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Vol. LXIII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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Book Review

50,000 Cups of Black Coffee, Paris, and Balzac: A Birthday Adventure

Stuart Mitchner

The impression then, confirmed and brightened, is of the mass and weight of the figure and of the extent of ground it occupies; a tract on which we might all of us together quite pitch our little tents, open our little booths, deal in our little wares, and not materially either diminish the area or impede the circulation of the occupant. I seem to see him in such an image moving about as Gulliver among the pigmies [sic], and not less good-natured than Gulliver for the exercise of any function, without exception, that can illustrate his larger life.

from Henry James’s Notes on Novelists

James is pitching his little tent and opening his little booth in the literary immensity of “the first and foremost member of his craft,” Honoré de Balzac, who was born this day, May 20, in 1799. If I’d read that passage from James in college it might have freed my notion of the author from the leaden weight of terms such as “realism.” Even now that misleading little word pops up under “style” on Balzac’s wikipedia entry.

True enough, Balzac, who died in 1850, was one of those people of whom it could be said, “Ask him the time and he’ll tell you how to make a watch.” Ask Balzac what it was like to live in Paris in the first half of the 19th century and he’ll tell you how to make a city.

The Adventure Begins

Right now I’m looking at the same Penguin Classics paperback of Lost Illusions that was my gateway into the “larger life” of the La Comédie humaine. It’s a fat unappetizing volume, its pages considerably more yellowed than they already were when my wife bought it long ago at a secondhand bookshop in Bristol. The idea of paying the U.K. equivalent of $1.50 for almost 700 pages of used realism! What a waste of time and money. The cover looked unpromising — a boring detail from J.B. Corot’s Souvenir of Mortefontaine (yellow sky, lake, trees, human figures) — but my wife didn’t mind. For a week she disappeared into the dull-looking volume. She read it on the bus to Bath and back. She read it at breakfast and walking on the Downs. She went to bed with it and got up with it, emerging only to tell me “You’ve got to read this!” When she finished, she assured me it was amazing, fabulous, as great as Tolstoy, Proust, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. I still had my doubts and was tempted to trade it in on something else when we returned to the bookshop, which had a solid stock of used Penguin Classics. After talking me out of a trade, my wife bought two more Balzacs and promptly disappeared for two more weeks. By the time she finished A Harlot High and Low, the sequel to Lost Illusions, her heart was racing and she was having palpitations, as if some of the author’s heavily caffeinated energy had invaded her nervous system. Halfway through Cousin Pons (can you imagine a duller title?), she was raving, “You have to read this! No, really!” Every now and then she’d shake her head and laugh out loud as she read. She was looking strange, a bit, well, pixilated. This Balzac business was getting out of hand — getting unreal, you might say.

Came the day I finally sat down with Lost Illusions and found myself immersed in an incredibly protracted description of the workings of a provincial printing press and the paper-making industry. By all rights, it should have been tough going. But this author was possessed by his subject. At the same time, he spoke with enthusiastic, not to say obsessive, authority, the supreme essence of the godlike narrator with infinite resources of raw knowledge at his command in an imagination as rich and wayward as the great medina at Fez. It wasn’t just that the man knew his subject cold, he found it fascinating, and his fascination fascinated you.

So much for “realism,” a misnomer Baudelaire has in mind when expressing surprise “that Balzac’s greatest claim to fame is to pass as an observer” when “his principal merit lay in being a visionary, and a passionate visionary” whose “prodigious taste for detail” derives “from an immoderate desire to see everything, to make others see everything, to guess everything, to make others guess everything.”

Going to the Source

When Lost Illusion’s hero Lucien came to Paris, my fate was sealed. I might not have known it yet, but for the next few years I would be foraging into the most out of the way corners of the Human Comedy, even though it meant reading archaic translations by the likes of Clara Bell, where graphic obscenities uttered by murderous brutes are translated as “Bless my stars!”

Before Balzac, we’d had no plan to nip over to Paris from Bristol. After Balzac, we had to go to the source, armed with the little red book of arrondisements I’d annotated according to the places mentioned in the novels. My first objective was to locate the site of the bench in the Luxembourg Gardens where Lucien recites some sonnets to a jaded journalist and receives his first lesson in the “world behind the scenes of the theatre of literature.” It didn’t matter that my notion of the place was 150 years out of date. According to Lost Illusions, the street I was walking toward after finding and resting on the most likely bench had once been “one long stretch of mud lined with boardings and marshes, with houses only beginning at the approach to the rue de Vaugirard.” When I glanced up and saw rue de Vaugirard on a sign, it was as if the street I was walking down had been named by Balzac, not the city planners. I had no goal in mind. I was still in the book, my head down, until I came to a sooty median on boulevard Raspail. And lo and behold, there it was, there he was.

I’ve seen monuments to Shakespeare in Leicester Square and Stratford, statues of Joyce leaning on his walking stick on O’Connell Street in Dublin and Wilde lounging on a rock in Merrion Square Park, not to mention the bust of Einstein soaking up exhaust fumes at the most truck-infested intersection in Princeton, but for gritty everyday excitement nothing has ever quite equalled coming by chance upon Rodin’s Balzac. At first I didn’t know what the thing on the pedestal was. The place was swarming with cars and mo-peds and the air smelled of petrol. It had rained earlier that summer day and the pavement was shining and steaming with it. How bizarre, that this crazed, colossal work of art — it might have been some primeval creature, a Darwinian monster emerging from the evolutionary mire — was meant to represent and honor the writer whose vision of Paris had somehow led me to that spot. The ravaged form looming above me seemed a kind of sublime atrocity, perhaps resembling what James was getting at when he spoke of “the odd want of elbow-room” in Balzac, whose “close-packed, pressed-down contents” suggest “some designedly beautiful thing but half-disengaged from the clay or the marble.” In fact this fantastically weathered object perfectly embodied the aesthetic of squalor that made Balzac’s Paris so compelling. Here he was, engulfed by the monk’s robe he preferred to do his writing in, the verdigris-stained garment flayed, abused, heavily scored, the very form of his face eroded, his eyes black holes, the master of the Human Comedy buffeted by the years and the elements, pelted with bird-droppings and all manner of Parisian pollution, yet stalwart, even brazen, a conquering figure gazing into the heart of Paris with those ruined eyes.

Besides capturing the driven creator who wrote through the night energized by Gargantuan quantities of strong coffee, Rodin’s sculpture also evokes the seminal moment at the conclusion of Père Goriot (which I’ve been reading in Burton Raffel’s lively translation) when Balzac’s alter ego, Eugene Rastignac, stands at the highest part of the cemetery of Père-Lachaise and looks down “at the heart of Paris … where night lights were beginning to gleam …. He looked at that swarming beehive, his very glance seeming to suck out its honey. and then declared grandly, “‘Now it’s just the two of us! — I’m ready!’

I’m inclined to think the earlier M.A. Crawford translation says it better even if it does overstate the original (“A nous deux maintenant!”) as “It’s war between us now.” But then consider how Balzac chose to describe the effects of the great addiction (among many) of his life: “Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

What on earth is he talking about? Coffee! According to V.S. Pritchett’s Balzac, after writing “hour after hour, when he flagged and his head seemed to burst,” Balzac “went to the coffee pot and brewed the strongest black coffee he could find, made from the beans of Bourbon, Martinique, and Mocha.” It’s said that in his life he drank 50,000 cups of it. How good was Balzac’s brew? To his friend Leon Gozlan, “It was the finest and most exquisite thing in existence — excepting his tea.”

Gozlan takes a page and a half to describe the “famous golden tea,” which had a history Balzac needed hours to tell (“A chosen band of virgins cut it ere the rising of the sun” etc, etc), but that’s another story.

I imagine he saved the tea for special occasions, like his birthday.

Burton Raffel’s translation of “Père Goriot” can be found in the Norton Critical Edition edited by Peter Brooks, who is currently Mellon Visiting Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for Human Values at Princeton. Among Brooks’s works are “The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess” (1976) and “Henry James Goes to Paris” (2007). His edition of “Père Goriot” is available at the Princeton Public Library.

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