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Balzac: A Biography by Graham Robb

Balzac: A Biography

by Graham Robb

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Balzac is an absolute gift to biographers, with a satisfyingly outrageous life, a complicated financial and sexual history, and politics so ambiguous that everyone from Marx and Engels to hard-line legitimists has been able to claim him as an ally. And a not-inconsiderable gift for sensationalising his own public image. The only downside is that you have to read about forty novels, plus dozens of short stories, novellas, plays, unfinished works, newspaper articles, essays, letters, etc. And - since Balzac probably featured in more anecdotes than all his contemporaries put together - endless memoirs of the time by other writers.

Robb seems to have been up for the challenge, and he tries to give us a biography that presents a fair balance between the literary genius and the walking disaster area lurching from one financial crisis or love affair to the next (the two were usually connected: Balzac's various lovers seem to have contributed more to paying off his debts than his literary earnings ever did). The path is strewn with rabbit holes for biographers to disappear into: it must be very tempting to get drawn into working out exactly where all that money disappeared to, or developing theories about the identities of lovers known only by first names, or deciding exactly how many illegitimate children Balzac had. But Robb is very self-disciplined, and generally carries on straight ahead along the path, with only a short digression to tell us what sort of thing there is down that particular hole, and which of his predecessors we will encounter should we choose to descend in quest of white rabbits.

What emerges is a picture of a writer driven along in life as in his work by a fountain of bubbling creative energy. Ideas come out unstoppably, most of them swept aside because something else more interesting has come up, but every now and then something makes him stop and focus and a completed (or almost completed) novel is dashed down on paper in record time, usually in a coffee-fuelled all-night session. In this context Balzac's otherwise rather ludicrous career as a venture capitalist starts to make more sense - Robb classifies the business schemes in two categories: "practical ideas he never seriously thought of putting into practice, and impractical ones, which he did." Robb finds that things like the dairy farm and pineapple plantation at Sèvres could have been made into financial successes with hard work and thorough planning, and so could the silver mines in Sardinia, but that would have been no fun - when he had been through the excitement of getting to Sardinia and it turned out that there were no actual lumps of silver lying around on the ground, Balzac lost interest and moved onto something else. That also helps to explain why the financial advice Balzac gives in his novels is so much sounder than that which he followed in real life...

The most interesting and rewarding part of this biography for me was the part about Balzac's Lucien-like early attempts to make a living as a writer, and Robb goes into some detail about the pseudonymous novels he wrote in those days and the circumstances of their production and promotion.

Robb seems to have been won over by most of the women in Balzac's life, especially Eveline Hanska, whom he defends energetically against the Balzac fans disappointed by her posthumous "unfaithfulness". Even the housekeeper, "Mme de Brugnol", who was accused by Balzac of trying to blackmail him, gets a few good words from Robb (he suspects the blackmail story of being a smokescreen put up to distract Eveline). From the safe perspective of a reader of biographies, it isn't hard to imagine that anyone involved in a relationship with Balzac would come across as a calm island of common-sense in the middle of an ocean of impetuous craziness, though.

Apart from his many and mostly quite well-known affairs with (wealthy) women, there's an obvious and only slightly prurient question to ask about Balzac's sex-life: did the creator of Vautrin, who has a claim to be the first major gay character in mainstream fiction, also have sexual relationships with men? Not surprisingly, there's no conclusive proof, but Robb does find at least circumstantial evidence that might point that way. No-one who has read the description of the two poets in Illusions perdues can doubt that Balzac was aware of the sexual attractiveness of men. Starting with the critic and amateur wallpaper-hanger Latouche, who shared an apartment with Balzac for a while, there was quite a succession of young "secretaries" or "assistants" who played a part in Balzac's life briefly and then parted from him in a huff - it does sound like a familiar pattern... ( )
2 vote thorold | Aug 20, 2019 |
A good modern biography, but I still prefer Stefan Zweig's. ( )
1 vote wfzimmerman | May 5, 2007 |
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In the first major English biography of Honore de Balzac for over fifty years, Graham Robb has produced a compelling portrait of the great French novelist whose powers of creation were matched only by his self-destructive tendencies. As colorful as the world he described, Balzac is the perfect subject for biography: a relentless seducer whose successes were as spectacular as his catastrophes; a passionate collector, inventor, explorer, and political campaigner; a mesmerizing storyteller with the power to make his fantasies come true. Balzac's early life was a struggle against literary disappointment and poverty, and he learned his trade by writing a series of lurid commercial novels. Robb shows how Balzac's craving for wealth, fame, and happiness produced a series of hare-brained entrepreneurial schemes which took him to the remotest parts of Europe and into a love affair with a Polish countess whom he courted for fifteen years by correspondence. Out of these experiences emerged some of the finest novels in the Realist tradition. Skillfully interweaving the life with the novels, Robb presents Balzac as one of the great tragi-comic heroes of the nineteenth century, a man whose influence both in and outside his native France has been, and still is, immense.… (more)

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