My new year’s resolution is to read shorter books and to work longer hours.
This was prompted by my recent experience with La Cousine Bette, which, thankfully, is over now. Honoré de Balzac must have needed gallons of coffee to finish writing this sour commentary on Parisian society since I needed plenty to go on reading it. The thing I always find with Balzac is there aren’t many laughs in his Comédie Humaine.
One of my French teachers once told me how shocked he was to discover that Balzac’s letters were all about money. I’m not sure why it should have been a shock, since his novels are all about money too. Balzac wrote for money, quite clearly, and money is the motivating force of many of his characters. Our understanding of them wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t know how much they earned and how much they spent year by year.
Balzac is nevertheless a brilliant writer and his novels are full of interest. Probably not enough interest for me to consider reading all 98 of the novels that make up La Comédie Humaine, but enough to make me take his views on novel writing seriously.
So I asked him, “Honoré old chap, did you really do it all for the money? Wasn’t there perhaps a little fire of artistic ambition glimmering in your soul?”
“Of course,” he told me, in confidence. “But I was an artist driven on by the dreadful stress of poverty.”
“And coffee,” I suggested.
“Well, of course. To stay up all through the night and write like a madman, one needs more than dreams.”
“But I think there was also a powerful artistic vision driving you, wasn’t there? You were a man who loved Shakespeare. Your work is full of allusions to the writers and artists who inspired you. Wasn’t there a small part of you that also wanted to be great like them?”
“Not a small part, Monsieur Grinton. Intellectual work, labour in the upper regions of mental effort, is one of the greatest achievements of man. That which deserves real glory in Art is courage above all things — a sort of courage of which the vulgar have no conception.”
“Writing La Comédie Humaine was definitely a long-term project. Having cooked up a few little comedies of my own, I know what you were up against. What gave you the courage to keep going?”
“The lash of hard Necessity, my friend.”
“Did you get no pleasure from your work?”
“Ah yes! To muse, to dream, to conceive of fine works, is a delightful occupation. It is like smoking a magic cigar or leading the life of a courtesan who follows her own fancy. The work then floats in all the grace of infancy, in the mad joy of conception, with the fragrant beauty of a flower, and the aromatic juices of a fruit enjoyed in anticipation.”
“I know what you mean. I think I must get my cigars from the same tobacconist as you.”
“And what have you written, Monsieur Grinton?”
“Ah, there’s the thing. Nothing of note. But the cigars were wonderful.”
“Every writer can sketch his purpose beforehand, mon vieux. But gestation, fruition, the laborious rearing of the offspring, putting it to bed every night full fed with milk, embracing it anew every morning with the inexhaustible affection of a mother’s heart, licking it clean, dressing it a hundred times in the richest garb only to be instantly destroyed; then never to be cast down at the convulsions of this headlong life till the living masterpiece is perfected which in sculpture speaks to every eye, in literature to every intellect, in painting to every memory, in music to every heart! — This is the task of execution. The hand must be ready at every instant to come forward and obey the brain. But the brain has no more a creative power at command than love has a perennial spring.”
“You mean I need to work harder?”
“If you want to be remembered. The habit of creativeness, the indefatigable love of motherhood which makes a mother — that miracle of nature which Raphael so perfectly understood — the maternity of the brain, in short, which is so difficult to develop, is lost with prodigious ease.”
“You mean I should really make the most of my ideas?”
“Yes! Inspiration is the opportunity of genius.”
“But she dances on the razor’s edge, I fear.”
“She does not indeed dance on the razor’s edge, she is in the air and flies away with the suspicious swiftness of a crow; she wears no scarf by which the poet can clutch her; her hair is a flame; she vanishes like the lovely rose and white flamingo, the sportsman’s despair.”
“You make hard work sound so delightful!”
“No, mon ami! Work, is a weariful struggle, alike dreaded and delighted in by these lofty and powerful natures who are often broken by it. A great poet of my day said in speaking of this overwhelming labour, I sit down to it in despair, but I leave it with regret.”
“Was that Alfred de Vigny?”
“Be it known to all who are ignorant! If the artist does not throw himself into his work as Curtius sprang into the gulf, as a soldier leads a forlorn hope without a moment’s thought, and if when he is in the crater he does not dig on as a miner does when the earth has fallen in on him; if he –”
“Or perhaps Alphonse de Lamartine?”
“– if he contemplates the difficulties before him instead of conquering them one by one, like the lovers in fairy tales, who to win their princesses overcome ever new enchantments, the work remains incomplete; it perishes in the studio where creativeness becomes impossible, and the artist looks on at the suicide of his own talent.”
“Well, if I’ve learnt anything from La Cousine Bette,” I said, “it’s that I need to read less and write more.”
For some reason the great author took offence at that. Flushed with annoyance, he darted me a look of scorn and walked away.
“You are not perfect, you know, Honoré,” I called after him.
He turned abruptly. “Quoi?”
“You left behind 48 unfinished novels.”
At which he stomped off without another word.