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Balzac, The Eccentric (by Stefan Zweig)

Honoré de Balzac en robe de moine,
d'après Bertall

Extract from :

Stefan Zweig




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"Sudden success is always dangerous for an artist. In 1828 Balzac was a literary hack, bankrupt, up to the eyes in debt, a poor devil who confessed that he stayed at home to save his clothes. Two or three years later he was one of the most famous writers in Europe, with a public in Russia, Germany, England, and the Scandinavian countries, with journals and reviews clamouring for contributions from his pen, courted by all the publishers, snowed under with letters from admiring readers. Overnight one of the ambitions of his youth had been fulfilled, la gloire, the dazzling fame which carried his name round the world on radiant wings.

Even a more sober-minded person than Balzac could not have helped being intoxicated by such success, and Balzac was far from being soberminded. He had lived too many years in obscurity, poor and hungry, filled with impatient despair, observing in fleeting moments of envy that it was always the others, never himself, but always the others, who were acquiring riches, women, success, the luxuries and lavish windfalls of life. With his sensuous nature, it is comprehensible that he should desire to exploit the stir he had made and taste the pleasures which the world had to offer.

He wanted to breathe in the fame that had come to him, taste it on his tongue, touch it with his fingers, perceive it with all his senses, to feel the cosy warmth of applauding crowds, the sweet breath of flattery. Now that the world was aware of his talent, he wanted to show himself to the world. He was weary of humiliations and rebuffs, of the years of servitude and financial embarrassment, and he was ready to yield to the seductive temptations that fame brought with it, to the delights of luxury and extravagance. He knew that the world was now his stage, so he decided to appear before his public and play a role in society.

No less remarkable than Balzac’s genius as a writer was his lack of aptitude for the role of society lion. It is a peculiar feature of the human brain that even the highest degree of intellectual capacity and the most varied accumulation of experience are unable to overcome a man’s innate disabilities. However clear an insight one may have into one’s own temperamental defects, one has no power to eliminate them. Diagnosis is not the same thing as cure, and we can see again and again how the wisest of men are unable to control their small follies, which are the butt of other people’s ridicule. Conscious though he was of the childishness of his snobbery, he was unable to suppress this worst of his weaknesses.


It is an attitude of mind that cannot be analysed rationally. We are faced with an incomprehensible paradox. In order to climb into a “higher sphere of society", he submitted to humiliations all his life. In order to live in luxury, he condemned himself to forced labour. In order to appear elegant, he made himself look absurd. Unconsciously he was himself a living proof of the law which he demonstrated a hundred times in his novels — that a master in one sphere can be a bungler when he ventures into another for which he is not fitted.

(...) We can turn to innumerable contemporary descriptions of Balzac as he was at this time. Some are merely amusing, others are witty; some are condescending, others are malicious or even venomous ; but they all view him in the narrow, misleading perspective of Parisian society and journalism.

Honoré de Balzac, by Grandville

"Grande course au clocher académique" (detail)

We are shown Balzac in his blue coat with its chased gold buttons, and carrying his massive jewel-encrusted club, Balzac en pantouffles, Balzac driving in his tilbury with groom and footman, Balzac strolling along the boulevard and reading all the shop signs to find names for his characters, Balzac the collector of bric-&-brac who hunted through the antique shops in the hope of picking up a Rembrandt for seven francs or a bowl by Benvenuto Cellini for twelve sous, Balzac the terror of his publishers and the bugbear of the compositors, Balzac the braggart and hoaxer who preached chastity as the essential prerequisite for creative work and Balzac the lover who changed his women more frequently than he changed his shirt, Balzac the gourmand who could devour three dozen oysters at a sitting and follow it up with a steak and poultry, Balzac the visionary who talked of the millions he would derive from his mines, his hothouses, and his business interests, yet had to hide himself under a false name for weeks at a time because he was unable to pay a bill of a thousand francs.

It is not mere chance that three-quarters of the pictures of Balzac which have come down to us are not portraits but caricatures, or that his contemporaries have recorded countless anecdotes about him, yet have not bequeathed to us a single accurate and important biography. It is clear from all this that the effect on the Parisians of Balzac’s personality was to make them regard him not as a genius but as an eccentric, and in a certain sense they may have judged rightly. He was bound to appear eccentric in public because, in the real meaning of the word, he diverged from his orbit as soon as he quitted his room, his writing-table, and his work.

The essential Balzac was invisible to the Gozlans, the Werdets, and the Janins, to the idlers and the strollers on the boulevards, because they only knew him during the “one hour a day” he had to give to the world, and not during the other twenty-three hours of his creative solitude.

When he went out among his fellow-men it was like the brief respite allowed to a prisoner when he walks in the prison yard for a breath of fresh air. Or, like the ghost that on the last stroke of midnight has to vanish back to the dark regions whence it came, so Balzac had to return to his labours after his interlude of uncurbed exuberance; and none of those who indulged in irony at his expense had any inkling of the greatness of his work or the austere discipline under which it was carried out. The essential Balzac was the one who in twenty years, apart from numerous dramas, short stories and essays, wrote seventy-four novels of which almost every one is of the first rank. And these seventy-four novels contain a world of their own, with all the different landscapes, streets, houses, and characters required to populate it. This is the only standard by which Balzac can be measured. In his work alone can the real Balzac be recognised.

The man whom his contemporaries regarded as a foolish eccentric possessed the most disciplined artistic intelligence of the age. While they jeered at him for his extravagance he was an industrious ascetic with the steadfast, persevering patience of an anchorite. Those who chose the middle way and were secure in their consciousness of being normal human beings scoffed at him for his tendency to exaggeration, but he produced more from that creative mind of his than all his colleagues put together.

He was perhaps the only one of whom it could truthfully be said that he worked himself to death. His calendar was different from that of his contemporaries. Their day was his night and their night was his day. His real life was lived in a world of his own, a world that he had made himself, and the real Balzac was seen and heard only by the four walls of the room in which he wrote. No contemporary could have written his biography, which is contained in his books themselves."

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