top of page

Balzac and Stendhal (by Stefan Zweig)

Dernière mise à jour : 22 août 2023

Extract from :

Stefan Zweig



"If the Revue Parisienne had printed nothing during its short existence but Balzac’s essay on Stendhal’s La chartreuse de Parme, it would have deserved its niche in the annals of French literature. Never were Balzac’s essential generosity and amazing artistic insight more superbly revealed than in this enthusiastically laudatory notice of a completely unknown book by a completely unknown author.

World literature has few instances to offer of such an intuitive feeling of comradeship. In order to estimate at its true value the magnanimous spontaneity with which Balzac freely and of his own will awarded the palm to his greatest rival in the field of the novel and, many decades in advance of his age, tried to win for him the recognition which he merited, we must compare the relative standing of the two men in the eyes of their contemporaries.

Balzac’s fame had long since spread from one end of Europe to the other, while Stendhal was still so utterly disregarded that when he died his obituaries, in so far as any appeared at all, referred to him as “Stenhal” and his real name was given as “Bayle”. He was never included in the ranks of French writers. The journals filled their pages with praise or criticism of such authors as Alphonse Carr, Jules Janin, Sandeau, Paul de Kock, and other industrious scribblers whose works are now forgotten, but in their time sold in tens of thousands of copies. The sum total of the sales of Stendhal’s Vamour amounted to twenty-two copies, so that he himself mockingly dubbed it “a sacred book” since nobody dared to touch it. Le rouge et le noir did not reach a second edition during his lifetime.

The professional critics ignored him. When Le rouge et le noir was first published Sainte-Beuve did not think it worth a notice, and when he gave it one later on he was rather disdainful. “His characters,” he said, “are not alive; they are ingeniously constructed automata.” The Gazette de France commented, "Monsieur de Stendhal is not a fool, though he writes foolish books.” Goethe’s praise in his conversations with Eckermann did not attract attention until long after Stendhal’s death.

Balzac, however, realised even from the early volumes the particular quality of Stendhal’s intelligence and his mastery of psychology, and he utilised every opportunity that came his way to pay reverence to a man who only wrote books for his own amusement and published them without entertaining ambitious hopes for their success. In the Comedie humaine he mentioned the crystallisation process in love which Stendhal was the first to describe, and referred to the latter’s Italian travel-books.

Stendhal was too modest to approach his famous colleague on the basis of these friendly indications. Her did not even send him his new publications, but fortunately his loyal friend Raymond Colomb drew Balzac’s attention to them, begging him at the same time to espouse the cause of this author whom the critics had failed to appreciate.

Balzac replied at once, on the 20th of March, 1839 :

"I had already read in the Constitutionnel an extract from La chartreuse which caused me to commit the sin of being envious. Yes, I was assailed by a fit of jealousy on reading that superb and accurate account of a battle such as I had dreamed of for my Scenes de la vie militaire, the most difficult thing I have ever undertaken. I ’was ravished, chagrined, enchanted, driven to despair by the morsel. . . . You may count on me to tell you sincerely what I think of it. The fragment has roused my expectations and is going to make me exacting in my demands. . . ."

A smaller mind would have been vexed at finding that the chief scene in his forthcoming novel, the description of a Napoleonic battle, had already been portrayed with consummate skill by another writer. For ten years Balzac had been turning over in his thoughts the plan of La bataille. Instead of the traditional heroic and sentimental picture, he wanted to present a realistic account that would be true to historical fact, authentic in its details, and imbued with the spirit of actuality. Now he was too late, for Stendhal had anticipated him.

An artist whose mind is stored with riches and whose inventive genius is inexhaustible can afford to be generous. With a hundred themes still to be worked out and embodied in books, Balzac was not upset because one of his contemporaries had produced a masterpiece that he himself had set his heart on writing. He therefore did not stint his praise of La chartreuse de Parme, which he called “le chef-d'oeuvre de la literature à idée” :

"This great work could have been conceived and executed only by a man of fifty in all the vigour of his years and the maturity of his talents."

His masterly analysis of the inward action, with its recognition of Stendhal’s profound understanding of the Italian spirit in all its forms and variants, has not been surpassed by any critic who has written on the subject since.

Stendhal was astonished and startled when Balzac’s essay broke in upon his solitude at Civitavecchia, where he was employed as consul. At first he could not believe his eyes. Hitherto his work had met with nothing but paltry comment, but this was the voice of a man whom he respected. Balzac was greeting him as a fellow-author of his own rank, and the letter Stendhal wrote in acknowledgment betrayed a sense of bewilderment that he tried in vain to subdue. He began:

"I received a great surprise yesterday evening, Monsieur. I do not think anyone has ever before had his work discussed in such a way in the pages of a review, and moreover by the best judge in the matter. You have had compassion on an orphan who had been cast out into the streets."

And he expressed his gratitude for “an astonishing article such as no writer has ever received from another.” With an artistic insight equalling that of Balzac himself, he accepted the fraternal hand that was held out to him. He knew that they were both writing for a later age than their own:

"When we are dead we shall exchange roles with these others. So long as we are alive they possess absolute power over our mortal bodies, but after that they will be wrapped for ever in oblivion."

Thanks to some mysterious affinity of substance, mind was calling to mind, and above the noise and turmoil of the ephemeral literature of the day these two immortals looked one another tranquilly in the eye, assured in their own hearts that they stood apart.

Rarely had Balzac’s intuition been more superbly demonstrated than when, from the thousands of books that were being published, he chose one of the most disregarded of them all for special praise. Yet his championship of Stendhal awakened no echo among his contemporaries. It was ignored by the literary pundits of the day as his argument in defence of Peytel had been rejected by the legal courts of appeal. His flaming plea was made in vain, in so far as any great moral deed, whether crowned with success or not, can ever be said to have been performed in vain."

* * *


PayPal ButtonPayPal Button
bottom of page