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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote And of Balzac himself


[Sidenote:

And of Balzac himself.]

Of the three divisions of this vast but far from chaotic production, the miscellaneous, of course, concerns us least. It shows Balzac as a failure of a dramatist, a critic of very varying competence,[153] not a particularly effective _writer_ merely as such, not possessed of much logical power, but having pretty wide interests and abundantly provided with what we may call the odd tools of the novelist's workshop. As a correspondent his writing has absolutely none of what may be called the "departmental" interest of great letter-writers--of Madame de Sevigne or Lady Mary, of Horace Walpole or Cowper; its attraction is not epistolary but wholly autobiographic. And it is only fair to say that, despite Balzac's immense and intense self-centredness, it leaves one on the whole with a much better opinion of him as a man than might be derived from his books or from the anecdotes about him. To adapt one of the best known of these, there was, in fact, nothing real to him but Honore de Balzac, Honore de Balzac's works and schemes, and, in rare cases (of which Madame Hanska was the chief), Honore de Balzac's loves. These constituted his subject, his universe of thought and feeling, of action and passion. But at the same time he stands apart from all the other great egotists. He differs from those of whom Byron is the chief in that he does not introduce himself prominently in his fictitious creations. He does not, like those who may

take their representative in Goethe, regard everything merely as it relates to his personality. His chief peculiarity, his unique literary character, and, it may be added at once, his greatness and his weakness, all consist in the fact that he evolves a new world out of himself. Now and then he may have taken an actual human model--George Sand, Madame d'Agoult, Madame de Castries, Liszt, Latouche,[154] Remusat--as many others as anybody likes. But always these had not merely to receive the Balzacian image and superscription, but to be transmuted into creatures of a _Balzacium Sidus_. And it is the humanity of this planet or system, much more than of our world, whereof his _Comedie_ is the Comedy--a _Comedie Balzacienne_.

[Sidenote: Balzac's "general ideas."]

But, it has been said, and the saying has been attributed to no less a critic than M. Faguet, there are no "general ideas" in Balzac.[155] One can only reply, "Heavens! Why should there be?" The celebrated unreason of "going to a gin-palace for a leg of mutton" (already quoted, and perhaps to be quoted again) is sound and sensible as compared with asking general ideas from a novelist. They are not quite absolutely forbidden to him, though he will have to be very careful lest they get in his way. But they are most emphatically not his business, except as very rare and very doubtful means to a quite different end, means absolutely insufficient by themselves and exceedingly difficult to combine with the other means which--more or fewer of them--are not only sufficient but necessary. The "slice of human life," not necessarily, but preferably ordinary, presenting probable and interesting characters, connected by sufficient plot, diversified and adorned by descriptive and other devices, and abundantly furnished with the conversation of men and women of this world, the whole forming such a whole as will amuse, thrill, affect, and in other ways, to use the all-important word once more, _interest_ the reader,--that is what is wanted. And this definition is as rigid at least as the Aristotelian definition of tragedy and perhaps more exhaustive, as concerns the novel, including, with the necessary modifications, the romance--and the romance, including, with the necessary modifications, the novel. In it "general ideas," unless a very special and not at all usual meaning is attached to the term, can have no right of place. They may be brought in, as almost anything may be brought in if the writer is Samson enough to bring it. But they cannot be demanded of him as facts, images, emotions, style, and a very large number of other things can or may be, not, of course, all at once, but in larger or smaller selection. General ideas may and perhaps should be demanded from the philosopher, the historian, the political student. From the poet and the novelist they cannot be. And that they should be so demanded is one of the chief instances of what seems to the present writer to be the greatest mistake of French novel, as of other, criticism--its persistent relapse upon the rule-system and its refusal to judge by the result.[156]


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