Honoré de Balzac/Chapter 2

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His dazed condition, however, soon passed away after Honore's removal from the Vendome school. He was required to take long walks and play outdoor games, in consequence of which his cheeks filled out and regained their natural healthy colour. In appearance he was now a big lad, naive and contented, who laughingly submitted to his sisters' teasing. But he had put his ideas in order: the new and troubled wine of books, to the intoxication of which he had succumbed, had clarified itself; his intellect was now exceptionally profound and mature. But his family was not willing to perceive this, and when by chance some remark of his revealed it his mother would answer:

"Honore, you do not understand what you are saying!"

He did not try to dissuade her from this opinion, but consoled himself by turning to Laure and Laurence and confiding his plans to them:

"You shall see! I am going to be a great man!"

The girls laughed at this somewhat heavy-witted brother, who was so behind-hand in his studies, that although in the second form when he left Vendome, he had to be put back into the third at Tours, in the institution conducted by a M. Chretien. They greeted him with profound bows and mock reverence, and, while he responded with a good-natured smile, there was a certain pride mingled with it and an indefinable secret certainty as to the future.

In 1814 Francois Balzac was appointed Director of the Commissary Department of the First Military District, and the whole family removed to Paris, settling in the Marais quarter. Honore continued his studies at two different schools successively, first at the Lepitre school, in the Rue Saint-Louis, and then at the establishment of Sganzer and Bauzelin, in the Rue de Thorigny, where he continued to display the same mediocrity and the same indifference regarding the tasks required of him. Having finished the prescribed courses, he returned to his family, which at this time was living at No. 40, Rue du Temple, and his father decided that he should study law, supplementing the theoretical instruction of the law school with practical lessons from an attorney and notary. Honore was enrolled in the law school November 4, 1816, and at the same time was intrusted to a certain M. de Merville, who undertook to teach him procedure. He spent eighteen months in these studies, and was then transferred to the office of M. Passez, where the same lapse of time initiated him into the secrets of a notary's duties. In the month of January, 1819, he passed his examinations in law.

During these three years the life of Honore de Balzac had been extremely laborious. He faithfully attended the law school courses and copied legal and notarial documents. Yet all this did not prevent him from satisfying his literary tastes by attending the lectures given at the Sorbonne by Villemain, Guizot and Cousin. Nor had he given up his ambition to write and to become a great man, as he had predicted to his sisters, Laure and Laurence. Mme de Balzac, severe mother that she was, had regulated the employment of his time in such a way that he could never be at liberty. His bed-chamber adjoined his father's study, and he was required to go to bed at nine o'clock and rise at five, under such strict surveillance that he could later write, in The Magic Skin, "Up to the age of twenty-one I was bent beneath the yoke of a despotism as cold as that of a monastic order." In the evening, after dinner, he rendered an account of his day, and was then permitted to take a hand at Boston or whist, at the card-table of his grandmother Mme. Sallambier. The latter, sympathising with her grandson, who was so strictly limited in money that he hardly had, from day to day, two crowns that he could call his own, allowed herself to be beaten to the extent of moderate sums, which Honore afterwards spent in the purchase of new books.

In spite of this strict family discipline, Honore was at this time a congenial companion, full of high spirits and eager to please. He was delightfully ingenuous, and laughed heartily at jests at his own expense, frankly admitting his own blunders. But at times he would draw himself up in a haughty manner, half in fun and half in earnest: "Oh! I have not forgotten that I am destined to be a great man!"

Between the copying of two writs Honore de Balzac feverishly continued his literary efforts. He did not yet know how to make use of the material he had already amassed, ideas drawn from books and observations drawn from life; and he tried to measure his strength with that of the classic writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In overhauling Balzac's youthful papers, Champfleury has recovered the greater part of these essays. They show the greatest variety of interests. Here are five stanzas of wretched verse concerning the book of Job, two stanzas on Robert-le-Diable, a projected poem entitled, Saint Louis, the rough drafts of several novels, Stenie or Philosophic Errors, Falthurne: the Manuscript of the Abbe Savonati, translated from Italian by M. Matricante, Primary School Principal, The Accursed Child, The Two Friends, a satiric sketch, The Day's Work of a Man of Letters, Some Fools, and, furthermore, fragments of a work on idolatry, theism and natural religion, a historic monograph on the Vaudois, some outlined letters on Paris, literature, and the general police system of the realm of letters. In his youthful enthusiasms, Honore de Balzac shifted from Beaumarchais to Moliere, from Voltaire to Rousseau, from Racine to Corneille, and, contrary to his temperament, he drew up plans for violent and pathetic dramas, suited to the taste of the day.

After he had passed his examinations in law, and the question arose of a choice of career, his father announced to him the one which he had decided Honore should adopt: he should be a notary. One of their friends was willing to turn over his practice to him after a few years of apprenticeship. It was an honourable position, remunerative and much sought after. Honore de Balzac had arrived at the turning point of his existence. Here were two avenues before him, the first that of a notary, paved with gold, where he might reap honour, profit and esteem, a straight and easy route, restful and without unknown dangers; the second, lying outside of all the paths traced by society, and offering to those who entered upon it only a nebulous future, full of perils, uncertain combats, care, privation and want. It is a road which one must hew out for oneself, through the obscure forest of art and ideas, and many are the imprudent who have over-estimated their strength and perished there in the midst of indifference and contempt.

Everything urged Balzac towards a notary's career. The family fortune had diminished; the father had been placed upon the retired list, he had lost money in investments, it was absolutely necessary to cut down expenses, and Honore, as the oldest son, was expected to make a position for himself rapidly. Why did he hesitate to come to a decision and gratefully accept the proposition made by his father? The family brought pressure to bear, yet Honore continued to say, "No, I will not be a notary." It was considered nothing less than scandalous. His mother reproached him for his ingratitude and warned him that he was driving her to despair. She was ashamed of a son who repaid the sacrifices they had made to educate him with such a want of proper feeling. Yet Honore persisted in his attitude of revolt, Honore, who throughout his childhood and youth had hitherto always submitted docilely to all the rules and commands of the family. "No, I will not be a notary,—I wish to become an author,—a celebrated author." They laughed at him. What promise of talent had he ever given to justify such absurd pretensions? Was it those wretched scribblings which had formerly caused so much merriment that now inspired him with such pride? Very well! he must simply get over it. His little absurdities were all very funny, when he was at the age of frivolity and nonsense, but now that he had come to years of discretion, it was time he learned that life was not play: "So, my boy, you will be a notary." "No," repeats Honore, "I shall not." His black eyes flash, his thick lips tremble, and he pleads his cause before the family tribunal, the cause of his genius which no one else has recognised and which he himself perceives only confusedly within him.

"From childhood I looked upon myself as foreordained to be a great man," he wrote in The Magic Skin, "I struck my brow like Andre Chenier, 'There is something inside there!' I seemed to feel within me a thought to be expressed, a system to be established, a science to be expounded. I often thought of myself as a general, or an emperor. Sometimes I was Byron, and then again I was nothing. After having sported upon the pinnacle of human affairs, I discovered that all the mountains, all the real difficulties still remained to be surmounted. The measureless self-esteem which seethed within me, the sublime belief in destiny, which perhaps evolves into genius if a man does not allow his soul to be torn to tatters by contact with business interests, as easily as a sheep leaves its wool on the thorns of the thicket through which it passes,—all this was my salvation. I wished only to work in silence, to crown myself with glory, the one mistress whom I hoped some day to attain."

What he actually said lacked the precision and the form of these phrases, but he was eloquent, and his father, who had no reason to suppose that he had an imbecile for a son, was the first to yield, in a measure, to his arguments. His mother still resisted, frightened at the risks he must run, far from convinced by his words, and without confidence in the future. Nevertheless, she was forced to yield. It was decided to try an experiment,—but it was to be kept a close secret, because their friends would never have finished laughing at such parental weakness. Two years were accorded to Honore, within which to give some real proof of his talent. Hereupon he became joyously expansive, he was sure that he would triumph, that he would bring back a masterpiece to submit to the judgment of his assembled family and friends. But, since a failure was possible and they wished to guard themselves from such a mortification, his acquaintances were to be told that Honore was at Albi, visiting a cousin. Furthermore, in the hope of bringing him back to the straight path, through the pinch of poverty, his mother insisted that nothing more should be granted him than an annual allowance of fifteen hundred francs (less than 300 dollars), and that he should meet all his needs out of this sum. Honore would have accepted a bare and penniless liberty with equal fervour and enthusiasm.

For the sake of economy, the Balzac family decided upon a provincial life, and removed to Villeparisis, in the department of Seine-et-Oise, where they secured a small yet comfortable bourgeois house. This was in the early months of 1819; Honore, at the age of twenty-one, was left alone in Paris.

They had installed him in a garret, high up under a mansarde roof, in the Rue Lesdiguieres, No. 9, and it was he himself who chose this lodging because of the ease with which he could reach the Arsenal library during the daytime, while at night he would stay at home and work.

Ah, what a long, deep breath he drew, and how heartily he laughed his silent, inward laugh, as he stood with crossed arms and let his black eyes make inspection of his cramped and miserable dwelling. He was free, free! Here was his desk, covered with brown leather, his ink and pens, here were four chairs and a cupboard in which to hang his clothes and store away a few plates and his precious coffee pot, there was his monastic bed, and beyond it some shelves nailed to the wall to hold his books. He sat down and dreamed, for he had just won his first victory, he was no longer accountable to anyone in the world for each and every hour of his life.

"I rejoiced," he has written in The Magic Skin, "at the thought that I was going to live upon bread and milk, like a hermit in the Thebiade, plunged in the world of books and ideas, in an inaccessible sphere, in the midst of all the tumult of Paris, the sphere of work and of silence, in which, after the manner of a chrysalis, I was about to build myself a tomb, in order to emerge again brilliant and glorious." Next, he calculates what his expenses were during this studious retreat: "Three cents' worth of bread, two of milk, three of sausage prevented me from dying of hunger and kept my mind in a lucid condition... My lodgings cost me three cents a day, I burned three cents' worth of oil per night, I did my own housework, I wore flannel night-shirts, in order to cut down my laundry bill to two cents a day. I warmed my room with coal instead of wood, for I found that the cost divided by the number of days in the year never exceeded two cents. I had a supply of suits, underclothing and shoes sufficient to last a year, and I did not need to dress excepting to go to the libraries and do a few errands. The sum total of these expenses amounted to only eighteen cents, which left me two cents over for emergencies." Balzac somewhat exaggerates his poverty and reduces his expenses to suit the pleasure of his poetic fantasy, but undoubtedly it was a brusque transition from the bourgeois comfort of family life to the austerity of his garret.

Nevertheless, he was exuberant and joyous,—as irresponsible as a young colt freshly turned out to pasture. His sister Laure, now living at Villeparisis with her parents, continued to receive his confidences. He wrote her the most minute details of his solitary existence,—jesting and burlesquing in a vein of frank and familiar humour.

"You ask, my dear sister, for details of my domestic arrangements and manner of living; well, here they are:

"I wrote directly to mamma, in regard to the cost of my purchases,—a little subterfuge to get an increased allowance,—but now you are going to tremble: it is much worse than a purchase,—I have acquired a servant!

"'A servant! What are you thinking of, my brother?'

"Yes, a servant. He has as odd a name as the servant of Dr. Nacquart (Balzac's physician); his is called Tranquil; mine is called Myself. A bad bargain, beyond question! Myself is lazy, awkward, and improvident. When his master is hungry or thirsty, he sometimes has neither bread nor water to offer him; he does not even know how to protect him from the wind which blows in through door and window, as Tulou blows upon his flute, but less agreeably.

"As soon as I am awake, I ring for Myself, and he makes up my bed. Then he starts in sweeping, but he is far from expert in that line of exercise.


"'What do you wish, sir?'

"'Look at that spider's-web, where that big fly is buzzing loud enough to deafen me! Look at the sweepings scattered under the bed! Look at the dust on the window-panes, so thick that I can hardly see!'

"'But Monsieur, I do not see . . .'

"'Come, hold your tongue! No answering back!'

"Accordingly, he holds his tongue.

"He brushes my coat and he sweeps my room while he sings, and he sings while he sweeps, laughs while he talks, and talks while he laughs. All things considered, he is a good lad. He has carefully put away my linen in the wardrobe beside the chimney, after first lining it with white paper; out of six cents' worth of blue paper, with the border thrown in, he has made me a screen. He has painted the room white, from the book-shelves to the chimney. When he ceases to be satisfied,—a thing which has not yet occurred,—I shall send him to Villeparisis, to get some fruit, or else to Albi to see how my cousin is." (April 12, 1819.)

Honore de Balzac was intoxicated with his liberty, and revelled in it to his heart's content. He could dream, idle, read or work, according to his mood. Ideas swarmed in his brain, and every day he drafted projects for tragedies, comedies, novels and operas. He did not know which of all these to work out to a finish, for every one of them seemed to him capable of being developed into a masterpiece. He brooded over a possible novel which was to be called Coquecigrue, but he doubted whether he had the ability to carry it out according to his conception; so, after long hesitation, he decided in favour of a classic drama in verse, Cromwell, which he considered the finest subject in modern history. Honore de Balzac rhymed ahead desperately, laboriously, for versification was not his strong point, and he had infinite trouble in expressing, with the required dignity, the lamentations of the Queen of England. His study of the great masters hampered him: "I devour our four tragic authors. Crebillon reassures me, Voltaire fills me with terror, Corneille transports me, and Racine makes me throw down my pen." Nevertheless, he refused to renounce his hopes. He had promised to produce a masterpiece, he was pledged to achieve a masterpiece, and the price of it was to be a blessed independence.

In the silence of his mansarde garret he worked, with his brow congested, his head enveloped in a Dantesque cap, his legs wrapped in a venerable Touraine great-coat, his shoulders guaranteed against the cold, thanks to an old family shawl. He toiled over his alexandrian lines, he sent fragments of his tragedy to Laure, asking her for advice: "Don't flatter me, be severe." Yet he had high ambitions: "I want my tragedy to be the breviary of peoples and kings!" he wrote. "I must make my debut with a masterpiece, or wring my neck."

Meanwhile Cromwell did not wholly absorb him. Honore de Balzac was already a fluent writer, full of clamorous ideas and schemes that each day were born anew. Between two speeches of his play, he would sketch a brief romance of the old-fashioned type, draft the rhymes of a comic opera, which he would later decide to give up, because of the difficulty of finding a composer, hampered as he was by his isolation. In addition to his literary occupations, he took an anxious interest in politics. "I am more than ever attached to my career," he wrote to his sister Laure, "for a host of reasons, of which I will give you only those that you would not be likely to guess of your own accord. Our revolutions are very far from being ended; considering the way that things are going, I foresee many a coming storm. Good or bad, the representative system demands immense talent; big writers will necessarily be sought after in political crises, for do they not supplement their other knowledge with the spirit of observation and a profound understanding of the human heart?

"If I should become a shining light (which, of course, is precisely the thing that we do not yet know), I may some day achieve something besides a literary reputation, and add to the title of 'great writer' that of great citizen. That is an ambition which is also tempting! Nothing, nothing but love and glory can ever fill the vast recesses of my heart, within which you are cherished as you deserve to be."

In order to enlighten himself in regard to the legislative elections, he appealed to one of his correspondents, M. Dablin, a rich hardware merchant and friend of the family, who had often come to the aid of his slender purse. He asked him for a list of the deputies, and inquired what their political opinions were and how the parties would be divided in the new Chamber, and when he did not receive as prompt an answer as he had expected, he repeated his questions with a certain show of impatience. At this period of isolation, M. Dablin was also his factotum and his mentor. Balzac commissioned him to buy a Bible, carefully specifying that the text must be in French as well as Latin; he wished to read the Sicilian Vespers; he felt it his duty, as a simple soldier in the ranks of literature, to attend a performance of Cinna, by the great General Corneille, from the safe seclusion of a screened box, and he would be glad to see Girodet's Endymion at the Exposition, "some morning when there is no one else there," in order not to betray his incognito!

How happy he was during those hours of liberty that were never to return and which he was destined to remember with unparalleled emotion, in his subsequent inferno of ceaseless toil! He was utterly irresponsible, he made an orgy out of a melon or a jar of preserves sent him from Villeparisis, and he decorated his garret with flowers, which were the gift of Laure, his beloved confidante. He had his dreams and his hours of exultation, when he listened to the mingled sounds of Paris, which rose faintly to his dormer window during the beautiful golden evenings of springtime, evenings that seemed to young and ambitious hearts so heavy-laden with ardent melancholy and hope; and he would cry aloud: "I realised today that wealth does not make happiness, and that the time that I am spending here will be a source of sweet memories! To live according to my fantasy, to work according to my taste and convenience, to do nothing at all if I so choose, to build beautiful air-castles for the future, to think of you and know that you are happy, to have Rousseau's Julie for my mistress, La Fontaine and Moliere for my friends, Racine for my master and the cemetery of Pere Lachaise for my promenade! . . . Oh! if all this could last forever!"

And his twenty years, burning with the fever of vast desires, betray themselves in a single exclamation: "To be celebrated and to be loved!"

But there were times when he left his garret at nightfall, mingled with the crowd and there exercised those marvellous faculties of his which verged upon prodigy. He has described them in a short tale, Facino Cano, and they appear to have been an exceptional gift. "I lived frugally," he writes; "I had accepted all the conditions of monastic life, so essential to those who toil. Even when the weather was fine, I rarely allowed myself a short walk along the Boulevard Bourdon. One passion alone drew me away from my studious habits; yet was not this itself a form of study? I used to go to observe the manners and customs of suburban Paris, its inhabitants and their characteristics. Being as ill-clad and as careless of appearances as the labourers themselves, I was not mistrusted by them, I was able to mingle with groups of them, to watch them concluding their bargains and quarrelling together at the hour when they quit their work. In my case, observation had already become intuitive, it penetrated the soul without neglecting the body, or rather it grasped so well the exterior details that it straightway passed above and beyond them; it gave me the faculty of living the life of the individual on whom it was exerted, by permitting me to substitute myself for him, just as the dervish in the Thousand and One Nights took the body and soul of those persons over whom he pronounced certain words.

"To throw off my own habits, to become some one else than myself, through an intoxication of the moral faculties, and to play this game at will, such was my way of amusing myself. To what do I owe this gift? Is it a form of second sight? Is it one of those qualities, the abuse of which might lead to madness? I have never sought the sources of this power; I possess it and make use of it, that is all."

Some evenings he would not go out, because ideas were surging in his brain; but if the rebellious rhymes refused to come he would descend to the second floor and play some harmless games with certain "persons," or it might be a hand at boston, for small stakes, at which he sometimes won as much as three francs. His resounding laughter could be heard, echoing down the staircase as he remounted to his garret, exulting over his extensive winnings. Nothing, however, could turn him aside from his project of writing Cromwell, and he set himself a date on which he should present his tragedy to the members of his family gathered together for the purpose of hearing him read it. After idling away long days at the Jardin des Plantes or in Pere-Lachaise, he shut himself in, and wrote with that feverish zeal which later on he himself christened "Balzacian"; revising, erasing, condensing, expanding, alternating between despair and enthusiasm, believing himself a genius, and yet within the same hour, in the face of a phrase that refused to come right, lamenting that he was utterly destitute of talent; yet throughout this ardent and painful effort of creation, over which he groaned, his strength of purpose never abandoned him, and in spite of everything he inflexibly pursued his ungoverned course towards the goal which he had set himself. At last he triumphed, the tragedy was finished, and, his heart swelling with hope, Honore de Balzac presented to his family the Cromwell on which he relied to assure his liberty.

The members of the family were gathered together in the parlour at Villeparisis, for the purpose of judging the masterpiece and deciding whether the rebel who had refused to be a notary had not squandered the time accorded him in which to give proof of his future prospects as an author. The father and mother were there, both anxious, the one slightly sceptical, yet hoping that his son would reveal himself as a man of talent; the other as mistrustful as ever, but at the same time much distressed to see her son so thin and sallow, for during those fifteen months of exile he had lost his high colour and his eyes were feverish and his lips trembling, in spite of his fine air of assurance. Laurence was there, young, lively and self-willed; and Laure also, sharing the secret of the tragedy and sighing and trembling on behalf of Honore, her favourite brother. It was a difficult audience to conquer, for they had also invited for that evening such friends as knew of the test imposed upon the oldest son; and these same friends, while perhaps regarding it as a piece of parental weakness, nevertheless now played the role of judges.

"At the end of April, 1820," relates Mme Surville, "he arrived at my father's home with his finished tragedy. He was much elated, for he counted upon scoring a triumph. Accordingly, he desired that a few friends should be present at the reading. And he did not forget the one who had so strangely underestimated him. (A friend, who judged him solely on the strength of his excellent handwriting, declared, when the question arose of choosing a position for him, that he would never make anything better than a good shipping clerk.)

"The friends arrived, and the solemn test began. But the reader's enthusiasm rapidly died out as he discovered how little impression he was making and noted the coldness or the consternation on the faces before him. I was one of those who shared in the consternation. What I suffered during that reading was a foretaste of the terrors I was destined to experience at the opening performances of Vautrin and Quinola.

"With Cromwell he had not yet avenged himself upon M. — (the friend of whom mention has just been made); for, blunt as ever, the latter pronounced his opinion of the tragedy in the most uncompromising terms. Honore protested, and declined to accept his judgment; but his other auditors, though in milder terms, all agreed that the work was extremely faulty.

"My father voiced the consensus of opinion when he proposed that they should have Cromwell read by some competent and impartial authority. M. Surville, engineer of the Ourcq Canal, who was later to become Honore's brother-in-law, suggested a former professor of his at the Polytechnic School. (Mlle. Laure de Balzac was married in May, 1820, one month after the reading of Cromwell, to M. Midy de Greneraye Surville, engineer of Bridges and Highways.)

"My father accepted this dean of literature as decisive judge.

"After a conscientious reading, the good old man declared that the author of Cromwell had better follow any other career in the world than that of literature."

Such was the judgment passed upon this masterpiece which had been intended to be "the breviary of peoples and of kings!" Yet these successive condemnations in no way shook Balzac's confidence in his own genius. He wished to be a great man, and in spite of all predictions to the contrary he was going to be a great man. No doubt he re-read his tragedy in cold blood and laughed at it, realising all its emphatic and bombastic mediocrity. But it was a dead issue, and now with a new tensity of purpose he looked forward to the works which he previsioned in the nebulous and ardent future; no setback could turn him aside from the path which he had traced for himself.