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Gareth Jenkins


Pact with the devil

(September 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 178, September 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Graham Robb
Picador £20

Marx was so impressed by the fiction of Honoré de Balzac that he planned to write a study of Balzac’s novel cycle, The Human Comedy. It was not just Balzac’s ability to depict the social life of early 19th century France that impressed Marx. It was his ability to grasp capitalism’s constant revolutionising of social life. Even more remarkable, in Marx’s eyes, was the fact that Balzac was compelled to recognise the force of this new power, despite his reactionary belief in the old order.

This biography is the first in English since the 1930s and Robb’s energetic account of Balzac’s life is worthy of its subject. It also, despite its rather dismissive attitude, confirms the Marxist analysis of Balzac’s work.

The novelist’s life spanned the political, social and economic transformation of France in the years following the great French Revolution. He could be said to have lived it in more ways than one. Not only was he a witness to the period, he participated in its illusions.

Balzac was born in 1799 in the sleepy provincial city of Tours. His family three generations back had been peasants in the backward mountainous area of central France and his father had already risen socially by becoming a public servant and marrying into the local bourgeoisie.

This was the year in which Napoleon ended the turbulent years of the French Revolution by consolidating the rule of the new bourgeois order, though the old monarchical system was to stage a comeback in 1815. However, the Bourbon kings could not reverse the wheel of history and the last was to flee during the 1830 revolution. His replacement, who imagined he could do a deal with the new powerful financial oligarchy, suffered the same fate in the 1848 revolution.

The new century shook the social structure loose of its constraints, allowing the ambitious to do in private life what Napoleon had done in public – claw their way to the top. Paris was an irresistible magnet for young men from the provinces. Balzac was to rise higher than his father, adding the noble ‘de’ to his name, to which he was not entitled. Like his hero Napoleon he did it by force of individual achievement.

Though he became a supporter of throne and Church, he rose via the very forces that undermined these values. For all his aristocratic leanings he was the dynamic, thrusting bourgeois entrepreneur par excellence. And like these self made men he experienced both the ups and downs of capitalism’s constant revolutionising of the means of production.

He was never out of debt his whole adult life. He borrowed massively to invest in his own printing and publishing works, only to go bust. He spent his life constantly on the verge of bankruptcy. The pressure of debt ensured that he had no let up from writing. Indeed, the more his dreams expanded, the more his debts increased.

Robb gives us an example of what this meant. Balzac wrote a short novel of some 40,000 words in a single night, when he discovered that a miscalculation over print size had left 80 blank pages. This speed of composition was by no means exceptional.

He had a boundless appetite for other things beside writing – for knowledge, for travel, for love, for food, for enterprise schemes. But at the same time there was the conviction that these were achieved at a price – as, for example, his feeling that a night of sex resulted in an ‘expenditure’ of energy that could otherwise have been ‘invested’ in writing novels.

He lived a kind of devil’s pact with capitalism. It is a theme mirrored in much of his fiction. In return for the promise of boundless power, you sell your soul not so much to the old devil as to the new forces of capitalism.

Over and over again his novels are full of characters whose ambitions and obsessions are accomplished at the price of self destruction.

Balzac died in 1850, the year before the coup d’état in which Napoleon’s nephew destroyed the second republic. Capitalism’s turbulent energy had turned to ash. So too had Balzac’s life, exhausted by the fires of creativity.

He left behind him a body of fiction whose restless energy, fearless curiosity and critical spirit show bourgeois culture at its greatest. Graham Robb’s biography is an excellent introduction to some of the greatest novels ever written.

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