25 February 2008

VS Pritchett - Balzac

Honore de Balzac's life was nearly as extraordinary as one of his tales, and he has been almost as popular a subject for biographers as his early idol, Byron. I have four, three of them by notable writers - Andre Maurois, Stefan Zweig and VS Pritchett - and one by a professional biographer of French writers, Graham Robb. The Pritchett is the slimmest of the four, under 200 pages, so I started with that.

He gives credit to his predecessors, Zweig and Maurois, and has plainly leaned heavily on a few sources, but this is a good primer to Balzac. The material is rich and full - in addition to his numerous novels, Balzac wrote many letters. In fact, there seems to have been little time when he wasn't writing - he would get up at 3am and write for 12 hours, then eat, and sleep for only about four hours a night. He was addicted to working, and needed to be to keep up with his excessive expenditure.

Balzac's life is a tragic tale. For all his literary success, he was never out of debt from his first efforts, when his parents funded him to spend two years writing rather than training to be a lawyer. He was feted by nobility, and aspired to a lifestyle to imitate his admirers, but was hopelessly addicted to frivolity - he had dozens of elaborate and expensive canes, for example, and collected works of art that were sold for next to nothing on his death.

His love life was no more successful than his finances. He was frequently in love with unattainable women - Madame de Castries is one of the more notable, whom he depicted in The Wild Ass's Skin - and his longest liaison was with a married Polish Countess who he rarely met during the 18 years they were involved with each other. This didn't stop him having occasional affairs, and lying about them to his amours.

Despite his almost pure coffee diet when writing, Balzac had a huge appetite, and became extremely corpulent in middle age. This was manna for the satirists, as were his occasional public stumbles, hurrying into carriages. His appetites were his ruin in the end - he died at the age of 50, in a desperate physical state.

Pritchett gives enough detail of Balzac's life for a reader of his works to determine how much of his fiction was drawn from life, but he doesn't spend much time analysing the works themselves. That's not a great concern - in such a slim volume he couldn't possibly do justice to the 90 novels and stories that Balzac wrote, about four a year in an abbreviated career. With his prodigious output and energy, he lived four lives; it seems appropriate that I should read four biographies.


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