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A day in Balzac’s working life, by Stefan Zweig

"I have resumed my life of toil. I go to bed at six, directly after dinner. The animal digests and sleeps till midnight. Auguste makes me a cup of coffee, with which the mind goes at one flash till midday. I rush to the printing-office to carry my copy and get my proofs, which gives exercise to the animal, who dreams as he goes."

Honoré de Balzac

Letter to his sister, 1833

Stefan Zweig



"Let us take a day in Balzac’s working life, a day typical of thousands.

Eight o’clock in the evening. The citizens of Paris had long since finished their day’s work and left their offices, shops or factories. After having dined, either with their families or their friends or alone, they were beginning to pour out into the streets in search of pleasure. Some strolled along the boulevards or sat in eaffis, others were still putting the finishing touches to their toilet before the mirror prior to a visit to the theatre or to a salon. Balzac alone was asleep in his darkened room, dead to the world after sixteen or seventeen hours spent at his desk.

Nine o’clock.In the theatres the curtain had already gone up, the ballrooms were crowded with whirling couples, the gambling houses echoed to the chink of gold, in the side-streets furtive lovers pressed deeper into the shadows — but Balzac slept on.

Ten o’clock. Lights were being extinguished in houses here and there, the older generation were thinking of bed, fewer carriages could be heard rolling over the cobbles, the voices of the city grew softer — and Balzac slept.

Eleven o’clock. The final curtain was falling in the theatres, the last guests were turning homewards from the parties or salons they had been attending, the restaurants were dimming their lights, the last pedestrians were disappearing from the streets, the boulevards were emptying as a final wave of noisy revellers disappeared into the side-streets and trickled away — and Balzac slept on.

Midnight. Paris was silent. Millions of eyes had closed. Most of the lights had gone out. Now that the others were resting it was time for Balzac to work. Now that the others were dreaming it was time for him to wake. Now that the day was ended for the rest of Paris his day was about to begin. No one could come to disturb him, no visitors to bother him, no letters to cause him disquiet. No creditors could knock at his door and no printers send their messengers to insist on a further instalment of manuscript or corrected proofs. A vast stretch of time, eight to ten hours of perfect solitude, lay before him in which to work at his vast undertaking. Just as the furnace which fuses the cold, brittle ore into infrangible steel must not be allowed to cool down, so he knew that the tensity of his vision must not be allowed to slacken :

My thoughts must drip from my brow like water from a fountain. The process is entirely unconscious.

He recognised only the law which his work decreed :

It is impossible for me to work when I have to break off and go out. I never work merely for one or two hours at a stretch.

It was only at night, when time was boundless and undivided, that continuity was possible, and in order to obtain this continuity of work he reversed the normal division of time and turned his night into day.

Awakened by his servant knocking gently on the door, Balzac rose and donned his robe. This was the garment which he had found by years of experience to be the most convenient for his work. In winter it was of warm cashmere, in summer of thin linen, long and white, permitting complete freedom of movement, open at the neck, providing adequate warmth without being oppressive, and perhaps a further reason why he had chosen it was because its resemblance to a monk’s robe unconsciously reminded him that he was in service to a higher law and bound, so long as he wore it, to abjure the outside world and its temptations.

A woven cord (later replaced by a golden chain) was tied loosely round this monkish garment, and in place of crucifix and scapular there dangled a paper-knife and a pair of scissors. After taking a few steps up and down the room to shake the last vestiges of sleep from his mind and send the blood circulating more swiftly through his veins, Balzac was ready.

Louis Boulanger - Honoré de Balzac, 1836

The servant had kindled the six candles in the silver candelabra on the table and drawn the curtains tightly as if this were a visible symbol that the outer world was now completely shut off, for Balzac did not want to measure his hours of work by the sun or the stars. He did not care to see the dawn or to know that Paris was waking to a new day. The material objects around him faded into the shadows — the books ranged along the walls, the walls themselves, the doors and windows and all that lay beyond them. Only the creatures of his own mind were to speak, and act, and live. He was creating a world of his own, a world that was to endure. Balzac sat down at the table where, as he said,

“I cast my life into the crucible as the alchemist casts his gold.”

It was a small, unpretentious, rectangular table which he loved more than the most valuable of his possessions. It meant more to him than his stick studded with turquoises, more than the silver plate that he had purchased piece by piece, more than his sumptuously bound books, more than the celebrity he had already won, for he had carried it with him from one lodging to another, salvaged it from bankruptcies and catastrophes, rescued it like a soldier dragging a helpless comrade from the turmoil of battle. It was the sole confidant of his keenest pleasure and his bitterest grief, the sole silent witness of his real life:

It has seen all my wretchedness, knows all my plans, has overheard my thoughts. My arm almost committed violent assault upon it as my pen raced along the sheets.

No human being knew so much about him, and with no woman did he share so many nights of ardent companionship. It was at this table that Balzac lived — and worked himself to death.

A last look round to make sure that everything was in place. Like every truly fanatical worker, Balzac was pedantic in his method of work. He loved his tools as a soldier loves his weapons, and before he flung himself into the fray he had to know that they were ready to his hand. To his left lay the neat piles of blank paper. The paper had been carefully chosen and the sheets were of a special size and‘shape, of a slightly bluish tinge so as not to dazzle or tire the eyes, and with a particularly smooth surface over which his quill could skim without meeting resistance. His pens had been prepared with equal care. He would use no other than ravens' quills.

Next to the inkwell — not the expensive one of malachite that had been a gift from some admirers, but the simple one that had accompanied him in his student days — stood a bottle or two of ink in reserve. He would have no precaution neglected that would serve to ensure the smooth, uninterrupted flow of his work. To his right lay a small notebook in which he now and then entered some thought or idea that might come in useful for a later chapter.

There was no other equipment. Books, papers, research material were all unnecessary. Balzac had digested everything in his mind before he began to write.

He leaned back in his chair and rolled back the sleeve of his robe to allow free play to his right hand. Then he spurred himself on with half-jesting remarks addressed to himself, like a coachman encouraging his horses to pull on the shafts. Or he might have been compared to a swimmer stretching his arms and easing his joints before taking the steep plunge from the diving-board. Balzac wrote and wrote, without pause and without hesitation. Once the flame of his imagination had been kindled it continued to glow. It was like a forest fire, with the blaze leaping from tree to tree and growing hotter and more voracious in the process. Yet swiftly as his pen sped over the paper, the words could hardly keep pace with his thoughts.

The more he wrote the more he abbreviated the words so as not to have to think more slowly. He could not allow any interruption of his inner vision, and he did not raise his pen from the paper until either an attack of cramp compelled his fingers to loosen their hold or the writing swam before his eyes and he was dizzy with fatigue. The streets were silent and the only sound in the room was the soft swish of the quill as it passed smoothly over the surface of the paper, or from time to time the rustle of a sheet as it was added to the written pile. Outside the day was beginning to dawn, but Balzac did not see it. His day was the small circle of light cast by the candles, and he was aware of neither space nor time, but only of the world that he was himself fashioning.


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