Read BALZAC of Views and Reviews Essays in appreciation , free online book, by William Ernest Henley, on

Under which King?

To Goethe it seemed that every one of Balzac’s novels had been dug out of a suffering woman’s heart: but Goethe spoke not always wisely, and in this exacting world there be some that not only have found fault with Balzac’s method and results but have dared to declare his theory of society the dream of a mind diseased. To these critics Balzac was less observer than creator: his views were false, his vision was distorted, and though he had ‘incomparable power’ he had not power enough to make them accept his work. This theory is English, and in France they find Balzac possible enough. There is something of him in Pierre Dupont; he made room for the work of Flaubert, Feydeau, the younger Dumas, Augier and Zola and the brothers Goncourt; and to him Charles Baudelaire is as some fat strange fungus to the wine-cask in whose leakings it springs. Sainte-Beuve refused to accept him, but his ’Pigault-Lebrun des duchesses’ is only malicious: he resented the man’s exuberant and inordinate personality, and made haste to apply to it some drops of that sugared vitriol of which he had the secret. Taine is a fitter critic of the Comedie humaine than Sainte-Beuve; and Taine has come to other conclusions. Acute, coarse, methodical, exhaustive, he has recognised the greatness of one still more exhaustive, methodical, coarse, and acute than himself. English critics fall foul of Balzac’s women; but Taine falls foul of English critics, and with the authority of a Parisian by profession declares that the Parisiennes of the Comedie are everything they ought to be the true daughters of their ’bon gros libertin de pere.’ And while Taine, exulting in his Marneffe and his Coralie, does solemnly and brilliantly show that he is right and everybody else is wrong, a later writer English of course can find no better parallel of Balzac than Browning, and knows nothing in art so like the Pauline of la Peau de Chagrin as the Sistine Madonna. It is curious, this clash of opinions; and it is plain that one or other party must be wrong. Which is it? ‘Qui trompe-t-on ici?’ Is Taine a better judge than Mr. Leslie Stephen or Mr. Henry James? Or are Messrs. James and Stephen better qualified to speak with authority than Taine? It may be that none but a Frenchman can thoroughly and intimately apprehend in its inmost a thing so essentially French as the Comedie; it is a fact that Frenchmen of all sorts and sizes have accepted the Comedie in its totality; and that is reason good enough for any commonplace Englishman who is lacking in the vanity of originality to accept it also.

The Fact.

Balzac’s ambition was to be omnipotent. He would be Michelangelesque, and that by sheer force of minuteness. He exaggerated scientifically, and made things gigantic by a microscopic fulness of detail. His Hulot was to remain the Antony of modern romance, losing the world for the love of woman, and content to lose it; his Marneffe, in whom is incarnated the instinct and the science of sexual corruption, is Hulot’s Cleopatra, and only dies because ’elle va faire lé bon Dieu’ as who should say ’to mash the Old Man’; Frenhoeffer, Philippe Bridau, Vautrin, Marsay, Rastignac, Grandet, Balthazar Claes, Béatrix, Sarrazine, Lousteau, Esther, Lucien Chardon the list is, I believe, some thousands strong! Also the argument is proved in advance: there is the Comedie itself ’the new edition fifty volumes long.’ Bad or good, foul or fair, impossible or actual, a monstrous debauch of mind or a triumph of realisation, there is the Comedie. It is forty years since Balzac squared and laid the last stones of it; and it exists if a little the worse for wear: the bulk is enormous if the materials be in some sort worm-eaten and crumbling. Truly, he had ‘incomparable power.’ He was the least capable and the most self-conscious of artists; his observation was that of an inspired and very careful auctioneer; he was a visionary and a fanatic; he was gross, ignorant, morbid of mind, cruel in heart, vexed with a strain of Sadism that makes him on the whole corrupting and ignoble in effect. But he divined and invented prodigiously if he observed and recorded tediously, and his achievement remains a phantasmagoria of desperate suggestions and strange, affecting situations and potent and inordinate effects. He may be impossible; but there is French literature and French society to show that he passed that way, and had ‘incomparable power.’ The phrase is Mr. Henry James’s, and it is hard to talk of Balzac and refrain from it.