4 SEPTEMBER 1886, Page 16


HONOR t DE BALZAC.* "ifs turned critic, like all the incapables who miss their mark.' That was the opinion of Balzac of the critic-race; and Disraeli only appropriated the saying. It is, therefore, but fair retalia- tion to suggest that the final place of Balzac in literature- is open to much question. The man was so completely a painter of his time, and of special and transitory phases of it, that many of the paintings seem already out of date. We should say that of his three great cotemporaries- in fiction, with whom Sainte Beuve contrasts and compares him—Dumas the elder, George Sand, and Eugene Sae—the two first are more likely than he to live among the immortals. The rich imagination of Dumas, and the poetical humanity of George Sand, are qualities which take a firmer hold on the general reader—for whom, with all respect to superior persons, books have got to be written—than the morbid vivisections of evil and sordidness in which the great analyst's soul delighted. Sainte Benve himself doubted much at the time of the death of the famous novelist by heart-disease, in the high prime of age, whether the violent and passionate style of life-analysis of which he was the master of masters would not pass away with him, at all events for a long space. It is a style which seems to wear out the reader and the writer too ; and in literature, as in politics, there come periods when everybody wants rest. To that theory of Sainte- Benve's we would add our own more commonplace conviction that at all times and in all places the healthier minds of the world like fresh air ; and that to them—who mean the largest proportion of readers, after all—Balzac's detestably morbid tone, and his love of dissecting all the meaner and worse motives of life with a zest which more often suggests the analyst's pleasure in his own unsavoury operations, than any real truth or value in the supposed analysis, are incurable bars to his holding a top place amongst the romancers. The story of Cousine Bette, for instance, conventionally called the most powerful of his books because it is the most disagreeable, is to us a mere nightmare. The confusing of the unbridled with the power- ful is a common form of mistake. The value of unrestrained writing depends on the mind behind it, and it is no recom- mendation in itself. It may flow from a Shakespeare or from a Zola. We are not comparing such a writer as Balzac to the last of these, any more than to the first ; but we suspect Balzac to be very answerable for him, as also for the worship of the great god Improper, from the one eternal side of wives' aberrations, which, in the hands of the later French novelists, has become so intensely tiresome, and so socially popular. It is the misfortune of the originals, of whom Balzac was un- doubtedly one, that they produce a crowd of imitators who go- at once for the worst and easiest points about them. In one it is eccentricity of style, in another license of subject, in a third suggestiveness of the odious. The inventor or discoverer of that dangerous element in life—as at least we are bound to suppose she is—the woman of thirty years, has caused the peopling of the market ever since with unhushed seraglios of divers woes, whose houris, to do Balzac justice, resemble his only in this,— that they are frail, French, and thirty. For Balzac was a great painter of bad manners.

The present writer, however, does not wish to fall into the snare of depreciation. It has been growing far too common of late in reference to the great names of the dead, thine Mortuia nil nisi malum might be the motto of half the terrible "potted lives" of everybody which some dozen of men never seem tired of concocting. The fixed idea of the superior person is that great popularity as a writer is a sure proof of inferiority, because of the absolute inferiority (to himself) of the mighty varietiea of all mankind. We believe the absolute reverse, and sincerely hold great popularity as a writer to be the surest test of great- ness, though, of course, not absolutely infallible. That is none the less true when, as with ourselves in Balzac's case, one may quarrel, from want of personal sympathy, with the spots upon the sun. When a Landor misses the masses (by which, with all respect to a great authority, we mean all the classes) in spite of the verdict of the superior, we suspect something wrong. When a Macaulay enthrals them, we believe in some- thing right. Balzac's life was exactly coincident with the first

• Cesar Birotteau. From the French of Honore de Bahac. London and New York: George Rontledge and Bona.

half of the nineteenth century; and not in France alone was he held to be the novelist of that half-century par excellence. His fame and success in foreign countries were immense. "What is fame, after all ?" somebody rather sneeringly asked him one day. And he answered with a story of himself and some friends, who, being benighted and off the track, asked hospitality at a lonely Russian chateau. It was given at once, and one of the ladies of the family left the room to get refreshments for

the strangers. In her absence the hostess inquired the names of her impromptu guests, and just as the other re-entered with a tray, she heard one of them addressed as "M. de Balzac."

Whereupon she let the tray fall, and broke everything on it. "That," said Balzac triumphantly, "is fame."

The man's strong personality and athletic build, the fury of production which filled and killed him, and his devotion to work for work's sake, were part alike of him and his fame. " Con- ception is nothing," he makes one of his characters say ; "it is like smoking enchanted cigarettes. But for execution it would end in smoke. Great poets and great painters never wait for orders. They produce and produce, to-day, to-morrow, and always ; and live, as Homer and Phidias must have lived, in concubinage with the Muse." What a comment at once on Balzac's weak side and his strong one, as we have presumed to comment upon both. Talking of the simplest old names of antiquity, who but a nineteenth-century French novelist would

treat the Muse as a concubine? But he bravely carried out his• own ideas of constant work, and so alone, no doubt, can a man win a steady and increasing fame. The author's life is a prize-

fight with the public ; and however hard a blow he hit, he must leave them no time to get over it before he plants another. Or he has to begin again. Fertility is only another word for per- severance. We have heard that it was Balzac's habit to walk about with those enchanted cigarettes of his for days together, till the fantastic shapes had taken to themselves a form within his brain. Then he sat down, shut himself up, and wrote at white-heat till his book was begun, continued, and ended. Hence, no doubt, the feeling of life which inspires his singular style, tainted as it constantly is with the morbid poison which enervates the stream.

But the style of Balzac, we fear, will not much commend itself to the English readers who study it through the book before us, which has been the pretext of this article. It is anew translation of Cesar Birotteau, in a series now being published by Messrs. Rout- ledge. The Pere Goriot, The Duchesse de Langeais, and Eugenie Grandet have already undergone a similar transformation.; but the

present writer has not seen them.* To judge from this specimen, "others to follow" is, under the circumstances, more than ever an appalling threat ; and we earnestly entreat Messrs. Rontledge, before they execute it, to be more careful of the hands to which they entrust a great reputation. It is impossible, no doubt, really to

reproduce the style of a-foreign author, while we admit Balzac to be unusually difficult, and Cesar Birotteau difficult even for him. But there are limits of decency and of reason ; and the com- monest of translators, if he does not understand a Frenchman's idioms, should at least know something of his own. The New York Tribune of October 13th, 1885, in an appendix to the present volume, remarks upon the previous ones that "the publishers cannot do better than to intrust [sic] the succeeding

volumes to the same capable hands, and it would be only justice to the translator to put his or her name on the title-page ; for it is a meritorious deed to have turned into excellent, nervous English the prose of this great Frenchman." We may say at once that we entirely agree with the sentiment about justice to the translator, and sincerely wish that it had been in this case done. His or her name deserves it, though perhaps he or she thought otherwise, and was wise in his or her generation. As to the capable hands, we are, of course, un-

able to say whether or no the advice of the New York Tribune was followed ; but if it was, we cannot agree with the New York Tribune. Without comment, we submit a few specimens of his or her excellent and nervous English, "as she is spoke," we suppose, by one of Messrs. Routledge's translators. They are taken merely at random, and from the opening pages :— "The poor woman had the supernatural power of emitting more ideas and bringing to the surface more recollections than under any ordinary use of her faculties she could put forth in the course of a whole day. The poignant tale of her monologue may be abridged into a few absurd sentences." [Which it is.] "'He can't froth up his religion. Poor dear cat ! he creeps to mass at eight

o'clock as slyly as if he were going to a bad house.'"

• Pire Goriot is translated with a tood deal of freshness and f ffee.—Bniron.

"On the word of an honest woman, you are dreaming, my dear friend.'—' I am not dreaming, my beautiful white doe.'" [Observe

the idiomatic equivalents of chat and biche.] "You are

like the man who looks for knots in a bulrush.'" "I have,

my lamb. Yes,'—he said, taking his wife by the waist, and striking her with little taps, under an emotion of joy which lighted up his features,--' I did not wish to tell you of this matter till it was all cooked.' "

And thus is the luckless heroine, Constance Pillerault, world- famous wife of Cesar Birotteau, the perfumer—the beautiful white doe, lamb, and beloved little cat, of him or her the trans- lator—introduced to English readers :—

"She was the forewoman of a linen-draper's establishment called Le Petit Matelot, the first of those shops which have since been established in Paris with more or less of painted signs, floating banners, show-oases filled with swinging shawls, cravats arranged like houses of cards, and a thousand other commercial seductions, such as fixed prices, fillets of suspended objects, placards, illusions, and optical effects," &o.

We have not left ourselves the space, nor is it now the time, to enter into the story of Cesar Birotteau. Sainte Beuve's ear finds in the surname itself one of those onomatopceic feats for which he compares Balzac to Sterne, by which the name and the character are given a kind of correspondence. It is a pleasure to go back mentally to the French original, with its homely story of bourgeois love, honest attempt to retrieve a fallen fortune, and appropriate and touching end. But only that domestic thread now has the power to draw us. Balzac was never more pre- eminently the novelist of his time—and of a time of his time— than in this story of the finance-intrigues of middle-class life. It seems to deal with forgotten matters now, and to be a kind of Hebrew even without the aid of the excellent and nervous English of which we have ventured to give a few specimens. We sincerely hope that they will prevent any new reader from judging of Balzac for the first time in this form. But to the old it may serve as a kind of reminder, bringing back the "vanity and pathetic jumble" of the time, and recalling a story in this instance happily free from the worse side of Balzac's standard fault, but none the less showing the simple- minded hero and heroine moving through surroundings of miserable intrigue, vulgar meanness, and utter absence of soul —which leave upon the mind what we suppose was the im- pression which Balzac meant his pictures of life to leave there (and we agree with Sainte Beuve in doubting if he was quite so true an" analyst" as he believed himself),—a kind of vague dis- appointment, and of purposeless pain.