"“A strong light casts a deep shadow, and a childish weakness that would pass unnoticed in a normal person, or would be met with a sympathetic smile, cannot but appear grotesque in the case of a man whose knowledge of the world and its ways can only be compared with that of Shakespeare” - from Balzac by Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig (1881 to 1942) intended his book on Balzac (1799 to 1850) to be his magnum opus, he worked on it for ten years, it was all but totally complete but for a few possible revisions for style in 1940 when he moved to Brazil. He left it behind. His friend Richard Friedenthal (1896 to 1979) brought the work to posthumous publication in 1945. There is a very interesting a moving postscript from him in which he tells us the backstory on the book.
Balzac is a great book, I loved it.I savored the descriptions of the creative processes of Balzac and felt the anquish of his money problems. Balzac was born of peasant stock but he wanted to be an aristocrat. The term "de" in French, like "von" in German denotes a person as nobility. Balzac added it to his name. I really liked it when Zweig talked about French aristocrats would mock this pretention but when any Frenchman is asked to name the greatest of their novelists, they proudly say "Honore dé Balzac". We learn a lot about his daily life,something biographies often neglect. Have you ever read a long biography but never learned what the subject ate or what clothes he wore, how he spent his days? Zweig tells us how Balzac lived,when he slept, what he had for lunch and how he hid from creditors, who his friends were and details his love life.
About four months ago I decided to read, in translation, all of Balzac's Human Comedy. I had before embarked on the project read most of the best know novels. In all included are 41 novels, 25 short stories, and 25 novellas. (Note the line between novel and novella is a blurry one but many book bloggers I follow could read the full work in three or so months. Practically it is a readable in one of the e book editions and probably it would be hard to do it otherwise. I am reading in The Delphi Edition of The Works of Balzac. The translations are older public domain works. I am now just past the halfway point in The Human Comedy so I decided the time had come to read Balzac by Stefan Zweig. (I
would say the more Balzac you have read, the more you will enjoy and benefit from Zweig's book.)
Zweig tells the story in a straightforward chronological way. He begins with the ancestory of Balzac so we can sense his deep existential ties to French earth. Zweig tells us of Balzac's incredible ability to see into the hearts of things, his photographic memory for details, his great reading, his time in the streets of his city, Paris. Then about age thirty, Balzac developed a work routine he would follow for most of his life. He wrote at a simple table on special paper for ten to twelve hours a day, fueling him self on legend has it fifty cups of coffee a day. He worked at night, a servant would bring him his meals. He allowed himself no more than two hours a day for social pursuits.
Besides, of course, talking about in detail many of the wonderful works of Balzac and placing them in context in his life, Zweig pursues in depth and with great psychological acuity three very interrelated themes; Balzac's perpetual money problems, his desire to live as and be thought of as a wealthy aristocrat, and his various romances, the famous ones with women of the nobility and others with largely unknown women. Zweig stresses that Balzac was a man of gargantuan appetites and one has to assume he had his share of encounters with prostitutes, who might have taken care of his needs when his pursued aristocratic ladies deferred. Balzac was a divided man, he worshipped the rich and held them in contempt as robbers.
“The man who was producing the greatest creative work of the century and could have walked in the presence of kings and princes with the unconcern of a Beethoven suffered from an absurd mania for the aristocracy”. - from Balzac by Stefan Zweig
I was surprised, though perhaps I should not have been, that a lot more than half of Balzac's readers were women. He received many letters from female readers and, per Zweig, all his several lengthy romances with aristocratic women were first begun through correspondence. Balzac wanted to find a wealthy wife to free him from constant stress and allow him to live as an aristocrat. Part of his romantic problem came from the fact that he would only spare at most two hours a day from his work to spend with his ladies. Zweig also tells us of the several grand plans Balzac had for making money, among them growing pineapples in hot houses, being a big time theatrical producer and investing in a silver mind in Sardenia. All just got him in more trouble. Zweig says that some of Balzac's best work was done under stress.
Have you ever seen a police drama on TV where the policeman asks a robbery victim to describe the perpetrator and most people say things like, "a man, a white man". I think Balzac would be able to give an exact very detailed full page description of the robber, down to the color of his shoes.
Zweig uses his masterful narrative skills to turn the life if Balzac into a great work of art. I will not tell, though many may know it, the tragic ending of the story. I will say when Balzac did have a romance and then a marriage with a Russian Nobel woman, a widow, she and her daughter had little respect for his work and took him away from his writings.
Zweig talks a lot about the money side of Balzac's literary career. I am glad he did but I admit when Zweig said Balzac got say 15,000 Franc advance for a book I had no idea how to translate that into a 2015 equivalent. I guess I could use Google to figure it out . This is not Zweig's fault but maybe a footnote would have helped.
I wonder what the literary output of Balzac would have been had he, as was Zweig, been born into great wealth?
Zweig tells us that he sees the best of Balzac as Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons.
Balzac is not documented for sources as a biography done now would be. I felt the deep regard, respect and love Zweig had for Balzac. I am so glad to have read this book. There is just a great richness of fascinating details in this book. Now I know how Balzac learned about military life, for example.
This book was published by Plunkett Lake Press
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