French Obsessions

I think it would be fascinating to study the relationship between all the love we lavish on buildings and the misery we cause human beings in the process. I say this as a resident of a really crappy building which is undergoing extensive renovations. (And also as an occasional viewer of Flip This House, etc.) Now, I know, and anyone else with some spiritual sense knows, that this building I live in can never be rescued from its shabby and outworn aura, no matter how many laundry rooms and fitness centers you squeeze into the basement. But the owners of the building are clearly self-deluding; they want to revise a Danielle Steel novel for a month or so and make it into For Whom the Bell Tolls. The best they can hope for, I think, is a kind of impossible, imaginary, but timely sequel, something like On The Road, SRO Style: 50 Years Later. My wonderful neighbors across the street, off whose dinners I perpetually mooch, did a magnificent imitation of the sort of soul-stripping noises the industrious, masked renovators are making, a kind of keening metal-scraping crashing clumping clustering orgy which takes form not in flesh but in concrete and occurs when orgies should not and when coffee should calmly be poured down your throat like coating balm.

Speaking of orgies and delusions, I have been in, or am in the middle of, or am still embarking upon, a certain Period Of My Life. As Charles Rosen puts it in The Classical Style, “Sonata form could not be defined until it was dead.” And so I am reluctant to define my Period, for fear of killing it. Friend B and I have lavished happy minutes in loud bars towards naming this Period, and have refrained from settling, but the contenders are:

Ballistic for Balzac
Bonkers for Balzac
Balzac Fever, Balzacmania

… and others which are even more juvenile, like nicknames for a literate, but still keg-happy, fraternity. We are open to suggestions.

Yes, my friends, I have been insulted and demeaned for not reading Balzac in the original French across several continents and in the company of many magnificent persons (thank you, Steven Isserlis). I have spilled precious white Bordeaux (at least that is French, right?) trying to prevent theatre directors from knocking over a whole table of drinks with my copy of The Black Sheep. I have fondled Lost Illusions in subway stations while eating Sour Patch Kids, fallen asleep on cliffsides while reading A Harlot High and Low, and giggled over Stefan Zweig’s biography while smelling forbidden apples in train cars. There seems to be no end to my appetite.

What had prevented me from loving him before? I had always had in my mind that horrible accusation of Joyce (no fact-checker here, am I getting this right?): that the main character in all of Balzac’s novels is the 20-franc piece. But somehow the constant rain and drought of money does not currently depress me. There are far worse flaws in Balzac than moneygrubbing, and somehow, paradoxically, bracingly, the eternal spinning out of control and spiraling down the drain of so many of his characters is life-affirming.

So, as my friend E can tell you, this Ballistic for Balzac period has birthed its own buoyant catchphrase:

That is SO Balzac.

I say it 5 to 7 times a day. It is amazing how often peremptory flashes of Balzacitude hit you in everyday life, once you have surrendered to him/them. For instance, a friend of mine, a very gifted composer, was lamenting a typical composer’s lament, that he didn’t know exactly how he was going to proceed with a certain piece, and then, with melancholy droop to his gaze, he outlined a sort of “cynical” or usual way he might go about writing an effective piece for the occasion. I was listening, with sober sympathy. We were huddled on a bench in a bar, surrounded by young, hip theatre people in the East Village (natch). It was nearly impossible to hear. A canister of barbecued crickets, brought from Thailand, sat on the table next to us (along with my copy of The Black Sheep). Our host had implored us each, upon arrival, to compose a scatological dissertation on what these barbecued crickets might taste like… (I can’t say more.) The candlelight, the free-flowing wine, the clusters of animated intelligent 20-and-30-somethings around us, their hijinks, ironies, and methods, the whole drunken yet guarded milieu, the arrival of a playwright who described his upcoming satirical play, various sexual tensions and boredoms huddling in various corners and behind glittering eyes, but most of all my friend’s account of composing a piece: it all called inevitably to mind this passage from Lost Illusions, where Lousteau, amid Parisian hubbub, counsels young, impressionable Lucien how to write an attack piece on a novel he actually deeply admires:

“You must turn its beauties into faults…

In the first place, you begin by saying that you consider the book a fine piece of work, and you can amuse yourself by writing what you really think about it. The reader will think to himself, ‘This critic is not jealous, he must be impartial.’ …

Here you digress, for the benefit of the bourgeois reader, into a eulogy of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Buffon. You go on to explain that the French language is ruthlessly exacting and prove that it is like a varnish spread over thought. You let fall a few axioms like, ‘a great writer in France is always a great man, for he is held within bounds by a language that compels him to think; this is not so in other countries’—and so on …

Once on that ground, you can put in a brief summary, for the benefit of the ignorant, of the principles of our men of genius during the last century, and call their works the ‘literature of ideas.’ Armed with that phrase, you hurl all the illustrious dead at the heads of living authors. And then you explain that nowadays a new literature is growing up that relies upon dialogue (the easiest of all literary forms) and descriptions, that dispense with the necessity for thought. You contrast the novels of Voltaire, Diderot, Sterne and Le Sage, so trenchant, so compact, with the modern novel that consists of nothing but descriptions, so dear to Walter Scott. In such a genre there is scope for invention, but for little else. ‘The novels of Walter Scott are a literary fashion, but not a literary style,’ you will say. You proceed to fulminate against this lamentable fashion, in which ideas are diluted, and beaten thin, a style easily imitated by anyone …

Then you allow the weight of this argument to descend upon Nathan, showing that he is an imitator, who has only an appearance of talent … you proceed to prove that instead of giving us ideas the author has given us events. Action is not life, and pictures are not ideas! Be liberal with phrases like that, and the public will repeat them.

… don’t forget to say in conclusion that you regret that Nathan, a writer from whom contemporary literature may expect great things if he mends his ways, should have fallen into this mistake.”

Lucien was dumbfounded as he listened to Lousteau; as the journalist talked, the scales fell from his eyes, and he realized literary truths that he had not so much as suspected

“But everything that you have just said is full of good sense and perfectly true!” he said.

“If it were not, how could you hope to batter a breach in Nathan’s book?” said Lousteau. “Listen to me, my boy; that is the first type of article that is used for the purpose of demolishing a book—the pick-axe method. But there are plenty of other formulae—you will learn them in time.”

An extended quote, my apologies. And yet it is wonderful, isn’t it? This is Lucien taking his bite of the forbidden apple of Parisian journalism of the 1830s: a moment of truth from which he will never recover, after which his life will be irrevocably spoiled, a careening wreck. This is Balzac painting cynicism cynically, immersing us in pools and layers of deceptive truths, setting us down amid the endless facades of the world, dubbing this hall of mirrors “reality,” and not promising a way out.

My love for Balzac is getting out of control, it’s not site-specific, it’s totally all over the place! Yesterday I happened to be playing a concert in Beacon, New York, in the wonderful but sleepy Howland Cultural Center, and friend E was there. I don’t even remember what triggered it—some description of some weird people in the antique shop, some frosty woman and her snippy personal shopper—but I said it again (“it’s SO Balzac”) and she started laughing in this wonderful way, and indeed there was a pretty ridiculous distance from this small town in the Hudson Valley and its community arts center to Paris in the glories of the 1830s. And yet good old crazy Balzac was there, I felt sure, even in the quaint, countrified Little Pie Shop, where a woman with bulging eyes was gazing at an innocent, checkered wall as if it were her mortal enemy.

I have a great idea. I will launch a therapeutic practice. People will come in and tell me their problems. No matter what their problems are, I will say, “that’s SO Balzac.” I will pull a book off the shelf and we will read the corresponding passage, and commiserate, and laugh, and say isn’t that the way the world works, and keep reading until the end even though we have other appointments and things to do which all fall disastrously by the wayside. My secretary will embezzle all the money. The success of the venture depends entirely on my assumption that most people haven’t read that much of him, and don’t know how his characters typically end up. (He’s no Oprah; he’s light on healing.) In other words—like the renovation of my building—this whole therapeutic enterprise is deluded, a ridiculous scheme with a flaw in the foundation. Need I even say it? That’s SO …

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  1. Posted October 15, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Bustin’ out with Balzac. Append a “yo,” to the end if you feel like it.

  2. Posted October 15, 2007 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    May I humbly suggest Ballz Out for Balzac?

  3. brent
    Posted October 15, 2007 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Not Prozac, Balzac!!

    Favorite Balzac quote: Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you solitude is fine.

  4. Posted October 20, 2007 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Is “Batshit for Balzac” too on-the-nose?

  5. vera
    Posted October 22, 2007 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant post. I have never read Balzac at all, because of prejudices similar to the one you mentioned, but now I will *have* to – all of him, probably. The internet will be alarmed, then jealous, then resentful, then forget about me completely. Thanks a lot, you just ate my slacker time for a year or so.

  6. Posted October 28, 2007 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    What a pleasure to know that there’s another musical Balzaholic around!

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