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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Maximus: A Life

  Graham Robb's enthralling biography of  Balzac (1994) unspools a narrative as picaresque, improbable and multitudinous as any of its subject's novels. If, as Oscar Wilde suggested, Balzac "created life...he did not copy it", he was perhaps his own vividest character: a maximalist on every level, from his girth to his unstoppable profligacy, he seemed to compress several existences and careers into a hectic life characterised by spectacular peaks and troughs - the wonder was he died at only 51. Robb (also author of a superlative biography of Rimbaud ) writes with a finely-seasoned balance between admiration and bathos, often wryly deprecating the hubris of Balzac at his most grandiloquent and conversely showing him in a favourable light when he seems most absurd or close to failure. He's also particularly adept at locating Balzac within his historical context, demonstrating how profoundly he was "both the embodiment of his age and its most revealing exception".
   But it's Balzac's extraordinary work-rate which most dizzies the reader: La Comedie Humaine, a vast cycle of intersecting novels, stories and other prose-works, comprises over 100 volumes and was only begun in his thirties. Like several of his heroes, Balzac transcended his beginnings as the penniless Romantic outcast immured in a Parisian garret and transformed himself through a hypertrophied, over-caffineated version of what Yeats calls "sedentary toil" into the archetype of the Realist observer and chronicler of society, with the ongoing irony (never lost on Balzac himself) that much of the time he was writing to pay off debts incurred by his very explorations into that society.
    Examples of writers whose work has suffered from being produced out of financial necessity could easily be enumerated: closer to our time Julian Maclaren-Ross, a brilliantly promising stylist when he emerged in the 1940s, failed to fulfill anything like his true potential in the midst of a life hounded by debtors and eventually given over to pot-boilers, journalism and scraping together advances on never-to-be-completed books. (Another excellent biog. I've been reading, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willetts, relates Maclaren-Ross's story with a louche, murky gusto worthy of its subject.)
    That Balzac - unlike Maclaren-Ross - was able to weigh the demands of a commercially-marketable prolificness (in this aspect more comparable to Dickens than ,say, Flaubert) with a high standard of artistic integrity in the majority of what he wrote attests to his status as one of the seminal masters of the 19th C novel. How few of us can hope to even read the whole of La Comedie Humaine, let alone begin to match his achievement on a writerly level?
                                                        
                                         
Julian Maclaren-Ross
                                  

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