The relation between Balzac’s fiction and that of the popular novelists of his generation has often provoked discussion. Various opin-ions have been advanced: at one extreme, the over-hasty and malignantjudgment of Sainte-Beuve, who persisted in classing Balzac with Sue and
the feuilletonistes; at the other, the adulation of those who resent anycomparison between Balzac and men of second and third rank. Perhaps,in view of the importance which attaches to questions of technique, aresuscitation of the controversy is permissible: an investigation, this time, of Balzac’s treatment of violent physical action. The conclusion ofsuch a study might prove only that Balzac differed from the popularnovelists in which case, we should be bringing merely another coal to Newcastle. If, however, our investigation of violent action can be related to the problem of the novelist’s general technique, the effort maynot be altogether in vain.
By violent action is meant one of those outstanding physical manifestations, gestures, or attitudes which mark a character and strongly im-press the reader; and, in considering the various examples in Balzac’swTork, the reader becomes aware of a correlation between physical action and speed, or tempo, in the author’s narrative style. That is, for a manwho spared neither words nor pains in exposition and description, Balzac depicts stirring events with singular concision of effect. This will bemade clearer by a classification of the various time-effects discoverable in the Comédie humaine.
For our purpose, fictional or artistic time may be treated under threecategories: (1) Chronological time. This is a fragment of what E. PrestonDargan calls the “realistic technique” in Balzac. To take one exampleamong many: in 1844, Cousin Pons wore the costume of 1809; and in character, disposition, manner, he suggested the period of the Empire.He is a kind of historical anachronism, standing out in bold relief againstthe background and color of 1844. The novelist has thus located bothhis fiction and his character in chronological time. In this connection it is worth noting, perhaps, that Balzac’s stories written in the 1830’s arefrequently set in the two preceding decades, whereas those written in hislater years reflect more appositely the contemporary period.
At all eventsBalzac’s preoccupation with chronology is obvious. (2) Psychological time. This is the element which Percy Lubbock discovers to be so clearlyand brilliantly manipulated in Eugénie Grandet} Perhaps Lubbockstresses too emphatically the unique beauty of this work. We find theimpression of time in most of the great novels—whether they study the growth of the besetting vices of such men as Grandet and Baron Hulot;whether they tell of the slow martyrdom of Cousin Pons or Abbé Birot-teau; or whether they recount the simple story of Eugenie Grandet’slove and disillusionment. In any case, this element must be distinguished from the merely chronological, and might even merit the title of “novcl-istic time,” so essential is it to the truth and power of most works of fiction. (3) The third aspect of time encountered in the novel may betermed, simply, speed. This results from the amount of space which a novelist expends upon an incident, as well as its rhythmical effect on thereader. Speed, perhaps even more than the other time-effects, is bothspatial and temporal. To sum up the three types: when Cousin Pons isdiscovered walking down the Paris boulevards, the figure is situated in two senses, or tenses, in chronological time; when he suffers a slow andcruel martyrdom, the novel achieves the effect of psychological time; andwhen he suddenly darts out of his sick chamber to confront his torturer,that is an effect of speed.
At this point a catalogue is necessary. On the whole, Balzac’s mostvigorous scenes fall into seven categories: (1) scenes of bodily violence,(2) suicide, (3) duels, (4) spying, (5) robbery and abduction, (6) pursuit,(7) deus ex machina.
1. Scenes of bodily violence.—An importunate youth pursues a marriedwoman, first with unwelcome attentions, then with unworthy suspicionswhich involve a mysterious stranger, Ferragus—in reality the lady’sfather. This vigorous old man encounters the youth at a ball, and is seized by him; whereupon:
se dégagea lestement, prit monsieur de Maulincour par les cheveux,et lui secoua railleusement la tête à plusieurs reprises. —Faut-il donc absolu-ment du plomb pour la rendre sage? ditil.
This important incident—for M. de Maulincour will die of poison rubbedinto his scalp by the hand of Ferragus—is told with no further detail than that recorded above, and may be regarded as a type for Balzac’sscenes of bodily violence.
Another example: a convict is trapped on a roof by a police spy.Le faux Espagnol eut l’air de céder, mais, après s’être arebouté sur l’appui duchâssis à tabatière, il prit et lança Contenson avec tant de violence que l’espionalla tomber au milieu du ruisseau de la rue Saint-Georges. Contenson mourut sur son champ d’honneur. Jacques Collin rentra tranquillement dans sa man-sarde, où il se mit au lit.
This episode is terminated before it has fairly begun; nevertheless, it isinstinct with breath-taking movement.
Other examples may be presented in tabloid arrangement. An auda-cious youth, madly in love with an Italian noblewoman, creeps into hergarden at night, and is stabbed by her deaf-mute attendant. A Breton youth throws his unrelenting lady over a cliff in order that no one else may possess her. A turbulent artist, mad for revenge, seeks to stab an opera-singer who has tricked him. Another artist, wounded in his selflove, tears his wife’s portrait to bits, and terrifies the poor woman out ofher senses. Two violent natures—a fashionable dandy and his sister—seek murderous vengeance on the girl who has betrayed them.
A child, jealous of her illegitimate brother, throws the lad into a canal. A Corsican locks his guilty wife and her lover in a burning hut; and a countrygentleman walls up the closet in which his wife’s lover is hiding. All of these episodes, from the deafmute’s “into the lake with a stone aroundhis neck!” to the Corsican’s proud “I did it!” are accomplished with aminimum of physical description: usually a few sentences, a striking attitude or gesture, and one short speech.
2. Suicide.—The classic example is the death of the poet, Rubempré, inthe Conciergerie prison. While the description here is more extended thanthose previously recorded, the final effect is splendidly compressed byfollowing the appreciative glance of the young man who, at the verymoment of his suicide, looks out at the Gothic towers opposite hiswindow. Elsewhere, another youthful poet gazes admiringly at the moon-lit stream in which he intends to drown himself. A similar compressionof effect: a young nobleman, after abandoning his forty-year-old mistress for a young wife, returns to his mistress, is repulsed by her, goeshome, and, in almost less time than it takes to tell, blows out his brains.
3. Duels.—Perhaps the best example would be the following, from LesDeux Poètes: a few lines of bald description, the duel reported by a countryman who happened to be passing, and then—“monsieur de Chandouraura le cou de travers pour le reste de ses jours.” The duel is more extensively depicted in La Rabouilleuse; yet even here its cruelly is mosteffectively expressed and compressed in the concluding sentence:Fario descendit et vint se repaître la vue de son ennemi dans les convulsions dela mort, car, chez un homme de la force de Max, les muscles du corps remuèrent effroyablement.
A comic duel in another story is fittingly summed up when one of theantagonists misses a cow at ten paces; and a more serious scene closeswith the brief and cryptic line: “Vous visez trop bien, monsieur, pouravoir voulu venger des passions mortes.” The pattern of all these incidents is the same.
4. Spying.—The familiar example: a nobleman on the point of deathis being swindled by his heartless wife:
—Ah! ah! s’écria le comte, qui, ayant ouvert la porte, se montra tout à couppresque nu, déjà même aussi sec, aussi décharné qu’un squelette. Ce cri sourd produisit un effet terrible sur la comtesse.
In these few words Balzac suggests the dying man, secretly listening tohis wife’s perfidy, confronting her, and striking terror in her heart.Similar episodes: a husband, hidden from his wife’s view, hears her dis-own him, and suddenly confronts her (this scene being recounted as briefly and with almost the same rhythmical effect as the foregoing) ; adying art-collector spies upon the conspirators who seek to rob him; aprovincial miser overhears a conversation between his wife and daughterin flagrant disobedience of his commands, and, in order to reprimand them, leaps upstairs “with the agility of a cat”; a provincial abbé,tricked by his landlady, betrays his emotion by descending the stairs“with the agility of a young man,” and faces his persecutor.
5. Robbery and abduction.—Thirteen conspirators carry off the body of the Duchess of Langeais:
Avec la rapidité magique que communique aux mouvements un extrême désir [note this wordl), la morte fut apportée dans le parloir, passée par la fenêtre ettransportée au pied des murs, au moment où l’abbesse, suivie des religieuses,arrivait pour prendre le corps de la sœur Thérèse.
Three more short sentences serve to bring to a conclusion the 150-pagestory. Other examples: a nobleman’s daughter is lured from her home bya criminal; a disappointed heir steals and burns a will, after neglecting“two warnings from heaven” in the shape of matches wrhich fail to ignite; a Venetian plunders the treasure of the Republic; two scoundrels rip openthe mattress of a miserly beggar; a group of disgruntled royalists waylayand rob a paycoach; a young man steals in order that his mother mayhave medical care. These various scenes are treated with necessary variety; yet at the same time, with the single exception of the pay-coachepisode, they show a quickening of tempo similar to that employed in LaDuchesse de Langeais.
6. Pursuit.—Without doubt the most effective pursuit scene is in Com-ment aiment les filles, and is realized in a minimum of space:
A ces mots, cent francs, le cocher se réveilla, le valet de l’arrière les entendit sansdoute dans son sommeil. Le baron répéta l’ordre, le cocher mit les chevaux au grand galop, et réussit à rattraper, à la barrière du Trône, une voiture à peu prèssemblable à celle où Nucingen avait vu la divine inconnue, mais où se prélas sait le premier commis de quelque riche magasin, avec une femme comme il fautde la rue Vivienne. Cette méprise consterna le baron.
In one paragraph, Balzac gives us a race through the night, a matterwhich the feuilletoniste would have extended to a full chapter at least.With this episode may be likened the following: a young man, sent asan emissary by an ageing and lovelorn nobleman to his estranged wife, feigns madness, and jumps over a fence in order to have an interviewwith her; a poor girl, abducted and debauched, flees madly through thestreets.
Deus ex machina.—By this is meant the summary and poetic justiceoften meted out to Balzac’s characters in hurried fashion at the end of hisstories. This is particularly true of his Private Scenes. Thus, a wicked heroine is frightfully maimed in a steamboat explosion; a noble heroine is burned to death in a fire at the Austrian Embassy; a Corsican heroposes melodramatically over the body of his enemy, crying: “Il nous aépargné un coup de fusil.” Moreover, in several of the sentimentalScènes de la vie privée, the finale is a short and affecting incident.13 While this is a technical device common in the short-story (Hoffmann makesa forcible use of it, for example), still its resemblance to the foregoingexamples of concision warrants mention here. The deus ex machina, in itsvarious guises, completes the more striking scenes of violent physicalaction, associated with a quickening of tempo, to be found in Balzac’srepresentative work. We are now free to draw certain conclusions.
One conclusion is clear: even in the summary review given above, withmany examples omitted or only hurriedly mentioned, it is impossible notto perceive a similarity in the treatment of violent scenes—a similarityapparent even in the rhythm of Balzac’s prose. Attention has already been called to the recurrence of the formula: when the dying Restaud orthe cruelly wronged Chabert face their wives, or when Pons confrontshis opponents, the prose-order is virtually the same. The poisoning ofMaulincour may be compared with the destruction of the spy Contenson, the suicide of Lucien de Rubempré with that of Athanase Granson, theduel of Bridau with that of Bargeton, and so forth; and in each case wenote a great similarity not only in the effect, but also in the structure ofthe sentences.
There is usually a brief description; a striking situation; a concise and affecting gesture, speech, or attitude which summarizes oremphasizes. Such is the general rhythm of Balzac’s scenes of violence. That Balzac’s effects of speed must depend upon devices of rhetoric isobvious. Even more obvious are the various parallels with other writers of fiction; but, on examination, some of these similarities prove less striking. Stendhal, for example, shows a similar reserve in his treatment ofviolence. The duel in Le Rouge et le Noir is “over in an instant,” conclud-ing with a short summary of the hero’s wounds; and in La Chartreuse de Parme Fabrice’s brawl with Giletti is made most effective by his pre-tended nonchalance: “Have you a mirror?” he inquires of Marietta.
Stendhal, says Taine, “avoids telling dramatic events dramatically.” Yet here the parallel between him and Balzac ceases; for Balzac—itmust be admitted—has a keen sense for the dramatic, at least for thedrama of finance and figures; and, according to Paul Bourget, his artresides entirely in the “preparation and solution” of dramatic crises.
Stendhal’s art, on the other hand, is largely a matter of “preparation.”Nor is Balzac’s method similar to that of Mérimée. Violence and con-cision are Mérimée’s stock-in-trade. We encounter them everywhere: inthe conclusion of Mateo Falcone, or in Le Vase étrusque, or in Carmen, when the contrabandista with cold-blooded violence gives his woundedcomrade the coup de grâce.11 But here again there is a difference: Mériméeis always reserved, cold, cruel—consciously so, to the point of fanaticism;whereas Balzac’s violent scenes move more quickly in contrast to the expansive method of his exposition. Thus Balzac’s technique remainsdistinct from Stendhal’s, because Balzac did not share the latter’s con-tempt for the merely physical; distinct from Mérimée’s, because Balzacdid not share the latter’s complete emphasis of the physical.
Balzac’s tempo is, therefore, distinctive, and its causes may be con-veniently labelled: tradition, craftsmanship, temperament, and theory.In the first place, Balzac is influenced by the French classical tradition,with all its avoidance of the direct presentation of violence. His reticences
often give the same impression of reserve as those encountered in theclassical drama of Corneille and Racine. This is all the more remarkablebecause Balzac was writing during the most stirring campaigns of Ro-manticism, when action, and violent action, was one of the effects for which an artist strove.
His art profits precisely through this adherence to tradition: by al-lowing physical action to emerge only rarely and briefly from the surrounding sea of exposition and dialogue, he gives it impressive emphasis.This is due to cunning on his part: he realizes the power that can be obtained from brevity. The Elizabethan dramatists occasionally employeda trick which is commonly exemplified in the line from Webster’s tragedyof the Duchess of Malfy: “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she diedyoung.” This is concise drama; and Balzac, similarly, was craftsman enough to know the value of staccato narrative.
But, beyond craftsmanship, a third cause must be assigned to his dis-tinctive rhythm: his own temperament. Balzac belonged by nature to theactive rather than the passive category of men. And to the man of action,action speaks for itself. He did not consider it necessary to dwell on scenes of violence, for the simple reason that he thought them self-explanatory. It is all very well for the inept man of letters to turn action into exposition in his desire to make it clear this discursiveness is often the faultof the modern detective story; it even dissipated the melodramatic effects of Charles Dickens at times; but for Balzac action needed no othercommentary than itself.
In the fourth place, and closely related to Balzac’s temperament, is histheory of the Will surely one of the master-clues to his work. This Willis both subjective and objective: objective in so far as Balzac attributesit to his characters, particularly to the “young men of Paris”; but subjective also in that Balzac himself partakes of it. Will is the force behindhis Human Comedy: the will to succeed, the will to make money, the will to create, even—in the case of La Duchesse de Langeais—the will to revenge. His literary technique often has its source in willpower.
There is little doubt that in Facino Cane Balzac is describing his own method ofobservation and creation, when the narrator wanders among the people,seeking out types, and projects himself into their tattered clothes andthin shoes until he is one with them. Thus, when he first encounters the hero of his Scene, he says of him: “I willed, and he was Italian.” Thelittle incident is a magnificent example of the power of Will in the HumanComedy. Both heroes and author share a breath-taking volition, whichin its turn influences the tempo of the fiction.
This review of the four causes which shaped Balzac’s scenes of violenceindicates in what category of his work such scenes will appear most fre-quently. The provincial stories, as the author himself says, are devoid ofstriking contrasts, and thus we might expect them to lack extremes of physical violence. Yet the examples noted above have shown that theseScenes contain several duels; and Balzac manages to extract a maximumof physical effect from Grandet’s sudden mounting of the stairs, and Abbé Birotteau’s equally sudden descent—which proves his contention that an artist can draw action and suspense from the most monotonoussubject. There are many more examples in his Scenes of Private Life, particularly if we include the short and affecting ending which char-acterizes so many of these tales. The few which present no good example of the device are of an epistolary character; or they are studies of busi-ness and legal “deals,” or mere episodes. As might be expected from their nature, the other private stories incline toward episodes of bodily violence and espionage. Yet in spite of these many examples, violenceis best represented in the Parisian Scenes. The few which furnish noclear instances of speed are again studies of business, sketches of highlife and low life, and a picture of officialdom. The other Parisian stories are especially welcome to scenes of action because of their heroes.
These “young men of Paris,” already mentioned in connection withBalzac’s theory of the Will, have their most vigorous representation inthe History of the Thirteen; and the novel Ferragus may be consideredin many respects Balzac’s most “highly charged” Parisian Scene. In summary, there are about 100 titles in the Comédie humaine. Of these, 62 are included in the first three divisions of the work (those consideredin the present study); and of these, between 35 and 40 at least presentone or more instances of the speed device best exemplified in Ferragus.
The investigation thus far has disclosed an clement sufficiently exemplified in Balzac’s work and sufficiently characteristic of the author tomerit the title of technique; and it seems reasonable to refer to it here after as the speed-techniquc. Yet speed is by its very nature a device of such small bulk that we are compelled here to consider the length andsize of Balzac’s works in general. This is properly not a digression, but isbound up with the larger question of our author’s method of compositionand attitude toward fiction; and this problem can best be approached by a study of the size of the typical Balzac novel.
By listing the length of all the stories in the first three divisions ofBalzac’s collected work and by striking an average, one will find that thetypical Private Scene is 94 pages, the average Provincial Scene 198 pages,and the average Parisian Scene 144 pages. Obviously, there is a definite relation between the type of story and its length, provincial and Parisiantales being the longest. But there exists no such correlation between thelength of novel and the use of speed. The technique appears once at theend of the 70-page Maison du Chal-qui-pclote, at least three times in the 150-page Ferragus, scarcely at all in the 300-page Père Goriot. Indeed, in Balzac’s longest novel (the 500-pagc Cousine Bette), examples of the de-vice are surprisingly infrequent. As has been seen, its appearance is mostpredictable in such of the Parisian tales as have “willful” characters; butits use is to be observed also in such widely diverse fictions as the “private” Modeste Mignon, the very andante Curt de Tours, and the veryshort Facino Cane. In other words, examples of the technique do notmultiply with the size of the work, as in the case of the serial novel; butthey depend rather upon factors—traditional, personal, artistic, theoretical—already noted.
This conclusion is supported if the averages are struck also on a chronological basis. Thus, between 1830 and 1835, the average story is about70 pages; between 1835 and 1840, it is 150 pages; and between 1841 and1848, 185 pages. The average increases by 100 pages in 15 years, though Balzac’s typical story is never longer than 200 pages. On the other hand,there are striking uses of the speed device in over half the novels pro-duced during the first five-year period, in less than a third during the mid-dle period, and in about half during the last period. Thus, the scenes of violence, though they occur at all times, are slightly more prevalent inthe works of the first and third periods, partly as a result of the largenumber of provincial novels written during the middle five years, partlybecause of the History of the Thirteen, which gives added weight to the years 1830-35. At all events, use of the speed technique does not increasewith the years, whereas the size of Balzac’s novels docs. This antithesiswill aid us in reaching a conclusion concerning Balzac’s manner of craftsmanship and his general attitude toward fiction.
Let us take a rough sample of Balzacian extremes say, six representative novels, of various types (private, provincial, Parisian), of variouslengths (from 70 to 500 pages), and of various dates (from 1830 to 1847). For present purposes, a very rough but workable analysis of the elements of Balzacian fiction would include first narrative or incident; then etudeor “essay” in its broadest sense (including description, exposition,polemic); and finally dialogue in which form may appear both narrativeand essay material. In the first three columns below, wx shall put the title, date, and length of each work; in the fourth column, the proportionof narrative to essay matter in the work; in the fifth the approximatenumber of separate incidents discoverable in the narrative; in the sixth,the average length of each incident; and in the last column, the approximate amount of dialogue in the whole work.