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I'm not reading anything this week (I'll read and respond to comments next week) but I did finish Prometheus: The Life of Balzac on Friday. I loved every horrible minute; it was one of the most enjoyable biographies I've ever read.

The surprising thing about the Life of Balzac is how sad it isn't. It's sad for other people, to an extent. It's sad for Eve Hanska, who finally marries Honoré a few months before his death, taking on his massive debts just when it's finally dazzlingly clear that they're never going to be paid. It's sad for Louise, the unglamorously faithful housekeeper/mistress whom he throws over callously in order to marry Eve, but then re-hires because who else is going to cook his dinner and wash his sheets in the meantime (she steals Eve's letters and threatens to send them to Eve's daughter; Maurois is disapproving but I say good for her). It's sad for Honoré, too, I guess, to have to understand that his time has run out, and to be only fifty years old and almost helpless in his last months. But it was hard to feel the kind of regret you'd expect to feel when anyone dies at fifty-one, because every single thing in the previous five hundred pages made it inevitable.

Balzac destroyed his health completely in a handful of decades, in all the most avoidable and disgusting ways, and spent a half-dozen fortunes on nothing in particular. He never finished his gargantuan novel cycle, and he only began a gargantuan novel cycle in the first place because he was at least forty thousand francs in debt at all times.

His business sense is the worst, and somehow, despite being able to write about good and bad businessmen with insight, he never seems to realize it. “Why did [Eve] so mistrust his financial planning?" he wonders. "When it came to matters of business he was a hardened veteran and she the merest child!” BALZAC. Maybe because the only “experience” you have in “business” involves losing huge amounts of money? Maybe? Balzac, remember the time you wrote a play and it was produced with all the fanfare, but then you insisted on selling all the tickets for the first three nights yourself, so you could ensure the “right” response from the “right” people? Remember how the producers were like, “balzac no that is the stupidest thing I've ever heard” and “maybe you should leave promotion to the professionals and GET SOME SLEEP instead” but you insisted and they finally caved because you are a Great Writer? Then everyone got fed up with your transparent attempts to drive up prices by pretending tickets were sold out in the first five minutes, so the house was only 1/3 full on opening night? And all that manufactured box-office hype just gave your reviewers an iron-clad excuse to be impatient and annoyed when they finally saw the play and it wasn't the literal beatific vision. Remember? Good times.

His engagement to Eve, his wealthy long-term mistress, is one long horrible black comedy, from his first terrifically tactless letter to her on her husband's death to her reluctance to send for her birth certificate (because it would reveal that she has been six years older all along) to the appalling house he insists on renovating for her in Paris, with her money and against her objections:

She nearly broke his heart when he took her to inspect the house in the Rue Fortunée. He had expected cries of delight, but she criticized everything – too much marquetry, too many bronzes, too much marble, too many cupboards inlaid with tortoiseshell and brass. Why spend a fortune on this 'sinister and comical' place? Was this the reward of so many years' devotion? How could she judge it in any case, when it was smothered in scaffolding and rubble?

I was frustrated with Balzac for most of the book, because he was always so close to having the things he claimed he wanted, and always throwing them away in the next breath, and because he was such a colossal idiot about money -- he never met a dubious speculation he didn't like, and the second he thought he might have money in the future, he immediately began to spend it on jeweled walking sticks and fifty-foot divans and even more dubious speculations. He's such a consummate self-saboteur that it's a relief when he meets a setback that isn't his own damn fault -- like when he finally manages to produce a successful play in 1848, just in time for extensive rioting to keep everyone away from the theatre.

But close to the end, when his death is suddenly inescapably in front of him like one of the Weeping Angels, a kind of peace rolls cloud-like over the whole frantic mess. He could have been different, but he wasn't. He could have paid off his debts, but he didn't. He could have written fewer books and slept more and wasted less time on pointless business trips to fake silver mines and trying to seduce 10 people at once and constantly threatening and then forgetting to go into politics -- but that would have been someone else's life, and who knows what that life would have made? Even the pathos of Balzac returning blind to to his new (hideous, unbelievably expensive) bridal house in Paris, no longer able to read or write, or of Victor Hugo visiting his last night and watching death close over the familiar ugly face, is muted by that enormous white cloud wall of inevitability. You live a thousand lives in one, and one day they go dark. It's sad that it can't be helped, but it can't be helped.

André Maurois' aphoristic ways and his proclamations about greatness verge on self-parody at times, but maybe that makes him the ideal companion for this particular journey. In a way it's the kind of book that I was so impressed with The Horse's Mouth for not being: "genius" as excuse for assholic self-destruction, assholic self-destruction as precondition for (a certain kind of) genius. I don't know why it didn't bother me more. I can't tell you how sad and angry I was with F. Scott Fitzgerald for wasting all that time fretting about how movies had killed the novel and not finishing The Last Tycoon, for example, but somehow I can't be mad at Balzac for mulching up his body into stories and gangrene.

So obviously I have to read one of this asshole's books now, right? The funny thing is, Maurois doesn't succeed in making them sound very appealing, though he's able to make Balzac himself incredibly appealing. But I believe in them anyway. We have Eugénie Grandet at the bookstore, so I'll probably just grab that, but if you have any recommendations, I'd be happy to hear them!


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:07 pm (UTC)
Your summary here is also pretty enjoyable! :-)
Mar. 2nd, 2016 09:32 pm (UTC)
Aww, thank you! I did have the best time reading this book.
Feb. 24th, 2016 01:35 pm (UTC)
What a character! Sounds like he was a pure ass - but even his impending death didn't seem to change that overly much, so at least he was consistent?!

Mar. 2nd, 2016 09:30 pm (UTC)
Not so pure, I think -- he was apparently excellent at writing books, and an enjoyable if not always reliable correspondent, and honestly, with one very glaring exception (his treatment of Louise toward the end of his life) I couldn't help liking him most of the time. I get the impression that most of his friends just learned to take the good with the bad (and not to lend him money).

I don't know, really. I think he's the kind of trouble I tend to find slightly attractive despite my better judgement, so there's a little automatic machine at the back of my mind making excuses for him even as I roll my eyes in despair. He's a bit like Pigpen from Peanuts, except instead of the little cloud of dust, he's got sandstorms of intoxicating talent and energy and unbelievable obliviousness swirling all around him, knocking all the tea things off the table and getting grit in the consommé.

Not that that makes it any better, I realize as I write this.
Feb. 24th, 2016 02:33 pm (UTC)
BALZAC. Oh my God. He sounds like he wanted to live up to the idea of the tortured artistic genius and put his all into doing so (and also just had no business sense, because I don't think losing money on dodgy speculations was ever part of the tortured artistic genius ideal).
Mar. 2nd, 2016 09:00 pm (UTC)
BALZAC. I KNOW. I don't know that the tortured-artist ideal was necessarily much of an influence on young Balzac -- more that he could make a lot of money and get lots of accolades if he became a successful writer. He definitely wasn't interested in the sad underappreciated genius thing, which I think was a trope that got popular a bit later -- he wanted to be elected to the Immortals and awarded a peerage -- he could not understand why Hugo didn't appreciate his peerage more! and to have a fresh pair of gloves for every day of the year and to dress like triumph feels. He wanted any room he rolled into to go instantly hushed and glowing. And he deserved to be successful! He was an incredibly hard worker with an endlessly fertile imagination. His books were ambitious and popular. He WAS successful, except for the part where he couldn't get his shit together for anything.



Edited at 2016-03-02 09:00 pm (UTC)
Mar. 3rd, 2016 01:31 am (UTC)
I haven't even read anything by or about Balzac and you have given me Balzac feelings, you monster. I am imagining him being all tragically confused by Hugo's failure to appreciate his peerage - a peerage, Hugo! - and Hugo is like HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY THINK I WOULD APPRECIATE A PEERAGE, WHYYYYYYY.
Mar. 9th, 2016 05:29 am (UTC)
Hah, yes. You KNOW Hugo tried to explain it to him. You know Hugo tried to explain it to him AT LENGTH. But. . . why would anyone not want a peerage????? It's like custom gold plating for your NAME!

One of my favorite things from this book was learning that Balzac and Hugo were on friendly terms and respected each other, despite their differences.
Feb. 28th, 2016 01:00 am (UTC)
I've only read Cousin Bette for French at uni(a story about a sort of female Shakespearean Richard III and what was the one about a sort of King Lear, except there wasn't a Cordelia. A long time since I've read Balzac and then it was because I had to.
Mar. 2nd, 2016 08:41 pm (UTC)
Cousin Bette was one of the ones that looked most interesting to me -- do you remember if you enjoyed it?
Mar. 7th, 2016 10:31 am (UTC)
It has been a very long time, but I vaguely recall finding it readable. I was about seventeen at the time, though; your tastes change. Best to plunge in and give it a go. There's bound to be a translation somewhere on Gutenberg. ;-)
Feb. 28th, 2016 11:12 am (UTC)
I love Balzac, I'm slowly making my way through the whole cycle. I think Le Père Goriot is one of the most well-known ones for a good reason, so I recommend that (that's the King Lear one). My favourite is Les Illusion Perdues (Lost Illusions), which is mainly about the writer and journalist milieu at the time, which I'm guessing Balzac knew particularly well. I also liked Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley) a lot, but the best part of it is the answering letter at the very end, so you have to like the whole initial letter, which the book is written as and whose author is pretty annoying, enough to get to that part.

I'd also recommend many the novellas, if you can get them, and maybe they're even a better place to start: The Deserted Woman, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, The Unknown Masterpiece are all pretty awesome.

That's kind of Balzac's own view of genius, it's pretty unpleasant when it shows up, considering he's probably thinking of himself. >_>
Mar. 2nd, 2016 08:40 pm (UTC)
Lost Illusions sounded really interesting! And maybe I will enjoy this annoying letter-writer in Lily of the Valley; sometimes I do. I might see what they have at the library, now that I have a little time. I'm looking forward to it!

(I have no trouble believing that Balzac is thinking of himself when he writes about genius. "Honoré thinks he's either everything or nothing" -- that's how his mother summed him up. If not in the depths of despair and convinced of his own worthlessness, then The Most Important Writer Ever in the History of Language. And even the conviction of worthlessness is a symptom of ego. :|)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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