A Balzac moment in Woolf: “the English novel and the French novel.”

As ‘Lost Illusions’ moves towards its conclusion, I was thinking about Virginia Woolf as I read. It occurred to me that in ‘To the Lighthouse’, one of the major characters has what could be described as a ‘Balzac moment.’ The grim Mr Ramsay is deep in thought and he is contemplating novels from England and France. He seems to take the work of Balzac as representative of art from the latter country.

I have no way of knowing whether or not Woolf was saying something about the character of Mr Ramsay with the Balzac reference. I cannot recall from reading biographies of Woolf whether or not she preferred Balzac to Flaubert or Zola. I do remember that Woolf was really impressed by Proust. Nonetheless, it is Balzac that she mentioned in the scene I am thinking of.

Equally, I’m unsure whether Balzac can be seen as typically French. Balzac was an extraordinary figure and his nationality seems largely irrelevant. While aspects of French culture formed an important backdrop to ‘Lost Illusions’, the fact that much of it was set in Paris is not as interesting as his unique perspective. The review to come might not mention France much at all.

The admirers of Balzac

As I still am enchanted by ‘Lost Illusions’, I am thinking back to some famous admirers of Balzac. The artist had many fans in different walks of life. Nonetheless, the fact that he was appreciated by major philosophers is sometimes neglected in literary discussion.

For example, Friedrich Engels was particularly enthusiastic about the work of Balzac. Balzac was not an ideologue, but he depicted capitalist society in a way which Engels appreciated. Balzac knew a lot about the power of money and detailed the problems associated with debts. He had considerable experience of being in debt as Maurois has documented. Politically, Engels and Balzac were dissimilar, but the former appreciated the insights of the novelist greatly.

In 1852, Engels wrote to his friend Karl Marx:

“What can one say about a little man who, when he reads a novel by Balzac for the first time (and the Cabinet des Antiques or Père Goriot at that), is infinitely superior and speaks of it with the greatest contempt as something commonplace that has been known for a long time.”

A flashback: ‘Prometheus: the Life of Balzac’ by André Maurois

While reading ‘Lost Illusions’ my mind jumped back to an interesting biography of Balzac I once read. There do seem to be autobiographical elements in the novel. While a biography reveals as much about a biographer as its ostensible topic, there are usually some features of a biography which make one think.

Maurois was a writer himself and his imagination coloured his creative account of Balzac’s life. Nonetheless, there was a grandeur about Balzac’s life. This was especially evident with regard to his phenomenal productivity. It is also a fact that Balzac was really generous towards Stendhal.

Although he could be cynical in his depiction of society, Balzac had a kindly spirit when it came to the writing of Stendhal. He seems to have been struck favourably by ‘The Charterhouse of Parma.’ When it was initially neglected by the literary world, Balzac backed the novel with considerable enthusiasm. He claimed to have read the fine novel on three occasions.

Balzac wrote: “In an age when noble themes are rarely found, after writing perhaps twenty extremely clever books he has produced a work which can only be appreciated by persons of true discrimination.”

Balzac on paper

It’s far too early for me to review ‘Lost Illusions’ by Honoré de Balzac because I haven’t finished it yet. Nonetheless, it is already a fascinating read. Apart from the interesting sociological analysis, the sharp wit, the realistic characters, and the absorbing style, there is evidence of the author’s ability to digress without losing the reader.

The section which has captured my imagination the most is about paper and the book. Balzac had clearly given the topic a great deal of thought. He underlined the different substances involved in paper manufacture. He also referenced low labour costs in China. He considered the difficulties of storing books. He predicted that cheap books would not last due to their poor quality.

I am fortunate to be reading Balzac on paper. If I was reading ‘Lost Illusions’ in a different format, I would not have the ironic pleasure of reading this used hard copy. It is too early to say what will happen to cheap paper books, but I am glad that they have survived this long after Balzac’s gloomy reflections. This is a book to be enjoyed slowly.

The London sound? ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald.

There are many novels which seek to capture something special about London. To name a few authors who have tried to portray the city isn’t hard- the mind goes back to Dickens, Woolf, and McEwan. Few people would put Penelope Fitzgerald in this exalted company, but a look at ‘Offshore’ might change the thinking of some discerning readers. This short tale is a sympathetic look back at Bohemian failures in sixties London.

The characters are deftly composed, the sentences are formed adroitly, and the tone is consistent. There are some great moments of comedy, but there is a genuine seriousness about the text. It really is a wonderful reading experience.

One area where the writer hits her target is her depiction of the Thames. She makes one think of great painters of water, and great poets too. Some contemporary poets like Alice Oswald may have superior word craft to this deceased novelist, but it is a surprise to find poetic gems within a compelling and fascinating novel. This book compares favourably with ‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald, although that too was an excellent read.