After Leonardo’s portrait discovered in 2009, and the imminent conclusion about what may be the remains of Mona Lisa, this is probably the next most important artistic discovery of the last few years. In France, a dedicated bibliophile Gérard Lhéritier, collector and founder of the Musée des lettres et manuscrits, has found the inedited manuscript, entitled Pensées, Sujets, Fragments, in the collection of Jacques Crépet, the most recent student of Balzac’s work. The manuscript contains notes, sketches, and phrases that had later found their way into the opus magnus of the celebrated French author – The Human Comedy by Honoré de Balzac. Mohammed Aissaoui reports.
I read Balzac’s biography by André Maurois, while still at school. Maurois, himself a great writer, has composed a powerful portrait of one of the greatest men-of-letters. His Balzac was a humorous chap, who dedicated himself entirely to his trade, spending days and nights in the attic, drinking extra-strong coffee to keep himself from sleeping, consumed by producing the most ambitious work literature has seen since the days of Dante, perhaps: a 140-pieces cycle of novels and novellas, under the common title La Comédie humaine. Out of those planned, Balzac managed to complete 90 different pieces in his lifetime, if my memory doesn’t fail me.
Maurois mentions the notepad with all the sketches, notes, and plans. Now we can see that it does contain a lot of information, written in the most tiny handwriting, to save the paper. 56 pages are covered with black, violet, and sepia ink. For instance, here is the plan for Father Goriot: “A brave man – boarding house – 600 francs of rent – gave everything to his daughters who both have 50,000 francs of pension – is dying like a dog”. And this phrase eventually found its way into The Shagreen Skin (The Magic Skin): “Sometimes a crime may be a whole romance” (“Un grand crime, c’est quelquefois un poème“).
Apart from the literary notes, the notepad contains house plans, the list of names, checklists, and even sketches. Without a doubt, we now have one of the valuable insights into the artist’s “kitchen”, or “study”. It should be an inspiration to many of us.