Saintsbury Introduction, Volume XIV – Part I

The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau (Grandeur et Décadence de César Birotteau)
The Secrets of a Princess (Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan)

 

Few books of Balzac’s have been the subject of more diverse judgment than Cesar Birotteau. From the opinion of the unnamed solicitor, who told Madame Serville that it was an invaluable work to consult on bankruptcy, to that of M. Paul Lacroix (beloved of many as the Bibliophile Jacob), that it might be forgiven for the sake of Le Père Goriot and the Peau de Chagrin, there is not perhaps quite so great a distance as may appear; but other expressions, opposed not merely in form, but in fact, might probably be collected.

As for the unfavorable division of these opinions there is no difficulty in discovering their causes; and there should be little, save in the case of blind partisans, in acknowledging their partial validity. Although the book opens with one of Balzac’s most brilliant pieces of actual human observation – this description of the vague and half-delirious terror of waking from a bad dream, – and though the subsequent conversation between César and Constance has the merit of no vulgar curtain-lecture, it soon goes off into one of those endless retrospective narrations which are among the greatest blots on the Comédie, which utterly stop the action, and which, in the case of very many readers who are not gifted with the faculty of what may be called literary mountaineering are very likely to cause the putting down of the book. To this initial difficulty has to be added the choking of the latter part with those bankruptcy details which did so charm the professional mind of Laure Balzac’s learned friend, and which, for unprofessional minds, have something which is very much the reverse of charm. The reader of only moderate athletic powers, who has with difficulty struggled through and up the sloughs and slopes of the previous history of the Birotteau business, is hardly to be blamed if he gives up the attempt in despair after some attempt on the slippery “screes” of commercial law which Balzac has delighted to strew over the higher ground.

Complaints of these drawbacks, I repeat, would be, and are, just. Nevertheless, though the list of the faults of the book is not yet even exhausted, it will be a very great pity if any one is baffled by them and fails to go through to the end. For César Birotteau is a book than which none of Balzac’s is more thoroughly vécu, as his countrymen say, more thoroughly inspired with the personal sympathies and experiences of the author; and this with Balzac was always a guarantee of success. He, too, knew bankruptcy well, and not merely by his studies in the lawyer’s office; for though I believe he never actually “passed the court” (even his printing and publishing operations, disastrous as they were, terminated in arrangements), he was face to face with it all his life. He, too, knew the attraction, the fatal attraction of une bonne affaire, such as he speaks of in one of his letters – une bonne affaire qui ne demande que cent mille francs. He was perfectly capable of buying up all the nuts in Paris in order to make hair-oil of them; I should not be at all surprised if he had actually had in view this very speculation. And he thought he knew the ways of bankers and folk of that kind; though, whether he did nor not, the sons of Zeruiah were usually as much too hard for him as they were for Birotteau. Hence there is even in the driest details, even in the most long-winded reportage of the book, the throb of personal interest, the pulse and pant of life.

The action and characters also are interesting, if not, on the whole, quite artistically probable. It will be observed that the hero does a little underlie the constant objection of the Devil’s Advocate to Balzac, that almost every one of may, of course be easily outwitted in a game of pure speculation – a proposition which we need not go to France, or examine the long list of “crashes” from the fictitious terrains de la Madeleine to the real Panama, in order to establish. And a very keen man of business may be imprudently expensive in a combined fit of personal vanity and affection for his family. But it is a little of a stretch on the credulity of the reader to represent a plodding tradesman like Birotteau, who, as we are expressly told, had an old-fashioned horror of “paper,” as not merely incurring large speculative obligations but as stripping himself of every rap of ready money while exposing himself to an unusual demand for it. The picture of his going a-borrowing and a-sorrowing is drawn with great power and with much vivacity; but there, too, his simplicity is a thought exaggerated. And Constance’s affection for, and fidelity to, an unattractive man, whom she saw to be little better than a fool, may be thought improbable in an ideal beauty with a clear head, while some may even say that ideal beauties are almost always extremely stupid. Yet, again, in Césarine, Momus may point to that superficiality and vagueness which usually, if not always, mar Balzac’s treatment of an “honest” girl.

Yet these things will not, any more than those formerly mentioned, make any fair or genial judge give up the book to a lower class than that of Balzac’s best, if not of his very best. Whatever faults Birotteau may have, his goodness and his probity and, let us add (though it be a little illegitimate), his tragic end, make him one of the author’s most sympathetic personages, as are also his wife and daughter. If Popinot is rather the virtuous apprentice of the stage, and Du Tillet the wicked ditto, who is not punished, the former is at least attractive; and Pillerault, the good uncle, certainly cannot be accused of foolishness. All the minor figures come in well for the action whenever Balzac will let them act, and not be talking himself; and even the bankruptcy affair acquires a sort of interest from the rapidity and bustle of its conduct. As for the ball – that famous and elaborate instance of the penalties and disappointments of elaborately engineered and anticipated pleasure – it is excellent. Nor should we close without special commendation for Claparon, a less labored personage than some of the author’s, but a very happy sketch of rascality which is not exactly scoundrelism, because, though entirely unscrupulous, it is not in the least malign.

The book was originally published after a fashion not uncommon in France, but, I think, hardly, if at all, known in England, with no publisher’s name, and not for sale, but as a bonus jointly given by the Figaro and the Estafette to their subscribers for 1838. It bore that date, but was actually issued in November 1837. In this form it had two volumes, three parts (the present two, and a third, Le Triomphe de César), and sixteen chapters with headings. Republished by Charpentier in 1839, it lost the chapter – , but kept the part-headings, the last being omitted when it became a Scène de la Vie Parisienne in the general arrangement of the Comédie (1844).

Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan is, or rather is part of, one of Balzac’s most remarkable fictitious creations – the history of Diane de Maufrigneuse. This lady, who pervades at least a dozen of the stories, shorter and longer, is the subject of dispute between those who say that Balzac’s grandes dames are rather creatures of the stage and of the inner consciousness than of life, and those who, as the saying is, take them for gospel. The latter do not seem to bring forward any argument except Balzac’s greatness and a certain fascination about the personage. The former, besides dwelling on the obvious touches of exaggeration in the portrait, ask what opportunity Balzac had of really acquainting himself with the ways and manners of the Faubourg Saint-Germain? They admit the competence of the Duchesse de Castries, but point out that he did not know her very long; that he was to all appearance in the position, dangerous for a faithful portrait-painter, of having been taken up and dropped by her; and that she was, so far as is known his only intimate or much-frequented acquaintance of the kind. It is not necessary to argue this question at length. The piece, however, has the special interest of having been at first dedicated to Theophile Gautier. It was written at Les Jardies in June 1839, and first appeared two months afterwards in the Presse, under the title of La Princesse Parisienne. This it kept when it appeared next year in volume form, published by Souverain, but forming part of a collection entitled Le Foyer de l’Opéra. In both these forms it was divided into eight chapters with titles in the newspaper, without them in the book. In 1844, when it entered the Comédie as a Scène de la Vie Parisienne, it lost its old divisions and took its present title.

George Saintsbury

 

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.

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