The text of this essay, which first appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette for 13 September 1886, comes from David Price’s Project Gutenberg online version [eBook #30191] of A Critic in Pall Mall. In transcribing the following text I have reformatted it in accordance with the Victorian Web’s HTML style sheet and added links to material on this site. — George P. Landow
Many years ago, in a number of All the Year Round, Charles Dickens complained that Balzac was very little read in England, and although since then the public has become more familiar with the great masterpieces of French fiction, still it may be doubted whether the Comédie Humaine is at all appreciated or understood by the general run of novel readers. It is really the greatest monument that literature has produced in our century, and M. Taine hardly exaggerates when he says that, after Shakespeare, Balzac is our most important magazine of documents on human nature. Balzac’s aim, in fact, was to do for humanity what Buffon had done for the animal creation. As the naturalist studied lions and tigers, so the novelist studied men and women. Yet he was no mere reporter. Photography and procès-verbal were not the essentials of his method. Observation gave him the facts of life, but his genius converted facts into truths, and truths into truth. He was, in a word, a marvellous combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit. The latter he bequeathed to his disciples; the former was entirely his own. The distinction between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and such a book as Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the distinction between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality. ‘All Balzac’s characters,’ said Baudelaire, ‘are gifted with the same ardour of life that animated himself. All his fictions are as deeply coloured as dreams. Every mind is a weapon loaded to the muzzle with will. The very scullions have genius.’ He was, of course, accused of being immoral. Few writers who deal directly with life escape that charge. His answer to the accusation was characteristic and conclusive. ‘Whoever contributes his stone to the edifice of ideas,’ he wrote, ‘whoever proclaims an abuse, whoever sets his mark upon an evil to be abolished, always passes for immoral. If you are true in your portraits, if, by dint of daily and nightly toil, you succeed in writing the most difficult language in the world, the word immoral is thrown in your face.’ The morals of the personages of the Comédie Humaine are simply the morals of the world around us. They are part of the artist’s subject-matter; they are not part of his method. If there be any need of censure it is to life, not to literature, that it should be given. Balzac, besides, is essentially universal. He sees life from every point of view. He has no preferences and no prejudices. He does not try to prove anything. He feels that the spectacle of life contains its own secret. ‘Il crée un monde et se tait.’
And what a world it is! What a panorama of passions! What a pell-mell of men and women! It was said of Trollope that he increased the number of our acquaintances without adding to our visiting list; but after the Comédie Humaine one begins to believe that the only real people are the people who never existed. Lucien de Rubempré, le Père Goriot, Ursule Mirouët, Marguerite Claës, the Baron Hulot, Madame Marneffe, le Cousin Pons, De Marsay — all bring with them a kind of contagious illusion of life. They have a fierce vitality about them: their existence is fervent and fiery-coloured; we not merely feel for them but we see them — they dominate our fancy and defy scepticism. A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. Who would care to go out to an evening party to meet Tomkins, the friend of one’s boyhood, when one can sit at home with Lucien de Rubempré? It is pleasanter to have the entrée to Balzac’s society than to receive cards from all the duchesses in Mayfair.
In spite of this, there are many people who have declared the Comédie Humaine to be indigestible. Perhaps it is: but then what about truffles? Balzac’s publisher refused to be disturbed by any such criticism as that. ‘Indigestible, is it?’ he exclaimed with what, for a publisher, was rare good sense. ‘Well, I should hope so; who ever thinks of a dinner that isn’t?’
Wilde, Oscar. A Critic in Pall Mall; Being Extracts from Reviews and Miscellanies by Oscar Wilde. Ed. E. V. Lucas. London: Methuen, 1919. Source of text: Project Gutenberg eBook #30191 release date October 6, 2009 transcribed by by David Price.
Last modified 14 February 2019