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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

vice Presents The People's Lists

HONORÉ DE BALZAC (1799-1850)Balzac, one of the supreme writers of realistic fiction, was, in his own life, a man of gross appetites and pretensions as well as of gargantuan genius and accomplishment
1.12.07

Excerpted from The People’s Almanac by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace HONORÉ DE BALZAC (1799–1850) Balzac, one of the supreme writers of realistic fiction, was, in his own life, a man of gross appetites and pretensions as well as of gargantuan genius and accomplishment. In his novels he could portray the hearts and minds of his fellow middle-class Frenchmen with the accuracy and gusto of a Dickens or a Tolstoy, yet he pretended to be of noble birth. (The addition of the aristocratic particle “de” to his surname was strictly his own idea.) He yearned for wealth, yet when he achieved it, he squandered it and managed to be constantly in debt. In fact, he reached a point when he seemed unable to write during those infrequent periods when creditors were not yapping at his heels. He could abstain from food and drink almost to the point of starvation and then suddenly indulge himself orgiastically in all the delights of the table. A man of many love affairs, he sired three daughters and a son, but he took no interest in them for he found his fictional characters more real than any human being. Even his physique was one of contrasts. Balzac had a noble, leonine head and massive shoulders mounted upon spindly legs. His height was no more than 5' 3". At times he would dress like a dandy, at others like a beggar. Never did Balzac approach life moderately; he always rushed in and seized it. Born in Tours, France, Balzac was the son of a petty official and a pretty heiress. Balzac was never his mother’s favorite, and his childhood, including his schooldays, was miserable. He did, however, gain a great love of literature and a thorough background in the French and English novel. Against its wishes, his family agreed to support him in a Parisian garret while he wrote a tragedy based on the life of Oliver Cromwell. The only thing tragic about it was that it was wretchedly written—and his family told him so. Undaunted, Balzac turned to grinding out slightly pornographic gothic novels. This work sustained him until he became immersed in the masterwork of his life, La Comedié Humaine, a series of interrelated novels and stories. So prodigious was his effort that over a 20-year period he produced 97 works covering 11,000 pages. Among these are such immortal classics as Le Père Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, La Grand Bretèche, and the Droll Stories, whose raciness matches that in the milder “adult” magazine fiction today. A typical day for Balzac was to be awakened at midnight by his servant. He dressed himself in a monk’s robe and then sat at his writing table, where he filled page after page of paper tinted blue so as not to ruin his eyes. When he reached the point of exhaustion, he fortified himself with countless cups of extremely strong black coffee. Not drugs or alcohol but caffeine poisoning is believed to have hastened his death, as if even in overindulgence, Balzac was determined to be different. However, another and more likely cause of Balzac’s death may well have been love, a love that lasted for 17 years but was often impeded by circumstance and distance. In 1832 he received a fan letter from Mme Eveline Hanska, a married Polish noblewoman who possessed great wealth. An ardent exchange of letters ensued, and two years later their love was finally consummated when Mme Hanska, accompanied by her husband, met Balzac in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. She was taken aback by his ridiculous figure and eccentric appearance, while he was utterly captivated by her voluptuous form. And although she willingly took him into her bed, she was extremely reluctant to take him for life. She realized that her spendthrift lover would go through her money as quickly as he had his own, and she was not about to jeopardize her social position or her daughter’s dowry. After her husband’s death, Mme Hanska stalled Balzac for seven years, but finally yielded and married him two months before his death because she pitied him and realized that he had lost his health pursuing her. Back in Paris after their marriage in the Ukraine, Balzac’s condition worsened. On his deathbed he is reputed to have looked at his doctor and cried out, “Send for Bianchon!” For Balzac, his masterwork, La Comedié Humaine, was more real than life—Dr. Bianchon was his own fictional creation. CHARLES DICKENS (1812–1870) At times in the 19th century, vast crowds, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a ship from England, would form on the docks of New York and Philadelphia. What they were waiting for was not an exciting celebrity or a great invention, but the latest installment of a Dickens novel. Perhaps no other novelist before or since, particularly in the English-speaking world, has been able to create and sustain such popular enthusiasm. And no other novelist has received such critical acclaim at all levels, for Dickens appeals to the average reader, the child, and the intellectual alike. There was very little indication in Dickens’s early life of the success to come. His father was a minor official in the Navy Pay Office of Great Britain, who lived beyond his means and fell deeply into debt. Eventually he was sent to debtors’ prison, and his son Charles was forced at age 12 to take a job washing and labeling bottles in a filthy, rat-infested warehouse. So searing was this experience to Dickens that he found it extremely difficult to speak of it in later life (except through the medium of David Copperfield, his autobiographical novel). Dickens could never overcome the shock of his parents’ apparent indifference to his fate. He wrote many years later, “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” And henceforth he was determined to make his life a success. Dickens was eventually freed from the factory and sent to school by his parents. After that he served as a law clerk for a brief time. Because of his self-taught shorthand skill, he became a reporter of parliamentary debates. Everything he learned at work as well as every experience of childhood was stored up to be used in his true vocation, which was about to begin. Dickens wrote and sent a sketch to a monthly magazine, but he was so shy about it that he told no one and mailed his effort in the dead of night. So successful were his early pieces, for which he received nothing, that Dickens was asked to provide the text that was to accompany some sporting scenes. These rapidly were turned into the famous Pickwick Papers, an enormous hit with the public. Dickens never suffered the loss of popular acclaim. Dickens’s output was prodigious. Such novels as Oliver Twist, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol poured forth from his pen. He traveled extensively and enjoyed parties and amateur theatricals. He lent his name and abilities to such causes as prison reform and education for poor children. He never forgot his distrust of the “Establishment,” whose injustices he had witnessed as a court reporter, and his experience as a lad whose only crime was being poor. In the last years of his life, Dickens had enough energy to build a second career for himself. In England, crowds swarmed into the theaters to hear him read such horrifying scenes as the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. In America, people paid the then-enormous sum of $3 just to attend one of his readings. By Victorian standards, Dickens’s private life was unusual. He formed deep attachments with two of his wife’s sisters, who had come to live in the Dickens household. The first was Mary Hogarth; when she died, Dickens removed a ring from her finger and kept it on his own until he himself died. Her place was taken by her sister Georgina Hogarth, who often acted as Dickens’s hostess and companion in place of his dull wife. However, the truly great love of Dickens’s life was Ellen Ternan, a pretty actress who was young enough to be his daughter. Dickens’s wife refused to let him move out of the family home quietly, so the great defender of hearth and home and teller of Christmas stories was forced to announce their separation publicly. When Dickens died, the whole world mourned. He was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, the highest tribute England can bestow upon one of its writers. One of the most poignant memorials was a cartoon showing his writing desk surrounded by characters from his novels. The chair was empty. HERMAN MELVILLE (1819–1891) Melville’s life is a mystery. No one has satisfactorily explained, although many have tried, why the 32-year-old author of the monumental novel Moby-Dick would for the next 40 years write nothing of consequence. And no one can understand why a hardy seafarer like Melville, who had experienced the delights and hardships of the South Seas both aboard ship and on shore, should spend most of his last 19 years at the humdrum job of customs inspector. Perhaps the answer lies in Melville’s early background. Descended from old American stock, Melville was born in New York, the son of a prosperous dry-goods importer whose business later failed. Melville’s father died when Herman was only 13, and he left his family in a dire financial state. Melville was forced to make his way in the world at an early age. He was mortified at his family’s loss of stature, and the remainder of his life seemed to involve a quest for security and inner peace. After halfhearted attempts at being a bank clerk, a teacher, and a cabin boy, Melville finally shipped out to sea on a whaler bound for the South Seas. For the first time the world opened up to him. The beauty and the cruelty of the sea caught him forever in its spell. When his ship reached the Marquesas Islands (now part of French Polynesia), Melville and a companion jumped ship and lived among the pleasure-loving (and cannibalistic) natives. But despite his attachment to an island girl, Melville became homesick and signed on to a passing whaler. This voyage did not last long, for he joined a mutiny and landed in a Tahitian jail—from which he promptly escaped. Melville renewed his wanderings among the islanders and rapidly stored up the knowledge that was to serve him so well in his books. But he still yearned for home and therefore joined the crew of another whaler as a harpooner. He left this ship in Hawaii and shortly thereafter began the last leg of his journey home by joining the crew of a US naval frigate as an able-bodied seaman. When Melville arrived back in America he had everything he needed to inspire six years of magnificent creativity as a novelist. In 1846 appeared Typee, the first of two novels based on Melville’s South Seas experiences. A mixture of fact and highly colored fiction, it was greeted with enthusiasm and outrage. Missionaries were particularly offended by the negative view it presented of their activities, and in later editions Melville was forced to make deletions to soothe their injured feelings. Omoo followed the next year and established the author’s literary reputation, which was further enhanced by the publication of White Jacket. This latter novel fully exposed the cruelty then extant in the US Navy and was the direct cause of the elimination of flogging as a punishment. All this artistic effort culminated in the stunning Moby-Dick. Melville began this book as a mere retelling of old sailors’ yarns about a huge albino whale named Mocha Dick or Moby Dick, but in the process he transformed it into a novel so magnificent that it defies both description and critical analysis. After Pierre appeared in 1852, Melville’s creative energy rapidly dried up. He was now either afraid of or tired of writing. Some poetry, a satire, and a handful of short stories were all that was left in him. His popularity dwindled until he had to publish his last works at his own expense. His brilliant short novel Billy Budd was not published until 33 years after his death. Financial problems pressed in upon him and domestic tragedy marred his life. One son killed himself either accidentally or deliberately, and another ran away from home. Melville repeatedly sought government employment and was greatly relieved when, in 1866, he was appointed a customs inspector in New York City, a job that he held for 19 years. When he died, only one newspaper bothered to publish an obituary. Many years passed before his true greatness was recognized. LEO TOLTOJ (1828–1910) Tolstoy had written in his diary, “My life is some stupid and spiteful joke that someone has played on me.” And now he was dying. His last words were, “This is the end… and it doesn’t really matter.” He died of pneumonia on November 20, 1910. During his long life, Count Leo Tolstoy had been much more than the angry young man who turns novelist in order to change things or to better the condition of the oppressed. He was a tormented man, and his mind was plagued by the things he had done. “I put men to death,” he wrote in his voluminous diary. “I fought duels to slay others, I lost at cards, wasted my substance wrung from the sweat of peasants, punished the latter cruelly, and deceived men. Lying, robbery, drunkenness, violence, murder… all committed by me, not one crime omitted.” In other words, he had done all of the things that people expected young Russian noblemen to do, only he had a conscience and worried about it. These thoughts, combined with his overwhelming fear of dying, drove him to the verge of madness and suicide many times. Tolstoy, the author of what critics have called two great complete pictures of society, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, was born at his mother’s ancestral home, Vasnaya Polyana. His parents had died by the time he was ten, and for much of the next 20 years he roamed the countryside gambling recklessly, drinking to excess, and, as he put it, “rioting with all sorts of loose women.” He contracted syphilis and gonorrhea, and although his many faults (sexual and otherwise) tore at his brain, he never failed to take advantage of an opportunity to carouse when it was offered. Tolstoy’s earliest recollection was of pushing an older woman off the front porch of Vasnaya Polyana for unrequited love. He was five and the “older woman” was ten. This older woman grew up to be the mother of the hotheaded and quarrelsome girl named Sofia whom Tolstoy married on September 23, 1862. Not wishing to hide anything from his new bride, Count Tolstoy promptly showed the new countess his diary, which was filled to the brim with shocking confessions and the sordid details of his wild younger days. He was 34 and she was only 18, but they were married anyway. Seventeen years and 13 children later, Tolstoy was so depressed that he was again seriously considering suicide, but something happened that changed his entire outlook on life. He read the Sermon on the Mount and realized that the teachings of Christ were the key to happy living, and, for Tolstoy, to adopt an opinion was to act. He promptly tried to give his estate to the poor, throw his money to the peasants, and place his published works in the public domain for all the people of the world. His wife, who now had to support their 13 children in addition to hand-copying his manuscripts (War and Peace was copied seven times in its entirety), said no. But that didn’t stop Tolstoy from putting on peasants’ rags and working in the fields every day from sunup to sundown. A conniving leech named Chertkov was drawn to the “new Master Tolstoy” and not only urged him to ignore his wife’s pleadings but suggested that he go even further in his quest for the perfect and happy life. The solution was to give up everything to a deserving peasant… namely Chertkov himself. The gullible Tolstoy drew up a new will leaving his estate to Chertkov. That was the last straw for the already enraged Countess Tolstoy. When Leo caught her foraging through his papers in search of the will, he decided to leave Russia and all of his worries behind him. It was a cold night in October when Tolstoy boarded the overcrowded, poorly heated third-class train for the Russian border. He caught pneumonia and died in a blaze of publicity one month later. When he was five years old, Tolstoy had told his brother that he knew of a secret that would destroy all the evil in men, and the secret was buried under a little green stick near Vasnaya Polyana. His brother buried him under the little green stick near their family home.

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