Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Quote of the Day (V.S. Pritchett, on Balzac, ‘Novelist of Our Appetites’)

“Balzac is the novelist of our appetites, obsessions and our idees fixes, but his great gift—it seems to me—is his sense of the complexity of the human situation. He had both perceptions, one supposes, from his peasant origins, for among peasants, he was fond of saying, the idée fixe is easily started; and their sense of circumstance overpowers all other considerations in their lives. A character in Balzac is so variously situated in history, in money, in family, class and in his type to begin with; but on top of this Balzac's genius was richly inventive in the field least exploited by the mass of novelists: the field of probability. It is very hard to invent probabilities. This simply means that Balzac knew his people as few novelists ever know their characters.”—V.S. Pritchett, “Honore de Balzac,” in The Pritchett Century: A Selection of the Best, selected by Oliver Pritchett (1997)

Like Theodore Roosevelt, Honoré de Balzac--born on this day in Tours, France, in 1799—was turbocharged by epic amounts of coffee consumed through the day. But, while the American devoted much of the “strenuous life” he advocated into the outdoors, the Frenchman spent much of his indoors—wooing women, hatching foolhardy get-rich-quick schemes, dodging creditors.

Oh, yes—and creating an astonishing body of fictional work. In our time, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates have been acclaimed (or damned) for being prolific. But even with the two extra decades of life that each enjoyed, Balzac still probably has them both beat. With 93 novels and stories in his opus, Comédie humaine, he is an inspiration for those of us with a rage to write—and a standing rebuke concerning why we don’t match that output.

Pritchett, a fiction writer of no small gifts himself, is very shrewd in noting that Balzac was not a mere documentarian of social customs of his time, but someone who understood his characters’ compulsions because he shared them in abundance. Two writers who stand far apart in time and sensibility, Henry James and Tom Wolfe, have claimed him as a literary forbear. 

His work teems partly because he tries to account for all levels of a French urban society bursting at the seams with new-found wealth and ambition. In novels such as Pere Goriot, Cousin Bette, Cousin Pons, Eugenie Grandet and The Bureaucrats, he depicted with exactingly painful personal knowledge the romantic striving for all that wealth and status can provide—and the often ugly means and ends to which his characters reduced themselves to achieve it.

No comments: