Sunday, March 21, 2010

V.S. Pritchett’s Balzac Biography

Published in 1974. Balzac, by the British critic and short-story writer V.S. Pritchett, became the standard English-language biography. The book is lavishly illustrated (with a score of expensive color plates) and relatively lively. It is, however, a disappointment.

Literary biographies are a strange breed. What matters with Balzac, what sets him apart, is the intense liveliness of his characters and his descriptions. After centuries of vague generalities and universalities in French literature, he leads into a world that is intensely detailed and palpable. But how he lived his life has a tangential relationship to his work. Yes, the facts of his life have bearing in the great books, but even if they didn’t. The books stand on their own.

This is particularly true of the obsessive, decades-long affair with Mme Hanska, the Polish/Ukrainian countess that Balzac eventually marries shortly before his death. This takes up an inordinate part of the biography. And one suspects it is partly because Balzac’s copious letters to Hanska survive. They are quoted at length in Pritchett’s biography, and I must say that I find them a lot less interesting than the occasional passage from Père Goriot or La Peau de Chagrin. In his fiction, Balzac is magical, in his correspondence, well, he is a letter-writer.

Mme. Hanska endless jealousy, Balzac’s obsession with her and other older ladies, the squabbling about money, his careless exploitation of others have an untidy repetitive narrative structure. It’s true that the infatuation with women higher in rank and fortune, the wastefulness, the manic midnight labors, the ambition to make it Parisian society are all elements dome the life that are translated into his novels. But the interest is the novels not in the life – people of far less talent can and did live similar vices, but they didn’t write a Comédie humaine.

It’s clear that Balzac was at turns charming and insufferable. Looked at objectively, he seems like a porky, vainglorious spendthrift and deadbeat, leaving a wake of debt and disappointment for everyone but his readers, But in the end, he could have lived the life of modest respectability and wedded fidelity without affecting the value of his work.

There are a few things that are nevertheless illuminating for the works. His family’s background as drapers meshes nicely with his obsession with cloth and clothing. His fascination collecting bric-à-brac is dramatized in books like Gobseck and La Peau de chagrin, as well in the detailed interiors of the rest of his fiction. His endless interest in money though he was himself a disastrous investor) is reflected in a way that the Romantics and the writers of social novels (Sand, Constant) would consider vulgar.

So the balance is out of whack. Pritchett quotes liberally from the early novels, but has little to say about le Cousin Pons and La Cousine Bette, and not much more about Les Illusions Perdus There’s almost nothing about his relationships with the politics or the literary movements of his time. And what an exciting time it was: the theaters were filled with riches, social classes were being redefined with astonishing speeds, riches were available and conspicuously so, the Industrial Revolution and railroads were changing life across Europe, writers (Lamartine, Hugo, Mérimée were suddenly important political figures, and the amazing sequence of ancien régime, Revolution, Empire, Restoration, and the July Monarchy made the particulars of everyone’s life ever more archeologically and sociologically interesting.

In the end, it’s the love affairs of Rastignac, the shady dealings of Vautrin, and the aspirations of Rubempré that matter, not those of their creator. Maybe no biography could reflect it, but Pritchett’s surely does not.

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