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palpable creation. And thus it was he who achieved what Hugo, in Les Misérables, had in vain attempted. La Comédie Humaine, as he called the long series of his novels, which forms in effect a single work, presents, in spite of its limitations and its faults, a picture of the France of that age drawn on the vast scale and in the grand manner of an epic.
The limitations and the faults of Balzac's work are, indeed, sufficiently obvious and sufficiently grave. The same coarseness of fibre which appears in his style made him incapable of understanding the delicacies of life-the refined shades of emotion, the subtleties of human intercourse. He probably never read Jane Austen; but if he had he certainly would have considered her an utterly pointless writer; and he would have been altogether at sea in a novel by Mr. Henry James. The elusive things that are so important, the indecisive things that are so curious, the intimate things that are so thrilling-all these slipped through his rough, matter-of-fact grasp. His treatment of the relations between the sexes is characteristic. The subject fills a great place in his novels; he approaches it with an unflinching boldness, and a most penetrating gaze; yet he never succeeds in giving a really satisfactory presentment of the highest of those relations love. That eluded him: its essence was too subtle, too private, too transcendental. No one can describe love who has not the makings of a poet in him. And a poet was the very last thing that Balzac was.
But his work does not merely suffer from the absence of certain good qualities; it is also marred by the presence of positively bad ones. Balzac was not simply a realist. There was a romantic vein in him, which occasionally came to the surface with unfortunate results. When that happened, he plunged into the most reckless melodrama, revelled in the sickliest sentiment, or evolved the most grotesque characters, the most fantastic plots. And these lapses occur quite indiscriminately. Side by side with some detailed and convincing description, one comes upon glaring absurdities; in the middle of some narrative of extraordinary actuality, one finds oneself among hissing villains, disguises, poisons, and all the paraphernalia of a penny novelette. Balzac's lack of critical insight into his own work is one of the most singular of his characteristics. He hardly seems to have known at all what he was about. He wrote feverishly, desperately, under the impulsion of irresistible genius. His conceptions crowded
upon him in vivid, serried multitudes the wildest visions of fantasy mixed pell-mell with the most vital realisations of fact. It was not for him to distinguish; his concern simply, somehow or other, to get them all out: good, bad, or indifferent, what did it matter? The things were in his brain; and they must be expressed.
Fortunately, it is very easy for the reader to be more discriminating than Balzac. The alloy is not inextricably mingled with the pure metal—the chaff may be winnowed off, and the grain left. His errors and futilities cannot obscure his true achievement-his evocation of multitudinous life. The whole of France is crammed into his pages, and electrified there into intense vitality. The realism of the classical novelists was a purely psychological realism; it was concerned with the delicately shifting states of mind of a few chosen persons, and with nothing else. Balzac worked on a very different plan. He neglected the subtleties of the spirit, and devoted himself instead to displaying the immense interest that lay in those prosaic circumstances of existence which the older writers had ignored. He showed with wonderful force that the mere common details of everyday life were filled with drama, that, to him who had eyes to see, there might be significance in a ready-made suit of clothes, and passion in the furniture of a boardinghouse. Money in particular gave him an unending theme. There is hardly a character in the whole vast range of his creation of whose income we are not exactly informed; and it might almost be said that the only definite moral that can be drawn from La Comédie Humaine is that the importance of money can never be over-estimated. The classical writers preferred to leave such matters to the imagination of the reader; it was Balzac's great object to leave nothing to the imagination of the reader. By ceaseless effort, by infinite care, by elaborate attention to the minutest details, he would describe all. He brought an encyclopædic knowledge to bear upon his task; he can give an exact account of the machinery of a provincial printingpress; he can write a dissertation on the methods of military organisation; he can reveal the secret springs in the mechanism of Paris journalism; he is absolutely at home in the fraudulent transactions of money-makers, the methods of usurers, the operations of high finance. And into all this mass of details he can infuse the spirit of life. Perhaps his masterpiece in realistic description is his account of La Maison Vauquer-a low boarding-house, to which he devotes page after page of minute particularity. The result is not a mere dead catalogue: it is a palpitating image of lurid truth. Never was the sordid horror which lurks in places and in things evoked with a more intense completeness.
Undoubtedly it is in descriptions of the sordid, the squalid, the ugly, and the mean that Balzac particularly excels. He is at his greatest when he is revealing the horrible underside of civilisation—the indignities of poverty, the low intrigues of parasites, the long procession of petty agonies that embitter and ruin a life. Over this world of shadow and grime he throws strange lights. Extraordinary silhouettes flash out and vanish; one has glimpses of obscure and ominous movements on every side; and, amid all this, some sudden vision emerges from the darkness, of pathos, of tenderness, of tragic and unutterable pain.
Balzac died in 1850, and at about that time the Romantic Movement came to an end. Victor Hugo, it is true, continued to live and to produce for more than thirty years longer; but French literature ceased to be dominated by the ideals of the Romantic school. That