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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And with La Peau itself he had crossed Jordan


[Sidenote: And its own character.]

For the fact is that the real Balzac lies--to and for me--almost entirely in that _aura_ of other-worldliness of which I have spoken. It is in the revelation of this other world, so like ours and yet not the same; in the exploration of its continents; in the frequentation of its inhabitants; that the pleasure which he has to give consists. How he came himself to discover it is as undiscoverable as how his in some sort analogue Dickens, after pottering not unpleasantly with Bozeries, "thought of Mr. Pickwick," and so of the rest of _his_ human (and extra-human) comedy. But the facts, in both cases fortunately, remain. And it may be possible to indicate at least some qualities and characteristics of the fashion in which he dealt with this world when he _had_ discovered it. In _Les Chouans_ he had found out not so much it, as the way to it; in the books between that and _La Peau de Chagrin_ he was over the border, and with _La Peau_ itself he had "crossed Jordan,"--it was all conquest and extension--as far as permitted--of territory afterwards.

[Sidenote: The "occult" element.]

There can, I should suppose, be very little doubt that the fancy for the occult, which played a great part, as far as bulk goes, in the _Juvenilia_, but produced nothing of value there, began to bear fruit at this time. The Supernatural (as was remarked of woman to the indignation of Mr. Snodgrass) is a "rum creetur." It is very difficult to deal with; to the last degree unsatisfactory when of bad quality and badly handled; but possessing almost infinite capabilities of exhibiting excellence, and conveying enjoyment. Of course, during the generation before Balzac's birth and also that between his birth and 1830, the Terror Novel--from the _Castle of Otranto_ to Maturin--had circled through Europe, and "Illuminism" of various kinds had taken particular hold of France just before the Revolution. But Balzac's "Occult," like Balzac's everything, was not the same as anybody else's. Whether you take it in _La Peau de Chagrin_ itself, or in _Seraphita_, or anywhere, it consists, again, rather in atmosphere than in "figures." A weaker genius would have attached to the skin of that terrible wild ass--gloomier, but more formidable than even the beast in Job[168]--some attendant evil spirit, genie, or "person" of some sort. A bit of shagreen externally, shrinking--with age--perhaps? with weather?--what not?--a life shrinking in mysterious sympathy--that is what was wanted and what you have, without ekings, or explanations, or other trumpery.

[Sidenote: Its action and reaction.]

Nor is it only in the ostensibly "occult" or (as he was pleased to call them) "philosophic" studies and and stories that you get this atmosphere. It spreads practically everywhere--the very bankruptcies and the sordid details of town and country life are overshadowed and in a certain sense _dis_-realised by it. Indeed that verb which, like most new words, has been condemned by some precisians, but which was much wanted, applies to no prose writer quite so universally as to Balzac. He is a _dis_-realiser, not by style as some are, but in thought--at the very same time that he gives such impressions of realism. Sometimes, but not often, he comes quite close to real mundane reality, sometimes, as in the most "philosophical" of the so-called philosophical works, he hardly attempts a show of it. But as a rule when he is at his very best, as in _La Peau de Chagrin_, in _La Recherche de l'Absolu_, in _Le Chef-d'oeuvre Inconnu_, he attains a kind of point of unity between disrealising and realising--he disrealises the common and renders the uncommon real in a fashion actually carrying out what he can never have known--the great Coleridgian definition or description of poetry. In fact, if prose-poetry were not a contradiction in terms, Balzac would be, except in style,[169] the greatest prose-poet of them all.


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