(Excerpts from the biography by Stefan Zweig (pub: Cassel-London)
Balzac and Cromwell
One day in the spring of 1819 Balzac suddenly leapt up from his stool in the notary’s office. Laying aside files open at his desk he abandoned the idea of working his way up and he was resolved not to enter any of the bourgeois professions. His future as he saw lay in literature. He was determined to become an author and by virtue of his masterpieces to achieve independence, wealth and fame.
This decision could not have come at a more inopportune time. The family fortunes were at its low what with the Balzac Sr’s salary of 8000 fr put into speculative undertakings and was going badly. The family was reduced to live on a measly pension in lieu of the salary that was tied up against his ventures. If his parents thought to have him off their hands for good he made the startling announcement not only he wanted to become an author but that he expected his parents to finance him in his ‘idleness.’
Balzac’s parents rallied to their support all friends and relations and they tried to make him change but to no avail. After a hard struggle lasting for days they reached a typically bourgeois compromise. The family agreed to subsidize Honore’s questionable talent for not less than two years and if he had not become a great and famous author by then he would have to return to the notary’s stool. After carefully working out a minimum standard of living the parents bound themselves to pay 120 francs per month during his ‘voyage in search of immortality.’
Under the pretext of looking after his welfare his mother accompanied him to Paris. She helped him to rent a room at 9 rue Les diguières, a dismal garret with its dirty yellow walls that reeked of misery and was icy cold in winter and scorching in summer. The lodging cost him 3 sous a day and the dismal view from his garret over the grey roofs of Paris would have wilted anyone other than Balzac.
The only consolation that allowed him was a practical one. He had to buy his bread, fruits and coffee which was the indispensable stimulant for his overwrought nerves. Such visits afforded him the greatest pleasure and it cost him nothing! He could stroll along the streets studying the denizens in their natural habitat. His library back in his garret, real people he observed and an eye capable of penetrating everything whether thoughts or happenings, these were enough to construct a world of his own.
His genius was vetted by his straitened circumstances and people supplied the stimulus and was a spiritual experience.
Balzac was ready to proclaim his genius by producing in the two year test period with a masterpiece. He was conscious of the force within but had no idea what he is going to write about. “Without genius I am lost!” he seemed to have said on choosing a play, a tragedy in verse, no less!- ‘Cromwell’ as his subject.
Genius he had in abundance but little did he know himself. He had no gift for rhyme and the rigidity of form that the tragedy demanded was against the grain. Worse still he was unfamiliar with the technique of the stage. His genius was like a cataract and to harness the impetuous torrent of ideas and apportion them to characters and make them sound believable required much more than two years. Naturally his first play was a fiasco.