George Sand may be described as an "idealist," if we add the words "with a remarkable gift for observation." Her great contemporary HONORÉ DE BALZAC is named a realist, but he was a realist haunted or attacked by phantasms and nightmares of romance. Born in 1799 at Tours, son of an advocate turned military commissariat-agent, Honoré de Balzac, after some training in the law, resolved to write, and, if possible, not to starve. With his robust frame, his resolute will, manifest in a face coarsely powerful, his large good-nature, his large egoism, his audacity of brain, it seemed as if he might shoulder his way through the crowd to fortune and to fame. But fortune and fame were hard to come at. His tragedy Cromwell was condemned by all who saw the manuscript; his novels were published, and lie deep in their refuge under the waters of oblivion. He tried the trades of publisher, printer, type-founder, and succeeded in encumbering himself with debt. At length in 1829 Le Dernier Chouan, a half-historical tale of Brittany in 1800, not uninfluenced by Scott, was received with a measure of favour.
Next year Balzac found his truer self, overlaid with journalism, pamphleteering, and miscellaneous writing, in a Dutch painting of bourgeois life, Le Maison du Chatqui-pelote, which relates the sorrows of the draper's daughter, Augustine, drawn from her native sphere by an artist's love. From the day that Balzac began to wield his pen with power to the day, in 1850, when he died, exhausted by the passion of his brain, his own life was concentrated in that of the creatures of his imagination. He had friends, and married one of the oldest of them, Madame Hanska, shortly before his death. Sometimes for a little while he wandered away from his desk. More than once he made wild attempts to secure wealth by commercial enterprise or speculation. These were adventures or incidents of his existence. That existence itself is summed up in the volumes of his Human Comedy. He wrote with desperate resolve and a violence of imagination; he attacked the printer's proof as if it were crude material on which to work. At six in the evening he retired to sleep; he rose at the noon of night, urged on his brain with cups of coffee, and covered page after page of manuscript, until the noon of day released him. So it went on for nearly twenty years, until the intemperance of toil had worn the strong man out.
There is something gross in Balzac's genius; he has little wit, little delicacy, no sense of measure, no fine self-criticism, no lightness of touch, small insight into the life of refined society, an imperfect sense of natural beauty, a readiness to accept vulgar marvels as the equivalent of spiritual mysteries; he is monarchical without the sentiment of chivalric loyalty, a Catholic without the sentiment of religion; he piles sentence on sentence, hard and heavy as the accumulated stones of a cairn. Did he love his art for its own sake? It must have been so; but he esteemed it also as an implement of power, as the means of pushing towards fame and grasping gold.
Within the gross body of his genius, however, an intense flame burnt. He had a vivid sense of life, a perception of all that can be seen and handled, an eager interest in reality, a vast passion for things, an inexhaustible curiosity about the machinery of society, a feeling, exultant or cynical, of the battle of existence, of the conflict for wealth and power, with its triumphs and defeats, its display of fierce volition, its pushing aside of the feeble, its trampling of the fallen, its grandeur, its meanness, its obscure heroisms, and the cruelties of its pathos. He flung himself on the life of society with a desperate energy of inspection, and tried to make the vast array surrender to his imagination. And across his vision of reality shot strange beams and shafts of romantic illumination—sometimes vulgar theatrical lights, sometimes gleams like those which add a new reality of wonder to the etchings of Rembrandt. What he saw with the eyes of the senses or those of the imagination he could evoke without the loss of any fragment of its life, and could transfer it to the brain of his reader as a vision from which escape is impossible.
The higher world of aristocratic refinement, the grace and natural delicacy of virginal souls, in general eluded Balzac's observation. He found it hard to imagine a lady; still harder—though he tried and half succeeded—to conceive the mystery of a young girl's mind, in which the airs of morning are nimble and sweet. The gross bourgeois world, which he detested, and a world yet humbler were his special sphere. He studied its various elements in their environment; a street, a house, a chamber is as much to him as a human being, for it is part of the creature's shell, shaped to its uses, corresponding to its nature, limiting its action. He has created a population of persons which numbers two thousand. Where Balzac does not fail, each of these is a complete individual; in the prominent figures a controlling passion is the centre of moral life—the greed of money, the desire for distinction, the lust for power, some instinct or mania of animal affection. The individual exists in a group; power circulates from inanimate objects to the living actors of his tale; the environment is an accomplice in the action; power circulates from member to member of the group; finally, group and group enter into correspondence or conflict; and still above the turmoil is heard the groundswell of the tide of Paris.
The change from the Renés and Obermanns of melancholy romance was great. But in the government of Louis-Philippe the bourgeoisie triumphed; and Balzac hated the bourgeoisie. From 1830 to 1840 were his greatest years, which include the Peau de Chagrin, Eugénie Grandet, La Recherche de l'Absolu, Le Père Goriot, and other masterpieces. To name their titles would be to recite a Homeric catalogue. At an early date Balzac conceived the idea of connecting his tales in groups. They acquired their collective title, La Comédie Humaine, in 1842. He would exhibit human documents illustrating the whole social life of his time; "the administration, the church, the army, the judicature, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, the prolétariat, the peasantry, the artists, the journalists, the men of letters, the actors, ... the shopkeepers of every degree, the criminals," should all appear in his vast tableau of society. His record should include scenes from private life, scenes from Parisian, provincial, political, military, rural life, with philosophical studies in narrative and analytic treatises on the passions. The spirit of system took hold upon Balzac; he had, in common with Victor Hugo, a gift for imposing upon himself with the charlatanry of pseudo-ideas; to observe, to analyse, to evoke with his imagination was not enough; he also would be among the philosophers—and Balzac's philosophy is often pretentious and vulgar, it is often banal. Outside the general scheme of the human comedy lie his unsuccessful attempts for the theatre, and the Contes Drolatiques, in which the pseudo-antique Rabelaisian manner and the affluent power do not entirely atone for the anachronism of a grossness more natural in the sixteenth than in the nineteenth century.