Thursday, March 15, 2007

Between 8 and 10,000 thoughts

Graham Robb at the TLS on the first volume of a new edition of Balzac's letters. I am finding myself particularly strangulated by deadlines this week, it is not at all a pleasant feeling (though of course preferable to the thing that you have when you are a young person and nobody cares enough about what you're writing to give you a deadline or not, so I am not really complaining, it will all be for the best later on, only sometimes I wish I were not so much the queen of deferred gratification, there are three novels sitting here that it pains me not to have time to have read this week, and it is not as though I've got any writing done either! But I am on the brink of it, I hope--this essay on Austen is something that's been sitting there sort of trembling in my mind for a long time now, I must just steel myself and put it down on paper), and so I was delighted by a number of Robb's revelations about Balzac, really the whole piece is rather enchanting:

The most revealing letters are the earliest, especially those that he wrote to his sister Laure when he was living in a little room in the east of Paris, trying to turn himself into a writer. They show the twenty-year-old Balzac in the boiler room of his literary career, wrestling with an unwieldy five-act tragedy on the subject of Cromwell, in desperate need of an instruction manual: “A verse tragedy ordinarily contains two thousand lines, which calls for between 8 and 10,000 thoughts, not counting those required by ideas, plot, character”, etc. A few days later, he decided to write the whole play in one go, and then to “colour it in” later on. All he needed now was some genius: “If there’s any for sale in Villeparisis, buy me as much as you can”.

And it ends with a warning to the maniacally workaholic among us, about the state of Balzac's health "[s]ixteen years after setting out on the road to glory and riches":

... his Herculean labours were taking their toll. His hair was turning white and falling out “by the handful”. He was suffering from back pains and dizzy spells. Sometimes he fell into a stupor, and even his special blend of coffee failed to reactivate his brain.

I need a special blend of coffee to reactivate my brain!


  1. I love reading "the letters of..." I have a particular favorite: The Letters of James Wright" I also love Hemingway's letters. Great blog!!

  2. Yes, literary letters are one of the great reading pleasure, I could not agree more; I don't know James Wright's at all, will totally check em out, thanks...