Sunday, May 25, 2014


Balzac's Lost Illusions contains some advice for writers. I was referred to Balzac's classic by Nassim Taleb who used Lost Illusions to explain the concept of "silent evidence" in The Black Swan.

Here are a few of the prescriptions for writers: of genius had neither brother or sister, father nor mother; the great works that it is their task to create impose upon them what seems like egoism, oblige them to sacrifice everything to their own greatness. If at first the family must suffer from the exalting absorption of a great brain, later it will reap a hundred fold reward for the many and various sacrifices demanded by the first struggles of shacked nobility and share in the fruits of victory...Bernard Palissy, of Louis XI, Fox, Napoleon, Christopher Columbus, Cesar, all those illustrious gamblers who started life crippled with debts, or as poor men, not understood, regarded as mad, bad sons, bad fathers, bad brothers, but who later became the pride of their family, of the country, of the world. (59-60)

He wants the harvest without the toil...

...time is the capital of those whose intelligence is their only fortune...
Now literary success can only be won in solitude, by persevering labour. 
...a taste for luxury, a contempt for our quiet way of life; a love of pleasure and his natural tendency to idleness-the bane of poetic souls. 

Take refuge in some attic and write masterpieces, make yourself powerful in any way you will, and you will soon see the world at your feet...

If the present is cold and bare and poverty-stricken, the blue distant future is rich and splendid; most great men have known the vicissitudes which depress but cannot overwhelm me. Plautus, the great comic Latin poet, was once a miller's lad. Machiavelli wrote The Prince at night, and by day was a common working-man like any one else; and more than all, the great Cervantes, who lost an arm at the battle of Lepanto, and helped to win that famous day, was called a 'base-born, handless dotard' by the scribblers of his day; there was an interval of ten years between the appearance of the first part and the second of his sublime Don Quixote for lack of a publisher. 

He spent his mornings in studying history at the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve. His very first researches made him aware of frightful errors in the memoirs of The Archer of Charles IX. When the library closed, he went back to his damp, chilly room to correct his work, cutting out whole chapters and piecing it together anew. And after dining at Flicoteaux's, he went down to the Passage du Commerce to see the newspapers at Blosse's reading-room, as well as new books and magazines and poetry, so as to keep himself informed of the movements of the day. And when, towards midnight, he returned to his wretched lodgings, he had used neither fuel nor candle-light. His reading in those days made such an enormous change in his ideas, that he revised the volume of flower-sonnets, his beloved Marguerites, working them over to such purpose, that scarce a hundred lines of the original verses were allowed to stand. 

After all, a novel in a drawer is not like a horse in a stable-it does not eat bread. But it won't provide you with any either, and that's a fact. 

"Your story is mine, monsieur, and the story of ten or twelve hundred young fellows besides who come from the country to Paris every year. There are others even worse off than we are. Do you see that theatre?" he continued, indicating the turrets of the Odeon. "There came one day to lodge in one of the houses in the square a man of talent who had fallen into the lowest depths of poverty. He was married, in addition to the misfortunes which we share with him, to a wife whom he loved; and the poorer or the richer, as you will, by two children. He was burdened with debt, but he put his faith in his pen. He took a comedy in five acts to the Odeon; the comedy was accepted, the management arranged to bring it out, the actors learned their parts, the stage manager urged on the rehearsals. Five several bits of luck, five dramas to be performed in real life, and far harder tasks than the writing of a five-act play. The poor author lodged in a garret; you can see the place from here. He drained his last resources to live until the first representation; his wife pawned her clothes, they all lived on dry bread. On the day of the final rehearsal, the household owed fifty francs in the Quarter to the baker, the milkwoman, and the porter. The author had only the strictly necessary clothes—a coat, a shirt, trousers, a waistcoat, and a pair of boots. He felt sure of his success; he kissed his wife. The end of their troubles was at hand. 'At last! There is nothing against us now,' cried he.—'Yes, there is fire,' said his wife; 'look, the Odeon is on fire!'—The Odeon was on fire, monsieur. So do not you complain. You have clothes, you have neither wife nor child, you have a hundred and twenty francs for emergencies in your pocket, and you owe no one a penny.—Well, the piece went through a hundred and fifty representations at the Theatre Louvois. The King allowed the author a pension. 'Genius is patience,' as Buffon said. And patience after all is a man's nearest approach to Nature's processes of creation. What is Art, monsieur, but Nature concentrated?"

"There is no cheap route to greatness," Daniel went on in his kind voice. "The works of Genius are watered with tears. The gift that is in you, like an existence in the physical world, passes through childhood and its maladies. Nature sweeps away sickly or deformed creatures, and Society rejects an imperfectly developed talent. Any man who means to rise above the rest must make ready for a struggle and be undaunted by difficulties. A great writer is a martyr who does not die; that is all.—There is the stamp of genius on your forehead," d'Arthez continued, enveloping Lucien by a glance; "but unless you have within you the will of genius, unless you are gifted with angelic patience, unless, no matter how far the freaks of Fate have set you from your destined goal, you can find the way to your Infinite as the turtles in the Indies find their way to the ocean, you had better give up at once."

The rare talent, already matured by thought and by a critical habit of mind, a talent developed in solitude, not for publication, but for himself alone and for no other, had suddenly opened for the poet from the provinces a door into the most magnificent palaces of imagination. 

Read Goethe's Tasso, the great master's greatest work, and you will see how the poet-hero loved gorgeous stuffs and banquets and triumph and applause. Very well, be Tasso without his folly. Perhaps the world and its pleasures tempt you? Stay with us. Carry all the cravings of vanity into the world of imagination. Transpose folly. Keep virtue for daily wear, and let imagination run riot, instead of doing, as d'Arthez says, thinking high thoughts and living beneath them." (230)

There are a number of other prescriptions for writers in Lost Illusions. If you're a frustrated artist, I recommend the book as an admonishing to keep writing. I propose Kathleen Raine's translation.