16 JANUARY 1948, Page 22

The Novelist from Tours

Balzac : A biography. By Stefan Zweig. Translated by William and Dorothy Rose. (Cassell. 21s.)

BALZAC has been dead less than a hundred years, yet he has already become as legendary as Al Rashid, as fantastic a figure indeed as any biographer could have to face. How to reconcile the irrecon- cilable ? How give a portrait of a man who was most things, and how reduce the incredible drama of his everyday life to such pro- portions that it will appear credible on the printed page ? Stefan Zweig spent ten years lovingly adding detail after detail to the portrait, and, though the canvas was by no means complete when he died, what we are offered is a clean, rich, beautifully executed piece of work. We see Balzac in almost every stage of human absurdity in private life, but such was his power that we can only regard him with awe and with respect. What does it matter if the author of the Coinidie Humaine drank 50,000 cups of coffee ? But on the whole Zweig's portrait is significant. Almost everything makes its mark ; there is little irrelevant, and no dull, material. If ever proof were needed that life is frequently more macabre than anything the imagination—even the imagination of Balzac- could produce, then it is to be found in this book. What, for in- stance, could ;3C more macabre than Balzac's death ?

"His face was purple, almost black and inclined towards the right, he was unshaven? his hair grey and cut short, his eyes open and staring. I saw him in profile and he looked like an Emperor." The words are Victor Hugo's, the only person from the outside world to come to Balzac's bedside apart from his mother and an old servant. Victor Hugo's words are dignified and strangely impressive. Balzac died " terribly lonely " as Zweig says ; even Madame de Hanska, who was now Balzac's wife, failed him as she had always failed him, for at the end she was in her bedroom, indifferent, aloof. What again could be more macabre than Balzac's flushed and triumphant homecoming with his bride only a short while before his death ? Instead of the warm, beautiful house he had planned, filled with flowers and precious objets d'art, he found what was to prove a prison and in one of the rooms the gibbering madness of his servant. But what is so surprising is not that he died so young, but that he achieved so much. His energy was that of five men ; his output startling. In a characteristic passage Zweig gives an example of the extremes of work that Balzac drove himself to: "He finished La Duchesse de Langeais, wrote La Recherche de L'Absolu `in a hundred nights,' between June and September, began on Seraphita in October, started Pere Goriot in November and con- cluded it in forty days, turned out Un Drame au Bord de la Mer, La Fills au Yeux d'Or, Milemoth reconcilie and\further sections of La Femme de Trente Ans in December, and sketehed in his mind the plan of Cesar Birotteau and Le Lys dans la Vallee."

At least three of these titles were masterpieces, tholigh they were written to pay off debts or to finance an amatory campaign.

It is odd to find, on the part of a biographer who gave up so much of his life to Balzac, the ability to be shocked. There is no doubt that Stefan Zweig—whose background of Vienna and its culture was directly opposite to Balzac's—was extremely shocked at certain disclosures in his hero's life, particularly where money was concerned. Very obviously Zweig had a strong iclie fixe as to how a great writer should behave, for throughout the narrative cne comes across little phrases of chilling reproof. He takes Balzac to task for falling at the feet of a woman and humbly calling, himself her " slave." Zweig could not accept this from the author of La Cousine Bette; neither could he pass the period when Balzac was writing cheap novels for servant girls under the assumed name of St. Aubin " without giving expression to his outraged sense of propriety :

`.` All we can say without fear of contradiction is that not a single line of the innumerable pages scrawled by Balzac during his years of shame has the slightest connection with literature or art, and that one almost blushes at having to attribute them to him."

These remarks, when they occur, are surprising in a biography which otherwise is so completely objective: perhaps if Zweig had been alive at the time the book went to press they would have been removed.

It is evident from his life that the censure would not have troubled Balzac, for he was by no means a literary man. He despised critics and purveyors of belles-lettres, though when he used his own powers in this direction—as in the case of Stendhal—he discovered the genius other critics had ignored. His relationship with Stendhal has great pathos. It seems strange to us, who rank Stendhal with Balzac or Tolstoy, to find that in 1839 he was totally ignored as a writer. In one of the best passages in his book, Zweig describes how Banc discovered La Chartreuse De Parme and wrote a laud- atory essay in his paper the Revue. Parisienne. He was the only one to do so. Sainte-Beuve, who has since proved a short-sighted and pretentious critic, said of Stendhal's work : " His characters are not alive ; they are ingeniously constructed automata." One remembers also what Sainte-Beuve said about Madame Bovary- yet he was one of the most revered critics of his day.

Balzac's relationships with writers were not always so cordial. For instance, when he met Manzoni " he had not read I Promessi Sposi, so he only talked about himself," and he so hated literary journalists that he could hardly be civil to them. In the long run, perhaps, Balzac cannot be judged according to the standards of ordinary men, but only in the light of his achievement. The ways of creation are strange ; society is not constructed to deal with it. When Zweig tries to measure Balzac against the morality of his own Moravian background he fails, but when he writes as a man of talent appreciating a man of genius he succeeds brilliantly. ROBIN KING.