BOOK REVIEW / A beacon that would attract an angel: 'Balzac' - Graham Robb: Picador, 20 pounds: Hugo Barnacle on Balzac, the great writer who remained his mother's disappointment

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The Independent Culture
Graham Robb hits on a nice way to summarise the Romantic movement, with its cult of the solitary closeted dreamer: 'from 1800 on, poets tend to incubate in cupboards and toilets.' This is to put some context around his subject, the strange romantic realist Balzac, who was a schoolboy around 1810 and spent most of his time in detention, locked in the smallest available rooms at the elite College de Vendome.

Balzac's misbehaviour was, apparently, a conventional ruse to attract parental attention. His mother never thought much of him, and even named his younger brother Henry, a remarkable echo of his own name Honore, which tended to suggest that he himself was a mere failed first attempt.

According to Robb, at the end of Balzac's life, when he was 'one of the most famous living people in Europe', his works translated everywhere from Bengal to Boston, strangers on buses discussing the state of his private life as a matter of public interest, ships named after him, souvenir busts of him on sale, fan clubs formed by ladies who could name all 2000 characters in his novels, he was nevertheless 'still Mme de Balzac's little disappointment.'

Balzac's revenge was not only to portray his mother disagreeably a number of times in his work - which she never noticed - but also to make himself as big a problem, as grand a liability as he possibly could. He stayed single until he was on his deathbed, pursuing oedipal affairs with older married women. He published works held to be immoral. Above all he ran up debts of spectacular size and complexity and then appointed his mother as his financial agent so she jolly well had to take notice.

His drive for celebrity was likewise a straightforward piece of overcompensation for that emotionally deprived childhood. 'I wanted my reputation to be a beacon that would attract an angel,' he wrote. By angel he just meant woman. 'There was nothing attractive about me. I considered myself a hopeless case.'

It says much for Balzac, as a man and as a writer, that he could see things like this so clearly. All the same, that very straightforwardness of his, the larger-than- life, pre-Freudian obviousness of everything about him, makes him a trying biographical subject. He could eat this quantity of pears at once and write that many words in a day. He owned this number of identical white waistcoats and he once dodged a restaurant bill that size. The note of excess palls.

Graham Robb is inclined to the view of Balzac as the first modern writer, and leaps on any example to show his thinking was ahead of his time. When he wrote a short life of Brillat-Savarin, Balzac 'called for an international culinary language, a kind of gourmet's periodic table that would allow the same dish to be created anywhere in the world - an idea later exploited to devastating effect by McDonald's'

This becomes something of a tic. Balzac only has to express a longing to speak to a distant lover and Robb credits him with anticipating Alexander Graham Bell's patent. But even Robb, considering Balzac's belief in 'animal magnetism' or the mystic significance of hallucinations, remarks that 'his ability to seize on what would now be considered a psychological phenomenon and treat it as a transcendental truth is one of the great charms of his work.'

In other words Balzac is indeed dated, a very unmodern writer, which is probably why almost no one reads him any more except to mug up for exams. In Balzac everybody's character is written in their face, and he made the pseudo-science of physiognomy so popularly understood and respected, especially in relation to crime, that for generations the French police determined guilt by running measuring-calipers over the suspect and men were sent to the guillotine for no better reason than that their eyes were too close together. That is how dated Balzac is. Oddly it is one genuine aspect of his influence that Robb fails to mention.

Perhaps with those exams in mind, Robb devotes more effort to comment than narrative, so the book is sometimes hard to read and we never really know how Balzac became quite as famous as he did. As on Desert Island Discs, after early struggle, success just kind of suddenly arrives, helped by the fact that Balzac penned his own rave reviews in the papers, a common practice at the time.

But Robb's authorial voice is amiable, intelligent and assured. A couple of times, for a laugh, he tries a chapter-opening in Balzac's own style ('Towards the beginning of autumn in the year 1828, shortly after dawn, a young man with a large, bulbous nose . . . arrived in the courtyard of the Messageries Royale in the centre of Paris') and pretty much succeeds. One feels, in fact, that for a writer supposed to be so great, Balzac is suspiciously easy to spoof.

(Photograph omitted)