BOOK REVIEW / If I'm not a genius, I'm done for: Balzac - Robb: Picador, pounds 20

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IN THE PREFACE to Prometheus, one of the more accessible of the scores of Balzac biographies, Andre Maurois asks why one should want a biography of any writer. Surely the work is all that counts? In Balzac's case the answer is that the very existence of such a phenomenal character must be a subject of interest. The connection between the genius who invented an entire world in the Comedie Humaine and the hilarious, money-obsessed glutton might sometimes be hard to grasp. The achievement of this engrossing new biography is to demonstrate that the two are one and the same. It has two indexes, one of characters from the novels and the other of 'real' people. The so-called 'realism' of the Comedie Humaine is, in fact, as both Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde observed, a heightened version of real life: 'A steady course of Balzac,' said Wilde, 'reduces our living friends to shadows, our acquaintances to the shadows of shades . . . One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempre. It is a grief from which I have never been able to completely rid myself . . .'

The grief of which Balzac never entirely rid himself and which appears to have influenced the type of woman he was to fall in love with, was his mother's rejection of him as a child. Placed with a wet-nurse for his first four years, he was sent at eight, after a brief, unhappy spell at home (all described in Le Lys dans la Vallee and Lucien Lambert), to boarding school. Though the place was only 35 miles from home, he saw his parents just twice in six years. This experience, together with his hatred for his preferred younger brother Henry, was to provide him with a rich vein of inspiration.

Complicated revenges are wreaked on mothers and younger brothers. Henry's eventual fate - ruin and death in the Tropics - was largely arranged by Honore, echoing the fate of Paul de Manerville in Le Contrat de Mariage, an excellent example, as Graham Robb puts it, of 'Balzac's habit of taking one of his characters as the model for a real person'.

Madame de Balzac took more interest in Honore as he grew older, eventually financing a spell in a garret, where he set himself up as a writer without knowing what on earth to write; in the event he produced an unreadable tragedy in verse, which marked the beginning of 10 years of false starts, during which many unreadable pot-boilers appeared under strange pseudonyms. A life-time of image-building had begun: a second mirror for the garret took priority over food or clothes, enabling him to see himself reproduced ad infinitum. 'Nothing, nothing but love and glory can fill the space that is in my heart,' he wrote, and 'If I'm not a genius, I'm done for.'

How to approach this larger-than-life, self-invented monster, working through the night in his monk's robe, fuelled by black coffee, furiously making and spending money (58 pairs of gloves on one - unpaid - bill), conducting a passionate affair with Madame Hanska in Ukraine simultaneously with secret liaisons at home, drinking, taking up causes, starting businesses and, all the time, writing? Robb conducts his assault on this Everest with great aplomb, always relating Balzac's impossible psychological make-up to the world it spawned. It is a colossal achievement. There is mention of 100,000 file cards; he has walked to Sache from Azay at dawn as Balzac did. The bibliography covers 16 pages.

Graham Robb describes Balzac's outpourings, the unreadable proofs (he was cursed by his typesetters, who nonetheless turned out en masse at his funeral), the endless pages on his current obsession, whether it be a silver mine or a printing works. Flaubert, who approached novel-writing from a different direction altogether, spending days on a single sentence, wrote of Balzac: 'What a man he would have been had he known how to write. But that was the only thing he lacked. After all an artist would never have accomplished so much nor had such breadth.'

While readers may well be fascinated by Robb's pieces of detective work on, say, the identity of a mystery mistress called Louise, and certainly by the many insights into the functioning of Balzac's creative imagination, what stays most strongly in the mind on closing the book is an impression of the personality that lurks behind the mountain of information; a feeling of having made Balzac's acquaintance. If Robb does not quite match the level of intimacy achieved by, say, Victoria Glendinning's life of Trollope, or Maurois' Prometheus, he does illuminate innumerable details of the writer's life.

It would have been good to hear more about Balzac's relations with his writing contemporaries, and more about his appalling family and his nice sister Laura, but these are quibbles. If this scholarly tome does not entirely reflect the energy of its subject, perhaps that would, after all, be an impossible task - to reconcile the demands of academic rectitude with the full representation of a man who was in many ways his own most remarkable fictional creation.

(Photograph omitted)