When I saw him for the first time, Balzac, one year older than the century, was around thirty-six, and his face was one of those that one would never forget. In his presence, one is reminded of Shakespeare’s lines about Julius Caesar: “Before him, nature stands up boldly and says to the world, ‘This is a man!'”
My heart beat strongly because never had I approached without trembling a master of thought, and all the speeches I had prepared on the way stayed in my throat, allowing nothing to pass other than a stupid phrase like this: “The temperature is nice today.” Heinrich Heine, when he went to visit Goethe, could find nothing to say except that the plums that have fallen from the trees on the route from Iéna to Weimar are excellent for thirst, which made the Jupiter of German poetry laugh gently. Balzac, seeing my embarrassment, soon put me at my ease, and during breakfast I became calm enough to examine him in detail.
He wore, in the form of a dressing gown, a robe of white cashmere or flannel held at the waist by a cord, in which, some time later, he was painted by Louis Boulanger. What whim had pushed him to choose, ahead of any other, this costume that he never took off? Could it be that it symbolized in his eyes the cloistered life to which his labors condemned him, and, Benedictine of the novel, he had thus taken the robe? This robe always suited him marvelously. He boasted, showing me the intact sleeves, to have never sullied its purity with the least stain of ink, “because,” he said, “the true writer should always be neat while at his work.”
Read David Desmond’s translation free from Project Gutenberg.