Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  Meanwhile, he continued to correspond with Eveline Hanska. His early letters left no doubt about the nature of their relations, and two of them, which Eveline had left carelessly in a book, were read by her husband. Balzac, apprised of this embarrassing occurrence, wrote to M. Hanski and told him that they were merely a joke; Eveline had taunted him with the fact that he could not write a love letter, and he had written those two to show how well he could. The explanation was thin, but M. Hanski apparently accepted it. After that, Balzac’s letters were sufficiently discreet, and it was only indirectly, expecting her to read between the lines, that he was able to assure Eveline that he loved her as passionately as ever and longed for the day when they could be united for the rest of their lives. The suggestion is plausible that during an absence of eight years, in which time, besides passing flutters, he had had two serious affairs, one with the Countess Guidoboni, the other with Hélène de Valette, his love for Eveline Hanska was somewhat less ardent than he pretended. Balzac was a novelist, and it is natural enough that, when he sat down to write a letter to her, he should have thrown himself into his character of the love-lorn swain as easily as when, wanting to give an example of Lucien de Rubempré’s literary gift, he threw himself into the character of a brilliant young journalist and wrote an admirable article. I have little doubt that when he wrote a love letter to Eveline he felt exactly what he eloquently said. She had promised to marry him on her husband’s death, and his future security depended on her keeping her word; no one can blame him if in his letters he forced the note a little. For eight interminable years Monsieur Hanski had enjoyed moderate health. He died suddenly. The moment Balzac had been so long awaiting arrived, and at last his dream was to come true. At last he was going to be rich. At last he was to be free of his petty bourgeois debts.

  But the letter in which Eveline told him of her husband’s death was followed by another, in which she told him that she would not marry him. She could not forgive him his infidelities, his extravagance, his debts. He was reduced to despair. She had told him in Vienna that she did not expect him to be physically faithful so long as she had his heart. Well, that she had always had. He was outraged by her injustice. He came to the conclusion that he could only win her back by seeing her, and so, after a good deal of correspondence, notwithstanding her marked reluctance, he made the journey to St. Petersburg, where she then was to settle her husband’s affairs. His calculations proved correct; both were fat and middle-aged; he was forty-three and she was forty-two; but it looked as though, such was his charm, such his vitality and the power of his genius, when with him she could refuse him nothing. They became lovers again, and again she promised to marry him. It was seven years before she kept her word. Why she hesitated so long has puzzled the biographers, but surely the reasons are not far to seek. She was a great lady, proud of her noble lineage, as proud as Prince Andrew in War and Peace was of his, and it is likely enough that she saw a great difference between being the mistress of a celebrated author and the wife of a vulgar upstart. Her family did all they could to persuade her not to contract such an unsuitable alliance. She had a marriageable daughter, whom it was her duty to settle in accordance with her rank and circumstances; Balzac was a notorious spendthrift; she may well have feared that he would play ducks and drakes with her fortune. He was always wanting money from her. He did not dip into her purse, he plunged both hands into it. She was rich, and herself extravagant, but it is very different to fling your money about for your own pleasure and to have someone else fling it about for his.

  The strange thing is not that Eveline Hanska waited so long to marry Balzac, but that she married him at all. They saw one another from time to time, and as a result of one of these meetings she became pregnant. Balzac was enchanted. He thought he had won her at last and begged her to marry him at once; but she, unwilling to have her hand forced, wrote to tell him that after her confinement she intended to go back to the Ukraine to economise and would marry him later. The child was born dead. This was in 1845 or 1846. She married Balzac in 1850. He had spent the winter in the Ukraine, and the ceremony took place there. Why did she at last consent? She didn’t want to marry him. She never had. She was a devout woman and at one time had seriously thought of entering a convent: perhaps her confessor urged her to regularise her unconventional situation. During the winter Balzac’s prolonged and arduous labour, his abuse of strong coffee, had at length shattered his vigorous constitution, and his health failed. Heart and lungs were affected. It was evident that he had not long to live. Perhaps Eveline was moved to pity for a dying man, who, notwithstanding his infidelities, had loved her so long. Her brother Adam Rzewuski wrote to beg her not to marry Balzac, and her reply is quoted by Pierre Descaves in Les Cent Jours de M. de Balzac: ‘No, no, no … I owe something to the man who has suffered so much by me and for me, whose inspiration and whose joy I have been. He is ill; his days are numbered! … He has been betrayed so often; I shall remain faithful to him, in spite of everything and notwithstanding everything, faithful to the ideal that he has made of me, and if, as the doctors say, he must soon die, let it be at least with his hand in mine, and with the image of me in his heart, and may his last glance be fixed on me, on the woman he has loved so much, and who has loved him so sincerely and so truly.’ The letter is moving, and I don’t see why we should doubt its sincerity.

  She was no longer a rich woman. She had dispossessed herself of her vast possessions in favour of her daughter and retained only an annuity. If Balzac was disappointed, he did not show it. The couple went to Paris, where, on Eveline’s money, he had bought and expensively furnished a large house.

  It is lamentable to have to relate that after all this eager waiting, when at last Balzac’s hopes were realised, the marriage was not a success. They had lived together for months at a time in the Ukraine, and one would have thought that they must have come to know one another so well, with all their difficulties of character, that they would have fallen easily enough into the intimacy of married life. It is possible that mannerisms and tricks which Eveline had regarded with indulgence in a lover irritated her in a husband. For years Balzac had been in the position of a suppliant: it may be that when safely married he became dictatorial and high-handed. Eveline was haughty, exacting and quick-tempered. She had made great sacrifices to marry him, and she resented the fact that he did not seem properly grateful. She had always said that she would not marry him till all his debts were paid, and he had assured her that this was done; but, on arriving in Paris, she found that the house was mortgaged and that he still owed large sums. She had been accustomed to be mistress of a large house, with a score of house-serfs at her beck and call; she was unused to French servants, and she resented the interference of Balzac’s family in the management of her household. She did not like them. She found them second-rate and pretentious. The quarrels between husband and wife were so bitter and so open that all their friends became aware of them.

  Balzac had arrived in Paris ill. He grew worse. He took to his bed. One complication followed another, and on the 17th August, 1850, he died.

  Eveline Hanska, like Kate Dickens and the Countess Tolstoy, has had a bad press with posterity. She survived Balzac for thirty-two years. At some sacrifice she paid his debts, and gave his mother till her death the three thousand francs a year which Balzac had promised her but never paid. She arranged for a re-issue of his complete works. In connection with this, a young man, Champfleury by name, came to see her within a few months after her husband’s death; and when, being very much of a lady’s man, he made advances to her there and then, she did not resist. The affair lasted three months. He was succeeded by a painter called Jean Gigoux; and the connection, which one may presume from its length grew platonic, lasted till her own death at the age of eighty-two. Posterity would have preferred her to remain chaste and inconsolable for the rest of her long life.

  (4)

  George Sand rightly said that each of Balzac’s books was in fact a page of one g
reat book, which would be imperfect if he had omitted that page. In 1833 he conceived the idea of combining the whole of his production into one whole under the name of La Comédie Humaine. When it occurred to him, he ran to see his sister: ‘Salute me,’ he cried, ‘because I’m quite plainly (tout simplement) on the way to become a genius.’ He described as follows what he had in mind: ‘The social world of France would be the historian, I should be merely the secretary. In setting forth an inventory of vices and virtues, in assembling the principal facts of the passions, in painting characters, in choosing the principal incidents of the social world, in composing types by combining the traits of several homogeneous characters, perhaps I could manage to write the history forgotten by so many historians, the history of manners and customs,’ It was an ambitious scheme. He did not live to carry it to completion. It is evident that some of the pages in the vast work he left, though perhaps necessary, are less interesting than others. In a production of such bulk, that was inevitable. But in almost all Balzac’s novels there are two or three characters which, because they are obsessed by a simple, primitive passion, stand out with extraordinary force. It was in the depiction of just such characters that his strength lay; when he had to deal with a character of any complexity, he was less happy. In almost all his novels there are scenes of great power, and in several an absorbing story.

  If I were asked by someone who had never read Balzac to recommend the novel which best represented him, which gave the reader pretty well all the author had to give, I should without hesitation advise him to read Le Père Goriot. The story it tells is continuously interesting. In some of his novels, Balzac interrupts his narrative to discourse on all sorts of irrelevant matters, or to give you long accounts of people in whom you cannot take the faintest interest; but from these defects Le Père Goriot is free. He lets his characters explain themselves by their words and actions as objectively as it was in his nature to do. The novel is extremely well constructed; and the two threads, the old man’s self-sacrificing love for his ungrateful daughters, and the ambitious Rastignac’s first steps in the crowded, corrupt Paris of his day, are ingeniously interwoven. It illustrates the principles which in La Comédie Humaine Balzac was concerned to bring to light: ‘Man is neither good nor bad, he is born with instincts and aptitudes; the world (la société), far from corrupting him, as Rousseau pretended, perfects him, makes him better; but self-interest then enormously develops his evil propensities.’

  So far as I know, it was in Le Père Goriot that Balzac first conceived the notion of bringing the same characters into novel after novel. The difficulty of this is that you must create characters who interest you so much that you want to know what happens to them. Balzac here triumphantly succeeds and, speaking for myself, I read with added enjoyment the novels in which I learn what has become of certain persons, Rastignac for instance, whose future I am eager to know about. Balzac himself was profoundly interested in them. He had at one time as his secretary a man of letters called Jules Sandeau, who is chiefly known in literary history as one of George Sand’s many lovers: he had gone home because his sister was dying; she died, and he buried her; and on his return Balzac, having offered his condolences and asked after Sandeau’s family, said, so the story goes: ‘Come, that’s enough of that, let’s get back to serious things. Let’s talk of Eugénie Grandet.’ The device which Balzac adopted (and which, incidentally, Sainte-Beuve in a moment of petulance roundly condemned) is useful because it is an economy of invention; but I cannot believe that Balzac, with his marvellous fertility, resorted to it on that account. I think he felt that it added reality to his narrative, for in the ordinary course of events we have repeated contacts with a fair proportion of the same people; but more than that, I think his main object was to knit his whole work together in a comprehensive unity. His aim, as he said himself, was not to depict a group, a set, a class or even a society, but a period and a civilisation. He suffered from the delusion, not uncommon to his countrymen, that France, whatever disasters had befallen it, was the centre of the universe; but perhaps it was just on that account that he had the self-assurance to create a world, multicoloured, various and profuse, and the power to give it the convincing throb of life.

  Balzac started his novels slowly. A common method with him was to begin with a detailed description of the scene of action. He took so much pleasure in these descriptions that he often tells you more than you need to know. He never learned the art of saying only what has to be said, and not saying what needn’t be said. Then he tells you what his characters look like, what their dispositions are, their origins, habits, ideas and defects; and only after this sets out to tell his story. His characters are seen through his own exuberant temperament and their reality is not quite that of real life; they are painted in primary colours, vivid and sometimes garish, and they are more exciting than ordinary people; but they live and breathe; and you believe in them, I think, because Balzac himself intensely believed in them, so intensely indeed that when he was dying he cried: ‘Send for Bianchon. Bianchon will save me.’ This was the clever, honest doctor who appears in many of the novels. He is one of the very few disinterested characters to be met with in La Comédie Humaine.

  I believe Balzac to have been the first novelist to use a boarding-house as the setting for a story. It has been used many times since, for it is a convenient way of enabling the author to present together a variety of characters in sundry predicaments, but I don’t know that it has ever been used with such happy effect as in Le Père Goriot. We meet in this novel perhaps the most thrilling character that Balzac ever created – Vautrin. The type has been reproduced a thousand times, but never with such striking and picturesque force, nor with such convincing realism. Vautrin has a good brain, will-power and immense vitality. These were traits that appealed to Balzac, and, ruthless criminal though he was, he fascinated his author. It is worth the reader’s while to notice how skilfully, without giving away a secret he wanted to keep till the end of the book, he has managed to suggest that there is something sinister about the man. He is jovial, generous and good-natured; he has great physical strength, he is clever and self-possessed; you cannot but admire him, and sympathise with him, and yet he is strangely frightening. He obsesses you, as he did Rastignac, the ambitious, well-born young man who comes to Paris to make his way in the world; but you feel in the convict’s company the same uneasiness as Rastignac felt. Vautrin is a great creation.

  His relations with Eugène de Rastignac are admirably presented. Vautrin sees into the young man’s heart and proceeds subtly to sap his moral sense: true, Eugène revolts when he learns to his horror that Vautrin has had a man killed to enable him to marry an heiress; but the seeds are sown.

  Le Père Goriot ends with the old man’s death. Rastignac goes to his funeral and afterwards, remaining alone in the cemetery, surveys Paris lying below him along the two banks of the Seine. His eyes dwell on that part of the city in which reside the denizens of the great world he wishes to enter. ‘À nous deux maintenant,’ he cries. It may interest the reader who has not felt inclined to read all the novels in which Rastignac plays a part, more or less conspicuous, to know what came of Vautrin’s influence. Madame de Nucingen, old Goriot’s daughter and the wife of the rich banker, the Baron de Nucingen, having fallen in love with him, took and expensively furnished for him, an apartment, and provided him with money to live like a gentleman. Since her husband kept her short of cash, Balzac has not made clear how she managed to do this: perhaps he thought that when a woman in love needs money to support a lover she will somehow manage to get it. The Baron seems to have taken a tolerant view of the situation, and in 1826 made use of Rastignac in a financial transaction in which a number of the young man’s friends were ruined, but from which he, as his share of the swag, received from Nucingen four hundred thousand francs. On part of this he dowered his two sisters, so that they could make good marriages, and was left with twenty thousand francs a year: ‘The price of keeping a stable’, he tol
d his friend Bianchon. Being thus no longer dependent on Madame de Nucingen, and realising that a liaison that lasts too long has all the drawbacks of marriage, without its advantages, he made up his mind to throw her over and become the lover of the Marquise d’Espard, not because he was in love with her, but because she was rich, a great lady and influential. ‘Perhaps some day I’ll marry her,’ he added. ‘She’ll put me in a position in which at length I shall be able to pay my debts.’ This was in 1828. It is uncertain whether Madame d’Espard succumbed to his blandishments, but if she did, the affair did not last long, and he continued to be the lover of Madame de Nucingen. In 1831 he thought of marrying an Alsatian girl, but drew back on discovering that her fortune was not so great as he had been led to believe. In 1832, through the influence of Henry de Marsay, a former lover of Madame de Nucingen, who, Louis Philippe being then King of France, was a Minister, Rastignac was made Under-Secretary of State. He was able, while holding this office, largely to increase his fortune. His relations with Madame de Nucingen apparently continued till 1835, when, perhaps by mutual agreement, they were broken off; and three years later he married her daughter Augusta. Since she was the only child of a very rich man, Rastignac did well for himself. In 1839 he was created a Count and again entered the Ministry. In 1845 he was made a peer of France and had an income of three hundred thousand francs a year (£12,000), which for the time was great wealth.

 
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