August 25, 2012

What's Balzac famous for again?

Well, for me at least, coffee and 19th century French potboilers. Coffee that he prepared Turkish fashion, but infusing the grounds in cold water first to make it even stronger, and, why not, diminishing the amount of water until the coffee was a thick as soup, to then drink it on an empty stomach.

"And then the mind is aroused, ideas pour out like the regiments of the Grand Armée over the battlefield, and the battle begins. Memories come charging in with flags flying; the light cavalry of comparisons extends itself in a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic hurries along with its ammunition train, and flashes of wit bob up like sharpshooters..." he wrote in his Treatise on Modern Stimulants.

Meanwhile, as his biographer André Maurois put it, "The paper gets covered with ink like the battlefield with black powder, the books get written and the author's heart suffers." This for sixteen hours at a stretch. Balzac seems to have drunk himself to his death on his coffee, dying at only 51, but into those 51 years he packed many lifetimes. Maurois again: "Balzac was by turns a saint, a criminal, an honest judge, a corrupt judge, a minister, a fop, a harlot, a duchess, and always a genius."

Or as another author fascinated by Balzac, V.S. Pritchett, put it in his biography, Balzac was "appetite itself" in an era (post-revolutionary France) in which "appetite was the note of the day".

My appetite for Balzac has been whetted by the work of getting ready for our upcoming Balzac celebration ("Balzac, baguettes and brie" at Central City Library, Wed. Aug. 29, 6:00 pm) and by the enthusiasm of Nicholas Reid, the historian, critic, and passionate Balzac reader and scholar who will be leading the show, assisted by Iain Sharp and, slightly, myself. I found the Maurois and Pritchett biographies in the fantastic Central City Library basement and have them here on my desk.

The Pritchett is densely illustrated with photos of Balzac's manuscripts, writing sets, dolls (read the book) and coffee pot, also engravings of Parisian soirées and reproductions of Balzac caricatures and portraits, even a statue, but not Rodin's famous bronze which I just last month saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where, oddly, it stands in what is basically the approach to the stairwell. People stream by chatting or consulting their maps, paying it no attention. Except me, of course, I was circling it like an alert coyote, trying to capture all its dramatic mass with my iPad's camera and failing, as you can see.

I'm never sure if people read 19th century French authors anymore, Iain Sharp mused to me the other day. Well, when Vintage Classics asked all the Orange Prize winners what book they would pick to pass on to future generations, Rose Tremain picked Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, saying 'This brilliant but devastatingly sad novel moved me so much, I began it again the moment I got to the end'. And when George Plimpton asked John le Carré who his favourite authors were, Balzac topped the list. (A great interview, one of the Paris Review's great "The Art of Fiction" series of author interviews, which you can read in the Review's online archives.)

Nicholas Reid has a case to make for Balzac being the most unknown of the great French novelists, but actually the greatest of them all, the French equivalent of Dickens, and no man could receive higher praise from Nicholas. So if you've already read The Three Musketeers and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, maybe it's time to give Balzac a try. I've picked The Magic Skin, Balzac's precursor to The Portrait of Dorian Gray, as the first Balzac novel I'm going to read. Oh, and I've decided to take Pritchett's Balzac, too. I need to find out if the lady whom Balzac so desired to come "perch" on the fifty-foot divan which was the centrepiece of this huge, extravagant, man's apartment ever did.

Check out Reid's Reader, Nicholas Reid's blog of book reviews and comment.

Thanks to Beattie's Book Blog, the homepage of the New Zealand Book Community, where I encountered both the Rose Tremain and John le Carré testimonies.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00


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