Second Thoughts: Life and gloves of a genius: V S Pritchett on the youthful Parisian enthusiasm that led him to write Balzac (Hogarth Press pounds 9.99)

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The Independent Culture
IN MY early twenties I left London and my job in the leather trade and went to Paris, hoping it would turn me into a writer. I found a cheap room at the poor end of a fashionable street in Auteuil. At the other end, where the street met the Seine, was the Musee Balzac.

Le Peau de Chagrin was the first book I had read in French, and I went to the Musee many times. I saw the two entrances which had given Balzac the chance to take flight from his creditors when they called. I saw his desk, the bills for his gloves, and all the trappings of his disorderly and extravagant life. My walks across Paris often ended up at the Rodin statue of Balzac. I read his books and, when I could afford it, I went to visit his country house at Tours. He became an obsession with me, and I took to carrying one of his paperback books with me to the photographer's shop where I worked. The office boys mocked me and shouted, 'Bonjour, Monsieur Balzac'.

I go back to Le Pere Goriot and La Cousine Bette and I'm caught again by the rich and living detail, the very voices of his people. Although they are far away from our time, we recognise them at once.

I have no Second Thoughts about his genius. For myself his formidable figure and his powers never dwindle. They are as moving to me today as they were 70 years ago.