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 It is a pleasure to meet M. émile Faguet[5] on the same ground of mastered critical method and in the same air of cool deliberation and conclusion that so favoured his excellent study of Flaubert in the rich series to which the present volume belongs. It was worth while waiting these many years for a Balzac to get it at last from a hand of so firm a grip, if not quite of the very finest manipulative instinct. It can scarce ever be said of M. Faguet that he tends to play with a subject, at least a literary one; but nobody is better for circling his theme in sound and easy pedestrian fashion, for taking up each of its aspects in order, for a sense, above all, of the order in which they should be taken, and for then, after doing them successively justice, reaching the point from which they appear to melt together. He thus gives us one of those literary portraits the tradition of which, so far at least as they are the fruit of method, has continued scantily to flourish among ourselves. We cannot help thinking indeed that an ideally authoritative portrait of Balzac would be the work of some pondering painter able to measure the great man’s bequest a little more from within or by a coincidence of special faculty, or that in other words the particular initiation and fellow-feeling of some like—that is not too unlike—imaginative projector as well are rather wanted here to warm and colour the critical truth to the right glow of appreciation. Which comes to saying, we quite acknowledge, that a “tribute” to Balzac, of however embracing an intention, may still strike us as partly unachieved if we fail to catch yearning and shining through it, like a motive in a musical mixture or a thread of gold in a piece of close weaving, the all but overriding sympathy of novelist with novelist. M. Faguet’s intelligence at any rate sweeps his ground clear of the anecdotal, the question-begging reference to odds and ends of the personal and superficial, in a single short chapter, and, having got so promptly over this second line of defence, attacks at once the issue of his author’s general ideas—matters apt to be, in any group of contributors to a “series” of our own, exactly what the contributor most shirks considering.  
It is true that few writers, and especially few novelists, bring up that question with anything like the gross assurance and systematic confidence of Balzac, who clearly took for involved in his plan of a complete picture of the manners and aspects of his country and his period that he should have his confident “say” about as many things as possible, and who, throughout his immense work, appears never for an instant or in any connection to flinch from that complacency. Here it is easy to await him, waylay him and catch him in the act, with the consequence, for the most part, of our having to recognise almost with compassion the disparity between the author of “La Cousine Bette” exercising his genius, as Matthew Arnold said of Ruskin, in making a like distinction, and the same writer taking on a character not in the least really rooted in that soil. The fact none the less than his generalising remains throughout so markedly inferior to his particularising—which latter element and very essence of the novelist’s art it was his greatness to carry further and apply more consistently than any member of the craft, without exception, has felt the impulse, to say nothing of finding the way, to do—by no means wholly destroys the interest of the habit itself or relieves us of a due attention to it; so characteristic and significant, so suggestive even of his special force, though in a manner indirect, are the very folds and redundancies of this philosopher’s robe that flaps about his feet and drags along the ground like an assumed official train. The interest here—where it is exactly that a whole face of his undertaking would be most illumined for the fellow-artist we imagine trying to exhibit him—depends much less on what his reflection and opinion, his irrepressible obiter dicta and monstrous suffisances of judgment may be, than on the part played in his scheme by his holding himself ready at every turn and at such short notice to judge. For this latter fact probably lights up more than any other his conception of the range of the novel, the fashion after which, in his hands, it had been felt as an all-inclusive form, a form without rift or leak, a tight mould, literally, into which everything relevant to a consideration of the society surrounding him—and the less relevant unfortunately, as well as the more—might be poured in a stream of increasing consistency, the underlapping subject stretched, all so formidably, to its own constituted edge and the compound appointed to reproduce, as in finest and subtlest relief, its every minutest feature, overlying and corresponding with it all round to the loss of no fraction of an inch.
It is thus the painter’s aspiring and rejoicing consciousness of the great square swarming picture, the picture of France from side to side and from top to bottom, which he proposes to copy—unless we see the collective quantity rather as the vast primary model or sitter that he is unprecedentedly to portray, it is this that, rendering him enviable in proportion to his audacity and his presumption, gives a dignity to everything that makes the consciousness whole. The result is a state of possession of his material unlike that of any other teller of tales whatever about a circumjacent world, and the process of his gain of which opens up well-nigh the first of those more or less baffling questions, parts indeed of the great question of the economic rule, the practical secret, of his activity, that beset us as soon as we study him. To fit what he was and what he did, that is the measure of how he used himself and how he used every one and everything else, into his after all so brief career (for twenty years cover the really productive term of it) is for ourselves, we confess, to renounce any other solution than that of his having proceeded by a sense for facts, the multitudinous facts of the scene about him, that somehow involved a preliminary, a pre-experiential inspiration, a straightness of intuition truly impossible to give an account of and the like of which had never before been shown. He had not to learn things in order to know them; and even though he multiplied himself in more ways than we can reckon up, going hither and thither geographically, leading his life with violence, as it were, though always with intention, and wasting almost nothing that had ever touched him, the natural man, the baptised and registered Honoré, let loose with harsh promptitude upon a world formed from the first moment to excite his voracity, can only have been all the exploiting agent, the pushing inquirer, the infallible appraiser, the subject of an arrière-pensée as merciless, in spite of being otherwise genial, as the black care riding behind the horseman. There was thus left over for him less of mere human looseness, of mere emotion, of mere naturalness, or of any curiosity whatever, that didn’t “pay”—and the extent to which he liked things to pay, to see them, think of them, and describe them as prodigiously paying, is not to be expressed—than probably marks any recorded relation between author and subject as we know each of these terms.
So it comes that his mastership of whatever given identity might be in question, and much more of the general identity of his rounded (for the artistic vision), his compact and containing France, the fixed, felt frame to him of the vividest items and richest characteristics of human life, can really not be thought of as a matter of degrees of confidence, as acquired or built up or cumbered with verifying fears. He was the given identity and, on the faintest shade of a hint about it caught up, became one with it and lived it—this in the only way in which he could live, anywhere or at any time: which was by losing himself in its relation to his need or to what we call his voracity. Just so his mind, his power of apprehension, worked naturally in the interest of a society disclosed to that appetite; on the mere approach to the display he inhaled information, he recognised himself as what he might best be known for, an historian unprecedented, an historian documented as none had not only ever been, but had ever dreamed of being—and even if the method of his documentation can leave us for the most part but wondering. The method of his use of it, or of a portion of it, we more or less analyse and measure; but the wealth of his provision or outfit itself, the crammed store of his categories and cadres, leaves us the more stupefied as we feel it to have been honestly come by. All this is what it is impossible not to regard as in itself a fundamental felicity as no confrère had known; so far, indeed, as Balzac suffered confrères or as the very nature of his faculty could be thought of for them. M. Brunetière’s monograph of some years ago, which is but a couple of degrees less weighty, to our sense, than this of M. Faguet before us, justly notes that, whatever other felicity may have graced the exercise of such a genius, for instance, as that rare contemporary George Sand, she was reduced well-nigh altogether to drawing upon resources and enjoying advantages comparatively vague and unassured. She had of course in a manner her special resource and particular advantage, which consisted, so to speak, in a finer feeling about what she did possess and could treat of with authority, and particularly in a finer command of the terms of expression, than any involved in Balzac’s “happier” example. But her almost fatal weakness as a novelist—an exponent of the art who has waned exactly as, for our general long-drawn appreciation, Balzac has waxed—comes from her having had to throw herself upon ground that no order governed, no frame, as we have said, enclosed, and no safety attended; safety of the sort, we mean, the safety of the constitutive, illustrative fact among facts, which we find in her rival as a warm socialised air, an element supremely assimilable.
It may freely be pronounced interesting that whereas, in her instinct for her highest security, she threw herself upon the consideration of love as the type attraction or most representable thing in the human scene, so, assuredly, no student of that field has, in proportion to the thoroughness of his study, felt he could afford to subordinate or almost even to neglect it to anything like the tune in which we see it put and kept in its place through the parts of the Comédie Humaine that most count. If this passion but too often exhales a tepid breath in much other fiction—much other of ours at least—that is apt to come decidedly less from the writer’s sense of proportion than from his failure of art, or in other words of intensity. It is rarely absent by intention or by intelligence, it is pretty well always there as the theoretic principal thing—any difference from writer to writer being mostly in the power to put the principal thing effectively forward. It figures as a pressing, an indispensable even if a perfunctory motive, for example, in every situation devised by Walter Scott; the case being simply that if it doesn’t in fact attractively occupy the foreground this is because his hand has had so native, so much greater, an ease for other parts of the picture. What makes Balzac so pre-eminent and exemplary that he was to leave the novel a far other and a vastly more capacious and significant affair than he found it, is his having felt his fellow-creatures (almost altogether for him his contemporaries) as quite failing of reality, as swimming in the vague and the void and the abstract, unless their social conditions, to the last particular, their generative and contributive circumstances, of every discernible sort, enter for all these are “worth” into his representative attempt. This great compound of the total looked into and starting up in its element, as it always does, to meet the eye of genius and patience half way, bristled for him with all its branching connections, those thanks to which any figure could be a figure but by showing for endlessly entangled in them.
So it was then that his huge felicity, to re-emphasise our term, was in his state of circulating where recognitions and identifications didn’t so much await as rejoicingly assault him, having never yet in all the world, grudged or at the best suspected feeders as they were at the board where sentiment occupied the head, felt themselves so finely important or subject to such a worried intention. They hung over a scene as to which it was one of the forces of his inspiration that history had lately been there at work, with incomparable energy and inimitable art, to pile one upon another, not to say squeeze and dovetail violently into each other, after such a fashion as might defy competition anywhere, her successive deposits and layers of form and order, her restless determinations of appearance—so like those of the different “states” of an engraver’s impression; all to an effect which should have constituted, as by a miracle of coincidence it did, the paradise of an extraordinary observer. Balzac lived accordingly, extraordinary since he was, in an earthly heaven so near perfect for his kind of vision that he could have come at no moment more conceivably blest to him. The later part of the eighteenth century, with the Revolution, the Empire and the Restoration, had inimitably conspired together to scatter abroad their separate marks and stigmas, their separate trails of character and physiognomic hits—for which advantage he might have arrived too late, as his hapless successors, even his more or less direct imitators, visibly have done. The fatal fusions and uniformities inflicted on our newer generations, the running together of all the differences of form and tone, the ruinous liquefying wash of the great industrial brush over the old conditions of contrast and colour, doubtless still have left the painter of manners much to do, but have ground him down to the sad fact that his ideals of differentiation, those inherent oppositions from type to type, in which drama most naturally resides, have well-nigh perished. They pant for life in a hostile air; and we may surely say that their last successful struggle, their last bright resistance to eclipse among ourselves, was in their feverish dance to the great fiddling of Dickens. Dickens made them dance, we seem to see, caper and kick their heels, wave their arms, and above all agitate their features, for the simple reason that he couldn’t make them stand or sit at once quietly and expressively, couldn’t make them look straight out as for themselves—quite in fact as through his not daring to, not feeling he could afford to, in a changing hour when ambiguities and the wavering line, droll and “dodgy” dazzlements and the possibly undetected factitious alone, might be trusted to keep him right with an incredibly uncritical public, a public blind to the difference between a shade and a patch.
Balzac on the other hand, born as we have seen to confidence, the tonic air of his paradise, might make character, in the sense in which we use it, that of the element exposable to the closest verification, sit or stand for its “likeness” as still as ever it would. It is true that he could, as he often did, resort to fond extravagance, since he was apt at his worst to plunge into agitation for mere agitation’s sake—which is a course that, by any turn, may cast the plunger on the barrenest strand. But he is at his best when the conditions, the whole complex of subdivisible form and pressure, are virtually themselves the situation, the action and the interest, or in other words when these things exhaust themselves, as it were, in expressing the persons we are concerned with, agents and victims alike, and when by such vivified figures, whether victims or agents, they are themselves completely expressed. The three distinguished critics who have best studied him, Taine, Brunetière and now (as well as before this) M. Faguet—the first the most eloquent but the loosest, and the last the closest even if the dryest—are in agreement indeed as to the vast quantity of waste in him, inevitably judging the romanticist as whom he so frequently, speculatively, desperately paraded altogether inferior to the realist whose function he could still repeatedly and richly and for his greater glory exercise. This estimate of his particularly greater glory is of a truth not wholly shared by M. Taine; but the three are virtually at one, where we of course join them, or rather go further than they, as to the enviability, so again to call it (and by which we mean the matchless freedom of play), of his harvesting sense when he gave himself up in fullest measure to his apprehension of the dense wholeness of reality. It was this that led him on and kept him true to that happily largest side of his labour by which he must massively live; just as it is this, the breath of his real geniality, when every abatement is made, that stirs to loyalty those who under his example also take his direction and find their joy in watching him thoroughly at work. We see then how, when social character and evolved type are the prize to be grasped, the facts of observation and certification, unrestingly social and historic too, that form and fondle and retouch it, never relaxing their action, are so easily and blessedly absolute to him that this is what we mean by their virtue.
When there were enough of these quantities and qualities flowering into the definite and the absolute for him to feed on, feed if not to satiety at least to the largest loosening of his intellectual belt, there were so many that we may even fall in with most of M. Faguet’s discriminations and reserves about him and yet find his edifice rest on proportioned foundations. For it is his assimilation of things and things, of his store of them and of the right ones, the right for representation, that leaves his general image, even with great chunks of surface surgically, that is critically, removed, still coherent and erect. There are moments when M. Faguet—most surgical he!—seems to threaten to remove so much that we ask ourselves in wonder what may be left; but no removal matters while the principle of observation animating the mass is left unattacked. Our present critic for instance is “down”—very understandingly down as seems to us—on some of the sides of his author’s rich temperamental vulgarity; which is accompanied on those sides by want of taste, want of wit, want of style, want of knowledge of ever so many parts of the general subject, too precipitately proposed, and want of fineness of feeling about ever so many others. We agree with him freely enough, subject always to this reserve already glanced at, that a novelist of a high esthetic sensibility must always find more in any other novelist worth considering seriously at all than he can perhaps hope to impart even to the most intelligent of critics pure and simple his subtle reasons for. This said, we lose ourselves, to admiration, in such a matter for example as the tight hug of the mere material, the supremely important if such ever was, represented by the appeal to us on behalf of the money-matters of César Birotteau.
This illustration gains logically, much more than loses, from the rank predominance of the money-question, the money-vision, throughout all Balzac. There are lights in which it can scarce not appear to us that his own interest is greater, his possibilities of attention truer, in these pressing particulars than in all other questions put together; there could be no better sign of the appreciation of “things,” exactly, than so never relaxed a grasp of the part played in the world by just these. Things for things, the franc, the shilling, the dollar, are the very most underlying and conditioning, even dramatically, even poetically, that call upon him; and we have everywhere to recognise how little he feels himself to be telling us of this, that and the other person unless he has first given us full information, with every detail, either as to their private means, their income, investments, savings, losses, the state in fine of their pockets, or as to their immediate place of habitation, their home, their outermost shell, with its windows and doors, its outside appearance and inside plan, its rooms and furniture and arrangements, its altogether intimate facts, down to its very smell. This prompt and earnest evocation of the shell and its lining is but another way of testifying with due emphasis to economic conditions. The most personal shell of all, the significant dress of the individual, whether man or woman, is subject to as sharp and as deep a notation—it being no small part of his wealth of luck that the age of dress differentiated and specialised from class to class and character to character, not least moreover among men, could still give him opportunities of choice, still help him to define and intensify, or peculiarly to place his apparitions. The old world in which costume had, to the last refinement of variety, a social meaning happily lingered on for him; and nothing is more interesting, nothing goes further in this sense of the way the social concrete could minister to him, than the fact that “César Birotteau,” to instance that masterpiece again, besides being a money-drama of the closest texture, the very epic of retail bankruptcy, is at the same time the all-vividest exhibition of the habited and figured, the representatively stamped and countenanced, buttoned and buckled state of the persons moving through it. No livelier example therefore can we name of the triumphant way in which any given, or as we should rather say taken, total of conditions works out under our author’s hand for accentuation of type. The story of poor Birotteau is just in this supreme degree a hard total, even if every one’s money-relation does loom larger, for his or her case, than anything else.
The main thing doubtless to agree with M. Faguet about, however, is the wonder of the rate at which this genius for an infatuated grasp of the environment could multiply the creatures swarming, and swarming at their best to perfection, in that jungle of elements. A jungle certainly the environment, the rank many-coloured picture of France, would have been had it not really created in our observer the joy, thanks to his need of a clear and marked order, of its becoming so arrangeable. Nothing could interest us more than to note with our critic that such multiplications—taken after all at such a rush—have to be paid for by a sort of limitation of quality in each, the quality that, beyond a certain point and after a certain allowance, ever looks askance at any approach to what it may be figured as taking for insolence of quantity. Some inquiry into the general mystery of such laws of payment would beckon us on had we the space—whereby we might glance a little at the wondrous why and wherefore of the sacrifice foredoomed, the loss, greater or less, of those ideals now compromised by the tarnished names of refinement and distinction, yet which we are none the less, at our decentest, still ashamed too entirely to turn our backs on, in the presence of energies that, shaking the air by their embrace of the common, tend to dispossess the rare of a certified place in it. Delightful to the critical mind to estimate the point at which, in the picture of life, a sense for the element of the rare ceases to consort with a sense, necessarily large and lusty, for the varieties of the real that super-abound. Reducible perhaps to some exquisite measure is this point of fatal divergence. It declared itself, the divergence, in the heart of Balzac’s genius; for nothing about him is less to be gainsaid than that on the other or further side of a certain line of rareness drawn his authority, so splendid on the hither or familiar side, is sadly liable to lapse. It fails to take in whatever fine truth experience may have vouchsafed to us about the highest kinds of temper, the inward life of the mind, the cultivated consciousness. His truest and vividest people are those whom the conditions in which they are so palpably embedded have simplified not less than emphasised; simplified mostly to singleness of motive and passion and interest, to quite measurably finite existence; whereas his ostensibly higher spirits, types necessarily least observed and most independently thought out, in the interest of their humanity, as we would fain ourselves think them, are his falsest and weakest and show most where his imagination and his efficient sympathy break down.
To say so much as this is doubtless to provoke the question of where and how then, under so many other restrictions, he is so great—which question is answered simply by our claim for his unsurpassed mastery of the “middling” sort, so much the most numerous in the world, the middling sort pressed upon by the vast variety of their dangers. These it is in their multitude whom he makes individually living, each with a clustered bunch of concomitants, as no one, to our mind, has equalled him in doing—above all with the amount of repetition of the feat considered. Finer images than the middling, but so much fewer, other creative talents have thrown off; swarms of the common, on the other hand, have obeyed with an even greater air of multitude perhaps than in Balzac’s pages the big brandished enumerative wand—only with a signal forfeiture in this case of that gift of the sharply separate, the really rounded, personality which he untiringly conferred. émile Zola, by so far the strongest example of his influence, mustered groups and crowds beyond even the master’s own compass; but as throughout Zola we live and move for the most part but in crowds (he thinking his best but in terms of crowdedness), so in Balzac, where he rises highest, we deal, whether or no more for our sense of ugliness than of beauty, but with memorable person after person. He thought, on his side—when he thought at least to good purpose—in terms the most expressively personal, in such as could even eventuate in monsters and forms of evil the most finished we know; so that if he too has left us a multitude of which we may say that it stands alone for solidity, it nevertheless exists by addition and extension, not by a chemical shaking-together, a cheapening or diminishing fusion.
It is not that the series of the Rougon-Macquart has not several distinct men and women to show—though they occur, as a fact, almost in “L’Assommoir” alone; it is not either that Zola did not on occasion try for the cultivated consciousness, a thing of course, so far as ever achieved anywhere, necessarily separate and distinguished; it is that he tried, on such ground, with a futility only a shade less marked than Balzac’s, and perhaps would have tried with equal disaster had he happened to try oftener. If we find in his pages no such spreading waste as Balzac’s general picture of the classes “enjoying every advantage,” that is of the socially highest—to the elder writer’s success in depicting particularly the female members of which Sainte-Beuve, and Brunetière in his footsteps, have rendered such strange and stupefying homage—the reason may very well be that such groups could not in the nature of the case figure to him after the fashion in which he liked groups to figure, as merely herded and compressed. To Balzac they were groups in which individualisation might be raised to its very finest; and it is by this possibility in them that we watch him and his fertile vulgarity, his peccant taste, so fallible for delicacies, so unerring for simplicities, above all doubtless the homeliest, strongest and grimmest, wofully led astray. But it is fairly almost a pleasure to our admiration, before him, to see what we have permitted ourselves to call the “chunks” of excision carted off to the disengagement of the values that still live. The wondrous thing is that they live best where his grand vulgarity—since we are not afraid of the word—serves him rather than betrays; which it has to do, we make out, over the greater part of the field of any observer for whom man is on the whole cruelly, crushingly, deformedly conditioned. We grant that as to Balzac’s view, and yet feel the view to have been at the same time incomparably active and productively genial; which are by themselves somehow qualities and reactions that redress the tragedy and the doom. The vulgarity was at any rate a force that simply got nearer than any other could have done to the whole detail, the whole intimate and evidenced story, of submission and perversion, and as such it could but prove itself immensely human. It is on all this considered ground that he has for so many years stood firm and that we feel him by reason of it and in spite of them, in spite of all that has come and gone, not to have yielded, have “given,” an inch.

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