balssa, (born May 20, 1799, Tours, France—died August 18, 1850, Paris), French literary artist who produced a vast number of novels and short stories collectively called La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). He helped to establish the traditional form of the novel and is generally considered to be one of the greatest novelists of all time.

Early career

Balzac’s father was a man of southern peasant stock who worked in the civil service for 43 years under Louis XVI and Napoleon. Honoré’s mother came from a family of prosperous Parisian cloth merchants. His sister Laure (later de Surville) was his only childhood friend, and she became his first biographer.

Balzac was sent to school at the Collège des Oratoriens at Vendôme from age 8 to 14. At Napoleon’s downfall his family moved from Tours to Paris, where he went to school for two more years and then spent three years as a lawyer’s clerk. During this time he already aimed at a literary career, but as the writer of Cromwell (1819) and other tragic plays he was utterly unsuccessful. He then began writing novels filled with mystic and philosophical speculations before turning to the production of potboilers—gothic, humorous, historical novels—written under composite pseudonyms. Then he tried a business career as a publisher, printer, and owner of a typefoundry, but disaster soon followed. In 1828 he was narrowly saved from bankruptcy and was left with debts of more than 60,000 francs. From then on his life was to be one of mounting debts and almost incessant toil. He returned to writing with a new mastery, and his literary apprenticeship was over.

Two works of 1829 brought Balzac to the brink of success. Les Chouans, the first novel he felt enough confidence about to have published under his own name, is a historical novel about the Breton peasants called Chouans who took part in a royalist insurrection against Revolutionary France in 1799. The other, La Physiologie du mariage (The Physiology of Marriage), is a humorous and satirical essay on the subject of marital infidelity, encompassing both its causes and its cure. The six stories in his Scènes de la vie privée (1830; Scenes from Private Life) further increased his reputation. These long short stories are for the most part psychological studies of girls in conflict with parental authority. The minute attention he gave to describing domestic background in his works anticipated the spectacularly detailed societal observations of his later Parisian studies.

From this point forward Balzac spent much of his time in Paris. He began to frequent some of the best-known Parisian salons of the day and redoubled his efforts to set himself up as a dazzling figure in society. To most people he seemed full of exuberant vitality, talkative, jovial and robustious, egoistic, credulous, and boastful. He adopted for his own use the armorial bearings of an ancient noble family with which he had no connection and assumed the honorific particle de. He was avid for fame, fortune, and love but was above all conscious of his own genius. He also began to have love affairs with fashionable or aristocratic women at this time, finally gaining that firsthand understanding of mature women that is so evident in his novels.

Between 1828 and 1834 Balzac led a tumultuous existence, spending his earnings in advance as a dandy and man-about-town. A fascinating raconteur, he was fairly well received in society. But social ostentation was only a relaxation from phenomenal bouts of work—14 to 16 hours spent writing at his table in his white, quasi-monastic dressing gown, with his goose-quill pen and his endless cups of black coffee. In 1832 Balzac became friendly with Éveline Hanska, a Polish countess who was married to an elderly Ukrainian landowner. She, like many other women, had written to Balzac expressing admiration of his writings. They met twice in Switzerland in 1833—the second time in Geneva, where they became lovers—and again in Vienna in 1835. They agreed to marry when her husband died, and so Balzac continued to conduct his courtship of her by correspondence; the resulting Lettres à l’étrangère (Letters to a Foreigner), which appeared posthumously (4 vol., 1889–1950), are an important source of information for the history both of Balzac’s life and of his work.

To clear his debts and put himself in a position to marry Madame Hanska now became Balzac’s great incentive. He was at the peak of his creative power. In the period 1832–35 he produced more than 20 works, including the novels Le Médecin de campagne (1833; The Country Doctor), Eugénie Grandet (1833), L’Illustre Gaudissart (1833; The Illustrious Gaudissart), and Le Père Goriot (1835), one of his masterpieces. Among the shorter works were Le Colonel Chabert (1832), Le Curé de Tours (1832; The Vicar of Tours), the trilogy of stories entitled Histoire des treize (1833–35; History of the Thirteen), and Gobseck (1835). Between 1836 and 1839 he wrote Le Cabinet des antiques (1839), the first two parts of another masterpiece, Illusions perdues (1837–43; Lost Illusions), César Birotteau (1837), and La Maison Nucingen (1838; The Firm of Nucingen). Between 1832 and 1837 he also published three sets of Contes drolatiques (Droll Stories). These stories, Rabelaisian in theme, are written with great verve and gusto in an ingenious pastiche of 16th-century language. During the 1830s he also wrote a number of philosophical novels dealing with mystical, pseudoscientific, and other exotic themes. Among these are La Peau de chagrin (1831; The Wild Ass’s Skin), Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (1831; The Unknown Masterpiece), Louis Lambert (1834), La Recherche de l’absolu (1834; The Quest of the Absolute), and Séraphîta (1834–35).

In all these varied works Balzac emerged as the supreme observer and chronicler of contemporary French society. These novels are unsurpassed for their narrative drive, their large casts of vital, diverse, and interesting characters, and their obsessive interest in and examination of virtually all spheres of life: the contrast between provincial and metropolitan manners and customs; the commercial spheres of banking, publishing, and industrial enterprise; the worlds of art, literature, and high culture; politics and partisan intrigue; romantic love in all its aspects; and the intricate social relations and scandals among the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie.

No theme is more typically Balzacian than that of the ambitious young provincial fighting for advancement in the competitive world of Paris. Balzac admired those individuals who were ruthless, astute, and, above all, successful in thrusting their way up the social and economic scale at all costs. He was especially attracted by the theme of the individual in conflict with society: the adventurer, the scoundrel, the unscrupulous financier, and the criminal. Frequently his villains are more vigorous and interesting than his virtuous characters. He was both fascinated and appalled by the French social system of his time, in which the bourgeois values of material acquisitiveness and gain were steadily replacing what he viewed as the more stable moral values of the old-time aristocracy.

These topics provided material largely unknown, or unexplored, by earlier writers of French fiction. The individual in Balzac’s stories is continually affected by the pressure of material difficulties and social ambitions, and he may expend his tremendous vitality in ways Balzac views as socially destructive and self-destructive. Linked with this idea of the potentially destructive power of passionate will, emotion, and thought is Balzac’s peculiar notion of a vital fluid concentrated inside the person, a store of energy that he may husband or squander as he desires, thereby lengthening or shortening his vital span. Indeed, a supremely important feature in Balzac’s characters is that most are spendthrifts of this vital force, a fact that explains his monomaniacs who are both victim and embodiment of some ruling passion; avarice, as in the main character of Gobseck, a usurer gloating over his sense of power, or the miserly father obsessed with riches in Eugénie Grandet; excessive paternal affection, as in the idolatrous Learlike father in Le Père Goriot; feminine vindictiveness, as evidenced in La Cousine Bette and a half-dozen other novels; the mania of the art collector, as in Le Cousin Pons; the artist’s desire for perfection, as in Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu; the curiosity of the scientist, as in the fanatical chemist of La Recherche de l’absolu; or the vaulting and frustrated ambition of the astonishingly resourceful criminal mastermind Vautrin in Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. Once such an obsession has gained a hold, Balzac shows it growing irresistibly in power and blinding the person concerned to all other considerations. The typical structure of his novels from the early 1830s onward is determined by this approach: there is a long period of preparation and exposition, and then tension mounts swiftly to an inevitable climax, as in classical tragedy.

La Comédie humaine

The year 1834 marks a climax in Balzac’s career, for by then he had become totally conscious of his great plan to group his individual novels so that they would comprehend the whole of contemporary society in a diverse but unified series of books. There were to be three general categories of novels: Études analytiques (Analytic Studies), dealing with the principles governing human life and society; Études philosophiques (Philosophical Studies), revealing the causes determining human action; and Études de moeurs (Studies of Manners), showing the effects of those causes, and themselves to be divided into six kinds of scènes—private, provincial, Parisian, political, military, and country life. This entire project resulted in a total of 12 volumes (1834–37). By 1837 Balzac had written much more, and by 1840 he had hit upon a Dantesque title for the whole: La Comédie humaine. He negotiated with a consortium of publishers for an edition under this name, 17 volumes of which appeared between 1842 and 1848, including a famous foreword written in 1842. In 1845, having new works to include and many others in project, he began preparing for another complete edition. A definitive edition was published, in 24 volumes, between 1869 and 1876. The total number of novels and novellas comprised in the Comédie humaine is roughly 90.

Also in 1834 the idea of using reappearing characters matured. Balzac was to establish a pool of characters from which he would constantly and repeatedly draw, thus adding a sense of solidarity and coherence to the Comédie humaine. A certain character would reappear—now in the forefront, now in the background, of different fictions—in such a way that the reader could gradually form a full picture of him. Balzac’s use of this device places him among the originators of the modern novel cycle. In the end, the total number of named characters in the Comédie humaine is estimated to have reached 2,472, with a further 566 unnamed characters.

In January 1842 Balzac learned of the death of Wenceslas Hanski. He now had good expectations of marrying Éveline, but there were many obstacles, not the least being his inextricable indebtedness. She in fact held back for many years, and the period of 1842–48 shows Balzac continuing and even intensifying his literary activity in the frantic hope of winning her, though he had to contend with increasing ill health.

Balzac produced many notable works during the early and mid-1840s. These include the masterpieces Une Ténébreuse Affaire (1841; A Shady Business), La Rabouilleuse (1841–42; The Black Sheep), Ursule Mirouët (1841), and one of his greatest works, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1843–47; A Harlot High and Low). Balzac’s last two masterpieces were La Cousine Bette (1847; Cousin Bette) and Le Cousin Pons (1847; Cousin Pons).

In the autumn of 1847 Balzac went to Madame Hanska’s château at Wierzchownia and remained there until February 1848. He returned again in October to stay, mortally sick, until the spring of 1850. Then at last Éveline relented. They were married in March and proceeded to Paris, where Balzac lingered on miserably for the few months before his death.

Balzac did not quite realize his tremendous aim of making his novels comprehend the whole of society at that time. His projected scenes of military and political life were only partially completed, and there were certain other gaps, for instance in regard to the new class of industrial workers. Nevertheless, few novelists have thronged their pages with men and women drawn from so many different spheres, nor with characters so widely representative of human passions and frailties, projected with dynamic and convincing force.

Balzac was notable for his peculiar methods of composition. He often began with a relatively simple subject and a brief first draft, but fresh ideas came crowding in during composition until finally the story expanded far beyond his first intention. The trouble lay in the fact that Balzac tended to expand and amplify his original story by making emendations after it had been typeset by the printers. The original skeleton of a story was thus filled out until it had reached the proportions of a full-length novel, but only at a ruinous cost of printer’s bills to its author. Even when the novel was in print he would frequently introduce new variations on his theme, as successive editions appeared.

Balzac’s method was almost invariably to reinforce, to emphasize, and to amplify. There are lengthy digressions in which he aired his remarkably detailed knowledge of legal procedures, financial manipulations, or industrial processes, but at its best his style is remarkably graphic, fast-moving and tersely epigrammatic but richly studded with sarcasm, wit, and psychological observation. His command of the French language was probably unrivaled, and he was also an outstanding master of dialogue. His sardonic humour saves his more pessimistic stories from being uniformly dark, and he had a real gift for comedy.

Balzac is regarded as the creator of realism in the novel. He is also acknowledged as having helped to establish the technique of the traditional novel, in which consequent and logically determined events are narrated by an all-seeing observer (the omniscient narrator) and characters are coherently presented. Balzac had exceptional powers of observation and a photographic memory, but he also had a sympathetic, intuitive capacity to understand and describe other people’s attitudes, feelings, and motivations. He was bent on illustrating the relation between cause and effect, between social background and character. His ambition was to compete with the civil register, exactly picturing his contemporaries in their class distinctions and occupations. In this he succeeded, but he went even further in his efforts to show that the human spirit has power over men and events—to become, as he has been called, the Shakespeare of the novel..

Honoré de Balzac (born Honoré Balssa, May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) was a novelist and playwright in nineteenth-century France. His work formed part of the foundation of the realist tradition in European literature, with particular focus on his remarkably complex characters.

Family and Early Life

Honoré’s father, Bernard-Francois Balssa, was from a large lower-class family. As a young man, he worked hard to climb up the social ladder and eventually did so, working for the governments of both Louis XVI and, later, Napoleon. He changed his name to Francois Balzac to sound more like the aristocrats he now interacted with, and eventually married the daughter of a wealthy family, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier. The age gap was considerable – thirty-two years – and was arranged in gratitude for Francois’s assistance to the family. It never was a love match.

Despite this, the couple had five children. Honoré was the eldest to survive infancy, and was closest in age and affection to his sister Laure, born a year later. Honoré attended the local grammar school, but struggled with the rigid structure and consequently was a poor student, even once he was returned to the care of his family and private tutors. It was not until he entered university at the Sorbonne that he began to thrive, studying history, literature, and philosophy under some of the great minds of the day.

After college, Honoré began a career as a law clerk on the advice of his father. He was intensely dissatisfied with the work, but it did provide him with the opportunity to come into contact with and observe people of all walks of life and the moral dilemmas inherent in the practice of the law. Leaving his law career caused some discord with his family, but Honoré held firm.

Early Career

Honoré began his attempts at a literary career as a playwright, then, under a pseudonym, as a co-writer of potboiler novels: quickly-written, often scandalous novels, the equivalent of modern-day trashy paperbacks. He tried his hand at journalism, commenting on the political and cultural state of the post-Napoleon era in France, and failed miserably at his business venture when he tried to make a living as a publisher and printer.

In this literary era, two specific subgenres of novels were in vogue both critically and popularly: historical novels and personal novels (that is, those which narrate a specific person’s life in detail). Honoré embraced this style of writing, bringing his own experiences with debtors, the printing industry, and the law into his novels. This experience set him apart from the bourgeois novelists of the past and many of his contemporaries, whose knowledge of other ways of life was entirely gleaned from previous writers’ depictions.

La Comedie Humaine

In 1829, he wrote Les Chouans, the first novel he published under his own name. This would become the first entry into his career-defining work: a series of intertwined stories depicting various facets of French life during the Restoration and July Monarchy periods (that is, from about 1815 to 1848). When he published his next novel, El Verdugo, he again used a new name: Honoré de Balzac, rather than just Honoré Balzac. The de was used to denote noble origins, so Honoré adopted it in order to better fit into respected circles of society.

In many of the novels that make up La Comedie Humaine, Honoré moved between sweeping portraits of French society as a whole and the small, intimate details of individual lives. Among his most successful works were La Duchesse de Langeais, Eugenie Grandet, and Pere Goriot. The novels ranged hugely in length, from the thousand-page epic Illusions Perdues to the novella La Fille aux yeux d’or.

The novels in this series were notable for their realism, particularly when it came to their characters. Rather than writing characters who were paragons of good or evil, Honoré depicted people in a much more realistic, nuanced light; even his minor characters were shaded with different layers. He also gained a reputation for his naturalistic depictions of time and place, as well as driving narratives and intricate relationships.

Honoré’s writing habits were the stuff of legend. He could write for fifteen or sixteen hours a day, with copious amounts of coffee to fuel his concentration and energy. In many instances, he became obsessed with perfecting the smallest details, often making change after change. This didn’t necessarily stop when the books were sent off to the printers, either: he frustrated many a printer by rewriting and editing even after the proofs were sent to him.

Social and Family Life

Despite his obsessive work life, Honoré managed to have a thriving social life. He was popular in society circles for his storytelling prowess, and he counted other famous figures of the day – including fellow novelist Victor Hugo – among his acquaintance. His first love was Maria Du Fresnay, a fellow writer who was unhappily married to a much older man. She bore Honoré’s daughter, Marie-Caroline Du Fresnay, in 1834. He had also had an earlier mistress, an older woman by the name of Madame de Berny, who had saved him from financial ruin prior to his novelistic success.

Honoré’s great love story, though, began in a way that seems like something from a novel. He received an anonymous letter in 1832 that criticized the cynical depictions of faith and of women in one of his novels. In response, he posted an advertisement in a newspaper to attract his critic’s attention, and the pair began a correspondence that lasted fifteen years. The person on the other side of these letters was Ewelina Hanska, a Polish countess. Honoré and Ewelina were both highly intelligent, passionate people, and their letters were full of such topics. They first met in person in 1833.

Her much-older husband died in 1841, and Honoré traveled to St. Petersburg, where she was staying, in 1843 to meet her again. Because they both had complicated finances, and Ewelina’s family was mistrusted by the Russian tsar, they were unable to marry until 1850, by which time they were both suffering health issues. Honoré had no children with Ewelina, although he did father children from other earlier affairs.

Death and Literary Legacy

Honoré only enjoyed his marriage for a few months before he fell ill. His mother arrived in time to say goodbye, and his friend Victor Hugo visited him on the day before his death. Honoré de Balzac died quietly on August 18, 1850. He is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and a statue of him, the Balzac Monument, sits at a nearby intersection.

The greatest legacy Honoré de Balzac left behind was the use of realism in the novel. The structure of his novels, in which the plot is presented in sequential order by an omniscient narrator and one event causes another, was influential for many later writers. Literary scholars have also focused on his exploration of the links between social standing and character development, as well as a belief in the strength of the human spirit that has endured to this day.

The French novelist Honoré de Balzac was the first writer to use fiction to convey the social scene prevailing at a particular period in one country's history.

Childhood

Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799, the eldest son of four children of Bernard François and Anne Charlotte Balzac. His mother was thirty-two years younger than his father, and the young Honoré was taken into another home and cared for until the age of four. His mother saw the birth of her son as her duty and treated him indifferently. Her lack of affection overshadowed his childhood. Sent to boarding school at the age of eight, Honoré sought a place to escape from the fierce school discipline. He found this place in books. But excessive reading eventually brought on a nervous condition, which affected his health, and he was brought home in 1813. The following year his family moved to Paris, France, where he completed his secondary education in law.

Adulthood

Rebelling against his parents, Balzac refused to enter the legal profession and instead declared writing as his profession. Despite disappointment, his father provided a small allowance with the understanding that he had to be financially independent within two years. Working together with friends, Balzac wrote several sensational (superficial, appealing to the senses) novels, none signed with his own name. These books were without literary merit, but he earned his living by them.

Searching for ways to make his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next entered a series of business ventures using borrowed funds. These commercial ventures were also failures, leaving him with very large debts.

Thereafter he published the first novel that he signed with his own name. Le Dernier Chouan was a historical novel. Since historical novels were the fashion, the book was well received. But real fame came to him two years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a fantasy that acts as an allegory (a symbolic representation) of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive.

Author and socialite

The constant struggle to earn enough to keep his creditors at bay drove him to a timetable of work that eventually ruined his health. He increased his hours from ten to fourteen or even eighteen a day, keeping himself awake with frequent cups of strong coffee. Whenever Balzac took a break from his writing, he would frequent fashionable salons (stylish lounges), where he was well received by female readers.

The Human Comedy

Balzac's lifework consists of a series of some ninety novels and short stories collected under the title La Comédie humaine ( The Human Comedy ) in 1841. The Human Comedy was subdivided into smaller groups of novels: Scenes of Private Life, Scenes of Political Life, Scenes of Parisian, Provincial, and Country Life. There was a separate group of Philosophical Studies.

The novels were linked by both history and character. This practice enhanced the realistic illusion and also permitted Balzac to develop the psychology (involving the mind) of individual characters more fully than would have been feasible within the limits of a single novel.

Social and ethical assumptions

In a preface to his work in 1842, he defined his function as that of secretary of French society. Accordingly, every class of people, from aristocrat to peasant, has a place in The Human Comedy.

Balzac often assigned the basest (lowest in value or quality) motivations to his characters. He once wrote that the lust for gold and the search for pleasure were the sole principles that ruled humanity. The monomaniac—the man obsessed by a purpose or passion, to the point of sacrificing his own comfort and the welfare of his dependents—is constantly encountered in Balzac's more impressive novels.

Balzac was writing in an age when the struggle for existence or social advancement among the poor was at its fiercest. Balzac himself disliked the disorderly individualism that he observed around him. Human nature, in his view, was basically depraved (morally wrong; evil); any machinery—legal, political, or religious—whereby the wickedness of men could be stopped, ought to be repaired and strengthened.

Marriage and death

During his last years Balzac suffered from poor health, and his morale had been weakened by the disappointments he endured in his one great love affair. In 1832 he had received his first letter from Madame Hanska, the wife of a Polish nobleman. Thereafter they kept up a correspondence, interrupted by occasional vacations spent together in different parts of Europe. In 1841 her husband died, but Madame Hanska obstinately refused to marry Balzac. Only when he fell gravely ill did she agree. The wedding took place at her home on March 14, 1850. The long journey back to France took a serious toll on Balzac's health, and he died on August 18, 1850.

On May 20, 1799, French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac was born. He is best known for his his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, which is reflected in his opus magnum, the Comédie Humaine, sequence of short stories and novels, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815–1848). Overall, La Comédie Humaine was supposed to comprise 137 novels and short stories, of which Balzac could only finish 91volumes during lifetime, which makes Balzac a rather prolific writer, considering that he already died at age 50. By reusing already introduced characters in his stories, he created a connective linking everything together to a series. His goal was to depicting all society, sketching it in the immensity of its turmoil.

Writing against his Father’s Wishes

Honoré Balzac was born on May 20, 1799, as the second of five children to Bernard-François Balzac, Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason, and Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, who came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. She was eighteen at the time of the wedding, and Bernard-François fifty. His father, never called himself de Balzac and Honoré only assumed the noble particle after 1830. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse followed by his younger sister the next year. When both siblings returned home, they were kept at a frigid distance by their parents, which affected the author-to-be significantly. From 1807 to 1813 Balzac visited boarding school at the collège des oratoriens de Vendôme in the Centre region of France. However, from sixteen years of age he left his native region to study in Paris. Honoré was placed as a clerk in an attorney’s office and enrolled at the Sorbonne where he studied civil and criminal law. But, against his father’s wishes he turned to a career in writing. As a journalist, Balzac wrote essays on various topics including politics which garnered much of his attention, while working on his short stories and novels. Extremely poor and living in a garret in Paris, he published under pseudonyms. These books were without literary merit, but he earned his living by them.

Giving up all Hopes to live a Prosperous Life

    It is easier to be a lover than a husband, for the same reason that it is more difficult to be witty every day, than to say bright things from time to time.

    — Honoré de Balzac, Physiology of Marriage (1829)

Searching for ways to make his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next entered a series of business ventures using borrowed funds. But, these commercial ventures were also failures, leaving him with very large debts. Finally, at age 29 he had given up all hopes to live a prosperous life, he published the first novel signed with his own name entitled Le Dernier Chouan, a historical novel. Since historical novels were the fashion, the book was well received. But real fame came to him two years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a fantasy that acts as an allegory of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive.

The Human Comedy

In 1832, Balzac conceived the idea for an enormous series of books that would paint a panoramic portrait of all aspects of society. When the idea struck, he raced to his sister’s apartment and proclaimed: I am about to become a genius. Although he originally called the series Etudes des Mœurs (Study of Mores), it eventually became known as La Comédie Humaine, and he included in it all the fiction that he had published in his lifetime under his own name. This was to be Balzac’s life work and his greatest achievement.

Balzac caricature by Nadar in 1850

Balzac counts as a representative of the 19th century realism movement. As a hard working writer, he worked on his writing continuously for long hours without sleep. His preferred method of working was to eat a light meal at five or six in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee. His consumption of coffee is considered legendary. He would often work for fifteen hours or more at a stretch. He wrote numerous notes and revised his work obsessively. The characters he wrote about carried a realistic element in them, they neither were super heroes nor completely evil, they represented the everyday person. His characters also came from an array of social states and classes. His detailed description of the location of the story entrapped the reader making the story sound as real as possible. He wrote The author firmly believes that details alone will henceforth determine the merit of works….

Balzac’s Influence

Balzac influenced the writers of his time and beyond. Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and also Henry James were deeply influenced by the works of Balzac. He has been compared to Charles Dickens and critic W. H. Helm actually called one the French Dickens and the other the English Balzac. Also Karl Marx made ongoing references of Balzac in his seminal work Das Kapital. At age 50, only five months after his late wedding, on 18 August, 1850, Honoré de Balzac passed away. The funeral at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris was attended by "almost every writer in Paris.

French journalist and writer, one of the creators of realism in literature. Balzac's huge production of novels and short stories are collected under the name La Comédie humaine, which originated from Dante's The Divine Comedy. Before his breakthrough as an author, Balzac wrote without success several plays and novels under different pseudonyms. Despite prolific output and large incomes, Balzac was constantly in debt.

    ...Well, Balzac was politically a legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the irreparable decay of good society; his sympathies are with the class that is doomed to extinction. But for all that, his satire is never keener, his irony never more bitter, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles... (Friedrich Engels in 1888)

Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours. His father, Bernard-François Balssa, named his son after St Honoré whose day had just been celebrated. He had risen to the middle class, and married in 1797 the daughter of his Parisian superior, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier; she was 31 years his junior. The marriage was arranged by her father. Bernard-François had worked as a state prosecutor and Secretary to the King's Council in Paris. During the French Revolution, he was a member of the Commune, but was transferred to Tours in 1795 because of helping his former royalist protectors. Bernard-François felt at home in the land of Rabelais, and started energetically to run the local hospital. In 1814 the family moved back to Paris.

Balzac spent the first four years of life in foster care, not so uncommon a practice in France even in the 20th century. From the village of Saint-Cyr, he returned to his parents at the age of four. Balzac was an ordinary pupil at school. He studied at the Collège de Vendôme and the Sorbonne, and then worked in law offices. In 1819, when his family moved for financial reasons to the small town of Villeparisis, Balzac announced that he wanted to be a writer. He returned to Paris and was installed in a shabby room at 9 rue Lediguiéres, near the Bibliothéque de l'Arsenal, where he wrote pulp romance novels under the pseudonyms of Lord R'Hoone and Horace de Saint-Aubin. A few years later he described the place in La Peau de chagrin (1831), a fantastic tale owing much to E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). Balzac's first work was Cromwell. The tragedy in verse made the whole family dispirited. Towards the end of his career his attention turned to drama again, but this time his plays, such as Vautrin (1840) and La Marâtre (1848), were well received by the critics.

By 1822 Balzac had produced several novels, but he was ignored as a writer. Only his devoted sister Laure, who became Balzac's first biographer, believed in his work. The author should do anything except literarure, said the influential lawyer and dramatist François Andrieux after reading one of his plays. To the shock of his mother, Balzac also started an affair with her friend, Mme Laure de Berny, who was twenty-two years his senior. The affair continued until her death.

Against his family's hopes, Balzac continued his career in literature, with the conviction that the simplest road to success was writing. Unfortunately, he also tried his skills in business. Balzac ran a publishing company and he bought a printing house, which did not have much to print. When these commercial activities failed, Balzac was left with a heavy burden of debt. It plagued him to the end of his career. All happiness depends on courage and work, Balzac once said. I have had many periods of wretchedness, but with energy and above all with illusions, I pulled through them all.

After the period of failures, Balzac was 29 years old, and his efforts had been fruitless. Accepting the hospitality of General de Pommereul, he spent a short time at their home in Fougères in Brittany in search of a local color for his new novel. In 1829 appeared  Le dernier Chouan (later called Les Chouans), a historical work in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, which he wrote under his own name. Gradually Balzac began to gain notice as an author. Between the years 1830 and 1832 he composed six novelettes titled Scènes de la vie privée. The work, addressed more or less to a female readership, was first published in La Presse.

When Balzac's mother miraculously recovered from an illness, he started to study the works of Jacob Boehme, Swedenborg, and followed Anton Mesmer's lectures about 'animal magnetism' at Sorbonne. These influences are seen in La peau de chargin, in which the hero character uses magical powers to gain success. The 'philosophical' novel brought Balzac about 5,000 francs.

In Louis Lambert (1832), an early examination of schizophrenia, and Séraphîta (1834), a fantastic story of a hermaphroditic angel, Balzac refers to Swedenborgian doctrines, of which he had only a shaky grasp. However, it did not prevent him from declaring himself a Swedenborgian many times. (The Dream of An Absolute Language: Emanuel Swedenborg and French Literary Culture by Lynn R. Wilkinson, 1996, pp. 151-152) Especially these novels fascinated the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, who probably got their knowledge of Swedenborg's philosophy from reading Balzac. ('Balzacian Mysticism, Palindromic Design, and Heavenly Time in Berg's Music' by John Covach, in Encrypted Messages in Alban Berg's Music, edited by Siglind Bruhn, 1998, pp. 13-15)

Mysticism was grounded in Balzac's family heritage. His father had been a Freemason, his mother was interested in Illuminism and it has been suggested that Balzac himself had been initiated into Martinism, based on the writings of the French 18th-century mystic Louis Claude de Saint-Martin and Martinès de Pasqually. Balzac even established his own short-lived secret society, Ordre du Cheval Rouge, named after a mediocre restaurant near Jardin des Plantes. The association  published newspaper articles celebrating  the genius of the Napoleon of literature. In his study on rue Cassini, Balzac had a small plaster statuette of Napoleon. Like Victor Hugo, his slightly younger contemporary, he idealized and emulated Napoleon Bonaparte, who represented for him a symbol of greatness. Both authors aimed at literary immortality; this would prove them equal to their idol. (Balzac's Concept of Genius: The Theme of Superiority in the Comédie Humaine by Gretchen R. Besser, 1969, pp. 131-132)

In 1833 Balzac conceived the idea of linking together his old novels so that they would comprehend the whole society in a series of books. This plan eventually led to 90 novels and novellas, which included more than 2,000 characters. Balzac's huge and ambitious plan drew a picture of the customs, atmosphere, and habits of the bourgeois France. With great energy, Balzac got down to the work, but also found time to pile up huge debts and fail in hopeless financial operations. I am not deep, the author once said, but very wide. Once he developed a plan to gain success in raising pineapples at his home at Ville d'Avray (Sevres). After two years, he had to flee from his creditors and conceal his identity under the name of his housekeeper, Madame de Brugnolle.

In the 'Avant-propos' to The Human Comedy (1842) Balzac compares theories of the animal kingdom and human society. Does not Society make of man, according to the milieu in which his activity takes places, as many different men as there are varieties in zoology? Like the French naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Balzac sees that human life and human customs are more multifarious and there are dramatic conflicts in love which seldom occur among animals.

Among the masterpieces of The Human Comedy are Le Père Goriot, Les Illusions perdues, Les Paysans, La Femme de trente ans, and Eugénie Grandet. In these books Balzac covered a world from Paris to Provinces. The primary landscape is Paris, with its old aristocracy, new financial wealth, middle-class trade, demi-monde, professionals, servants, young intellectuals, clerks, criminals... This social mosaic included recurrent characters, such as Eugène Rastignac, who comes from an impoverished provincial family to Paris, mixes with the nobility, pursues wealth, has many mistresses, gambles, and has a successful political career. Henry de Marsay appeared in twenty-five different novels. There are many anecdotes about Balzac's relationship to his characters, who also lived in the author's imagination outside the novels. Once Balzac interrupted one of his friends, who was telling about his sister's illness, by saying: That's all very well, but let's get back to reality: to whom are we going to marry Eugénie Grandet?

    Balzac himself always speaks of his characters as of natural phenomena, and when he wants to describe his artistic intentions, he never speaks of his psychology, but always of his sociology, of his natural history of society and of the function of the individual in the life of the social body. He became, anyhow, the master of the social novel, if not as the 'doctor of the social sciences', as he described himself, yet as the founder of the new conception of man, according to which 'the individual exists only in relation to society'. (Arnold Hauser in Social History of Art, Vol. 4, 1962)

Le Père Goriot (1835), originally published in the Revue de Paris in 1834, appeared in book form in 1835. The story is an adaptation of Shakespeare's play King Lear, a pessimistic study of bourgeois society's ills after the French Revolution. It tells the intertwined stories of Eugène de Rastignac, an ambitious but penniless young man, and old Goriot, a father who sacrifices everything for his children. His daughters Anastaria and Delphine are married into a rich family. They are ashamed of their father and visit him only to ask for money. Rastignac falls in love with Delphine. Goriot has gradually lost all his money, not having enough for even a proper burial. On his death bed Goriot learns about his daughters' egoism – they don't come to see him. Admitting his own guilt, Goriot forgives his daughters. Rastignac pays the expenses of the burial. Goriot's coffin is followed by the empty luxurious carriages of the daughters. Balzac describes lovingly the topography of Paris, his Muse. The city is one of the characters, and has a language and will of its own: Left alone, Rastignac walked a few steps to the highest part of the cemetery, and saw Paris spread out below on both banks of the winding Seine. Lights were beginning to twinkle here and there. His gaze fixed almost avidly upon the space that lay between the column of the Place Vendôme and the dome of the Invalides; there lay the splendid world that he wished to conquer. (from Old Goriot, 1835)

Balzac worked often in Saché, near Tours, although a great part of his work was done in Paris. From 1828-36 he lived at 1 rue Cassini, near the Observatory, on the edge of the city. In 1847 he moved to the Rue Fortunée. Balzac used to energetically write 14 to 16 hours daily, drinking large amounts of specially blended Parisian coffee. After supper he slept some hours, woke up at midnight and wrote until morning. Balzac was a true industrial, who produced books to do honour to his signature, said Zola, addressing his words to critics who had accused the author of just churning out books for money. (Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit, and Power by Marilyn Randall, 2001, pp. 166-168) Despite his devotion to his art, Balzac had time for affairs and he enjoyed life. It is told that Balzac once devoured first 100 oysters, and then 12 lamb chops with vegetables and fruits. The characters of his books appreciate good food, too.

La Cousine Bette (1846) contained thinly veiled autobiographical elements of the author's love affairs. In the story a spinster, Cousin Bette, tries to gain revenge for all her disappointments against her family and the beautiful courtesan Valerie Marneffe. The aristocratic Baron Hulot d'Evry, whom Bette had wanted to marry, had married her cousin, Adeline. She also loses her new love, Count Wenceslas Steinbock, to Baron Hulot's daughter. Valerie seduces Hulot, who has several mistresses, and Steinbock. After some financial troubles Hulot escapes into the slums, where Adeline finds him. Bette falls ill with pneumonia and dies. Hulot continues his affairs with a cook, and finally marries the cook's apprentice.

Gervais Charpentier published the best novels of Balzac in a new format, the octodecimo jésus – it was much cheaper than the traditional octavo volume. Balzac lived mostly in his villa in Sèvres during his later years. Close to his heart was Madame de Berny, who inspired the novel Le Lys dans la vallée (1836, Lily of the Valley); her death in 1837 came as a deep blow to the author. With Eveline Hanska, a rich Polish lady, Balzac corresponded for more than 15 years. The correspondence started in 1832. Eveline Hanska posed as a model for some of his feminine portraits (Madame Hulot in La Cousine Bette). I cannot put two ideas together that you don't come between them, Balzac wrote in a letter to her. Like Balzac, Mme Hanska was interested in de Saint-Martin, who called himself The Unknown Philosopher. She had a notebook filled with excerpts of his works.

In the spring of 1837, Balzac went to Italy to recuperate, and to see the bust of Madame Hanska, made by Bartolini. He also asked her permission to have a copy of it, half size, made for himself. In October 1848 Balzac travelled to Ukraine. Mme Hanska's husband had died in 1841 and Balzac could now stay with her a longer time. His health had already broken down, but they were married in March 1850. Three days ago I married the only woman I have ever loved, Balzac wrote in a letter to a friend, forgetting other women in his life. He returned with his newly wed wife to Paris, where he died on August 18, 1850. At his funeral Victor Hugo delivered an address, saying: Today we see him at peace. He has escaped from controversies and enmities..... Henceforward he will shine far above all those clouds which float over our heads, among the brightest stars of his native land.

The only known daguerreotype of the author, by Louis-Auguste Bisson, is from 1842. In the plate, Balzac wears a white open collared shirt, his right hand– writing hand – is placed upon his heart. Upon commission by the Société des Gens de Lettres, Auguste Rodin spent seven years working on the Monument to Balzac, showing him in a long dressing gown. The model was rejected bythe Société in 1898 and Rodin returned the money from the commission. He made also nude statues of Balzac.

SCÈNES

DE

LA VIE PRIVÉE

TOME 1


LA MAISON DU CHAT-QUI-PELOTE—LE BAL DE SCEAUX

LA BOURSE—LA VENDETTA—MADAME FIRMIANI

UNE DOUBLE FAMILLE—LA PAIX DU MÉNAGE—LA FAUSSE MAITRESSE

ÉTUDE DE FEMME—ALBERT SAVARUS


PARIS

VE ADRE HOUSSIAUX, ÉDITEUR

HÉBERT ET CIE, SUCCESSEURS

7, RUE PERRONET, 7

1874

1

HONORÉ DE BALZAC


Balzac naquit à Tours le 16 mai 1799, le jour de la fête de saint Honoré, dont on lui donna le nom, qui parut bien sonnant et de bon augure. Le petit Honoré ne fut pas un enfant prodige; il n'annonça pas prématurément qu'il ferait la Comédie humaine. C'était un garçon frais, vermeil, bien portant, joueur, aux yeux brillants et doux, mais que rien ne distinguait des autres, du moins à des regards peu attentifs. A sept ans, au sortir d'un externat de Tours, on le mit au collége de Vendôme, tenu par des oratoriens, où il passa pour un élève très-médiocre.

La première partie de Louis Lambert contient sur ce temps de la vie de Balzac de curieux renseignements. Dédoublant sa personnalité, il s'y peint comme un ancien condisciple de Louis Lambert, tantôt en parlant en son nom, et tantôt prêtant ses propres sentiments à ce personnage imaginaire, mais pourtant très-réel, puisqu'il est une sorte d'objectif de l'âme même de l'écrivain.

Balzac souffrit prodigieusement dans ce collége de Vendôme, où sa nature rêveuse était meurtrie à chaque instant par une règle inflexible. Il négligeait de faire ses devoirs; mais, favorisé par la complicité tacite d'un répétiteur de mathématiques, en même temps bibliothécaire et occupé de quelque ouvrage transcendental, il ne prenait pas sa leçon et emportait les livres qu'il voulait. Tout son temps se passait à lire en cachette. Aussi fut-il bientôt l'élève le plus puni de sa classe. Les pensums, les retenues absorbèrent bientôt le temps des récréations; à certaines natures d'écoliers, les châtiments inspirent une sorte de rébellion stoïque, 2 et ils opposent aux professeurs exaspérés la même impassibilité dédaigneuse que les guerriers sauvages captifs aux ennemis qui les torturent. Ni le cachot, ni la privation d'aliments, ni la férule ne parviennent à leur arracher la moindre plainte; ce sont alors, entre le maître et l'élève, des luttes horribles, inconnues des parents, où la constance des martyrs et l'habileté des bourreaux se trouvent égalées. Quelques professeurs nerveux ne peuvent supporter le regard de haine, de mépris et de menace par lequel un bambin de huit ou dix ans les brave.

Le résultat de ces travaux cachés, de ces méditations qui prenaient le temps des études, fut ce fameux Traité de la volonté, dont il est parlé plusieurs fois dans la Comédie humaine. Balzac regretta toujours la perte de cette première œuvre, qu'il esquisse sommairement dans Louis Lambert, il dut être moins sensible à la perte de son poëme épique sur les Incas, inspiration malencontreuse qui lui valut, tout le temps qu'il resta au collége, le sobriquet dérisoire de Poëte. Balzac, il faut l'avouer, n'eut jamais le don de poésie, de versification, du moins; sa pensée si complexe resta toujours rebelle au rhythme.

A propos de vers, consignons ici un petit renseignement qui pourra amuser les curieux littéraires. Les quelques sonnets que Lucien de Rubempré fait voir comme échantillon de son volume de vers au libraire Dauriat ne sont pas de Balzac, qui ne faisait pas de vers, et demandait à ses amis ceux dont il avait besoin. Le sonnet de la Marguerite est de Mme de Girardin; le sonnet sur le Camellia, de Lassailly; celui sur la Tulipe, de votre serviteur.

Modeste Mignon renferme aussi une pièce de vers, mais nous en ignorons l'auteur.

Pas plus dans la famille qu'au collége l'intelligence de Balzac ne fut devinée ou comprise. Même, s'il lui échappait quelque chose d'ingénieux, sa mère, femme supérieure cependant, lui disait: «Sans doute, Honoré, tu ne comprends pas ce que tu dis là!» Et Balzac de rire, sans s'expliquer davantage, de ce bon rire qu'il avait.

La famille de Balzac étant revenue à Paris, il fut mis en pension. Là, comme au collége de Vendôme, son génie ne se 3 décela point, et il resta confondu parmi le troupeau des écoliers ordinaires.

Ses classes finies, Balzac se donna cette seconde éducation qui est la vraie; il étudia, se perfectionna, suivit les cours de la Sorbonne et fit son droit, tout en travaillant chez l'avoué et le notaire. Ce temps, perdu en apparence, puisque Balzac ne fut ni avoué, ni notaire, ni avocat, ni juge, lui fit connaître le personnel de la basoche et le mit à même d'écrire plus tard, de façon à émerveiller les hommes du métier, ce que nous pourrions appeler le contentieux de la Comédie humaine.

Les examens passés, la grande question de la carrière à prendre se présenta. On voulait faire de Balzac un notaire; mais le futur grand écrivain, qui, bien que personne ne crût à son génie, en avait la conscience, refusa le plus respectueusement du monde, quoiqu'on lui eût ménagé une charge à des conditions très-favorables. Son père lui accorda deux ans pour faire ses preuves, et comme la famille retournait en province, madame Balzac installa Honoré dans une mansarde, en lui allouant une pension suffisante à peine aux plus stricts besoins, espérant qu'un peu de vache enragée le rendrait plus sage.

Cette mansarde était perchée rue de Lesdiguières, no 9, près de l'Arsenal, dont la bibliothèque offrait ses ressources au jeune travailleur. Sans doute passer d'une maison abondante et luxueuse à un misérable réduit serait une chose dure à un tout autre âge qu'à vingt et un ans, âge qui était celui de Balzac; mais si le rêve de tout enfant est d'avoir des bottes, celui de tout jeune homme est d'avoir une chambre, une chambre bien à lui, dont il ait la clef dans sa poche, ne pût-il tenir debout qu'au milieu: une chambre, c'est la robe virile, c'est l'indépendance, la personnalité, l'amour!

Voilà donc maître Honoré juché près du ciel, assis devant sa table, et s'essayant au chef-d'œuvre qui devait donner raison à l'indulgence de son père et démentir les horoscopes défavorables de ses amis.—Chose singulière, Balzac débuta par une tragédie, par un Cromwell! Vers ce temps-là, à peu près, Victor Hugo mettait la dernière main à son Cromwell, dont la préface fut le manifeste de la jeune école dramatique.

4

A cette époque Balzac n'avait pas encore conçu le plan de l'œuvre qui devait l'immortaliser; il se cherchait encore avec inquiétude, anhélation et labeur, essayant tout et ne réussissant à rien; pourtant il possédait déjà cette opiniâtreté de travail à laquelle Minerve, quelque revêche qu'elle soit, doit un jour ou l'autre céder; il ébauchait des opéras-comiques, faisait des plans de comédies, de drames et de romans. Une volonté moins robuste se fût découragée mille fois, mais par bonheur Balzac avait une confiance inébranlable dans son génie méconnu de tout le monde. Il voulait être un grand homme et il le fut par d'incessantes projections de ce fluide plus puissant que l'électricité, et dont il fait de si subtiles analyses dans Louis Lambert.

Contrairement aux écrivains de l'école romantique, qui tous se distinguèrent par une hardiesse et une facilité d'exécution étonnantes, et produisirent leurs fruits presque en même temps que leurs fleurs, dans une éclosion pour ainsi dire involontaire, Balzac, l'égal de tous comme génie, ne trouvait pas son moyen d'expression, ou ne le trouvait qu'après des peines infinies.

Fondeur obstiné, il rejetait dix ou douze fois au creuset le métal qui n'avait pas rempli exactement le moule; comme Bernard Palissy, il eût brûlé les meubles, le plancher et jusqu'aux poutres de sa maison pour entretenir le feu de son fourneau et ne pas manquer l'expérience; les nécessités les plus dures ne lui firent jamais livrer une œuvre sur laquelle il n'eût pas mis le dernier effort, et il donna d'admirables exemples de conscience littéraire.

Sa manière de procéder était celle-ci: quand il avait longtemps porté et vécu un sujet, d'une écriture rapide, heurtée, pochée, presque hiéroglyphique, il traçait une espèce de scenario en quelques pages, qu'il envoyait à l'imprimerie, d'où elles revenaient en placards, c'est-à-dire en colonnes isolées au milieu de larges feuilles. Il lisait attentivement ces placards, qui donnaient déjà à son embryon d'œuvre ce caractère impersonnel que n'a pas le manuscrit, et il appliquait à cette ébauche la haute faculté critique qu'il possédait, comme s'il se fût agi d'un autre. Il opérait sur quelque chose; s'approuvant ou se désapprouvant, il maintenait ou corrigeait, 5 mais surtout ajoutait. Des lignes partant du commencement du milieu ou de la fin des phrases, se dirigeaient vers les marges, à droite, à gauche, en haut, en bas, conduisant à des développements, à des intercalations, à des incises, à des épithètes, à des adverbes. Au bout de quelques heures de travail, on eût dit le bouquet d'un feu d'artifice dessiné par un enfant.

Six, sept et parfois dix épreuves revenaient raturées, remaniées, sans satisfaire le désir de perfection de l'auteur. Nous avons vu aux Jardies, sur les rayons d'une bibliothèque composée de ses œuvres seules, chaque épreuve différente du même ouvrage reliée en un volume séparé, depuis le premier jet jusqu'au livre définitif; la comparaison de la pensée de Balzac à ses divers états offrirait une étude bien curieuse et contiendrait de profitables leçons littéraires.

Balzac, comme Vichnou, le dieu indien, possédait le don d'avatar, c'est-à-dire celui de s'incarner dans des corps différents et d'y vivre le temps qu'il voulait; seulement le nombre des avatars de Vichnou est fixé à dix, ceux de Balzac ne se comptent pas, et de plus il pouvait les provoquer à volonté.—Quoique cela semble singulier en plein dix-neuvième siècle, Balzac fut un voyant. Son mérite d'observateur, sa perspicacité de physiologiste, son génie d'écrivain, ne suffisent pas pour expliquer l'infinie variété des deux ou trois mille types qui jouent un rôle plus ou moins important dans la Comédie humaine. Il ne les copiait pas, il les vivait idéalement, revêtait leurs habits, contractait leurs habitudes, s'entourait de leur milieu, était eux-mêmes tout le temps nécessaire. De là viennent ces personnages soutenus, logiques, ne se démentant et ne s'oubliant jamais, doués d'une existence intime et profonde, qui, pour nous servir d'une de ses expressions, font concurrence à l'état civil. Un véritable sang rouge circule dans leurs veines, au lieu de l'encre qu'infusent à leurs créations les auteurs ordinaires.

Cette faculté, Balzac ne la possédait d'ailleurs que pour le présent. Il pouvait transporter sa pensée dans un marquis, dans un financier, dans un bourgeois, dans un homme du peuple, dans une femme du monde, dans une courtisane; mais les ombres du passé n'obéissaient pas à son appel: il ne sut jamais, comme Goethe, évoquer du fond de l'antiquité 6 la belle Hélène et lui faire habiter le manoir gothique de Faust. Sauf deux ou trois exceptions, toute son œuvre est moderne; il s'était assimilé les vivants, il ne ressuscitait pas les morts.

L'on a fait nombre de critiques sur Balzac et parlé de lui de bien des façons, mais on n'a pas insisté sur un point très-caractéristique à notre avis;—ce point est la modernité absolue de son génie. Balzac ne doit rien à l'antiquité;—pour lui il n'y a ni Grecs ni Romains, et il n'a pas besoin de crier qu'on l'en délivre. Balzac, comme Gavarni, a vu ses contemporains; et dans l'art, la difficulté suprême c'est de peindre ce qu'on a devant les yeux.

Cette profonde compréhension des choses modernes rendait, il faut le dire, Balzac peu sensible à la beauté plastique. Il lisait d'un œil négligent les blanches strophes de marbre où l'art grec chanta la perfection de la forme humaine. Dans le musée des antiques, il regardait la Vénus de Milo sans grande extase; mais la Parisienne arrêtée devant l'immortelle statue, drapée de son long cachemire filant sans un pli de la nuque au talon, coiffée de son chapeau à voilette de Chantilly, gantée de son étroit gant Jouvin, avançant sous l'ourlet de sa robe à volants le bout verni de sa bottine claquée, faisait pétiller son œil de plaisir. Il en analysait les coquettes allures, il en dégustait longuement les grâces savantes, tout en trouvant comme elle que la déesse avait la taille bien lourde et ne ferait pas bonne figure chez Mmes de Beauséant, de Listomère ou d'Espard. La beauté idéale, avec ses lignes sereines et pures, était trop simple, trop froide, trop une, pour ce génie compliqué, touffu et divers.—Aussi dit-il quelque part: «Il faut être Raphaël pour faire beaucoup de Vierges.»—Le caractère lui plaisait plus que le style, et il préférait la physionomie à la beauté. Dans ses portraits de femme, il ne manque jamais de mettre un signe, un pli, une ride, une plaque rose, un coin attendri et fatigué, une veine trop apparente, quelque détail indiquant les meurtrissures de la vie, qu'un poëte, traçant la même image, eût à coup sûr supprimé, à tort sans doute.

Avec son profond instinct de la réalité, Balzac comprit que 7 la vie moderne qu'il voulait peindre était dominée par

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