Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Honoré de Balzac

The secret life of objects

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The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer—in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals. Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality—Thomas Hardy’s simple steel-tipped pens, each carved with a novel’s name; Shelley’s guitar, presented to Jane Williams; Balzac’s blue china coffee-pot, with its spirit-heater, used through the long nights of Le Père Goriot and Les Illusions Perdues; other writers’ signet rings, worn walking sticks, Coleridge’s annotated books, Stevenson’s flageolet and tortoise-shell “Tusilita” ring. It is as if the act of repeated touching, especially in the process of daily work or creation, imparts a personal “virtue” to an inanimate object, gives it a fetishistic power in the anthropological sense, which is peculiarly impervious to the passage of time. Gautier wrote in a story that the most powerful images of past life in the whole of Pompeii were the brown, circular prints left by drinkers’ glasses on the marble slabs of the second-century taverna.

But this physical presence is none the less extremely deceptive. The material surfaces of life are continually breaking down, sloughing off, changing almost as fast as human skin…The more closely and scrupulously you follow someone’s footsteps through the past the more conscious do you become that they never existed in any one place along the recorded path. You cannot freeze them, you cannot pinpoint them, at any particular turn in the road, bend of the river, view from the window. They are always in motion, carrying their past lives over into the future.

Richard HolmesFootsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

Balzac on the power of coffee

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Statue of Honoré de Balzac by Auguste Rodin

Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale…Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.

Coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive process, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects.

Coffee…reaches the brain by barely perceptible radiations that escape complete analysis: that aside, we may surmise that our primary nervous flux conducts an electricity emitted by coffee when we drink it. Coffee’s power changes over time. “Coffee,” Rossini told me, “is an affair of fifteen or twenty days; just the right amount of time to write an opera.”

Honoré de Balzac

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2015 at 7:24 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2013 at 7:30 am

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My Lady Caffeine

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Buzz Cafe in Oak Park, Illinois

I love coffee. Over the past decade or two, I’ve alternated between seeing it as an occasional treat and regarding it as essential to survival, and at the moment, I’d rank it among one of life’s basic necessities. I’m drinking a cup of it right now, seated a few feet away from the proximate cause of my recent decision to fully embrace caffeine. Every morning, usually between five and six, I’m awakened by a series of coos and squeals from the next room, signaling that my daughter—now five months old—has decided to start her day. If it’s the weekend, I pick her up, change her, and bring her downstairs to the kitchen, which, like the rest of the house, is silent and peaceful in the predawn light coming through the windows facing the yard. After I set her down in her little chair, the first thing I do is boil a kettle of water. Green tea, which for a long time was my beverage of choice, just won’t do. I need something stronger, preferably with cream and sugar, as I set up my laptop on the dining room table and start to contemplate the morning’s work. With my first cup in hand, my head clears and I start to write. And I’m happy.

It’s possible that much of what we think of as modern civilization we owe to coffee, which arrived on the European scene just when it was needed the most. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, gives us nice a sense of the mystique of coffee at the beginning of the seventeenth century:

The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine) so named of a berry as black as soot, and as bitter…which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer; they spend so much time in those coffa-houses, which are somewhat like our ale-houses or taverns; and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience that kind of drink so used helpeth digestion, and procureth alacrity.

This description, which Burton based on the travel notes of the poet Sir George Sandys, remains as true as ever: the primary reason we drink coffee is still to “procure alacrity.” The introduction of coffee into European society created a third place, a social gathering point for ideas to be traded, and it kept us sober during the day for long enough to transact business. Later, it provided necessary fuel for the Industrial Revolution: as Mark Pendergrast observes in his book Uncommon Grounds, early factory workers quickly learned to subsist on coffee and bread, which only shows us how little has changed over the ensuing three centuries.

The author's desk

And it’s possible that coffee also affected the creativity of the culture in more profound ways. J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, wrote a curious little book called My Lady Nicotine, in which he notes that the flowering of culture in the age of Shakespeare coincided with the introduction of tobacco:

The Elizabethan age might be better named the beginning of the smoking era. No unprejudiced person who has given thought to the subject can question the propriety of dividing our history into two periods—the pre-smoking and the smoking…I know, I feel, that with the introduction of tobacco England woke up from a long sleep. Suddenly a new zest had been given to life. The glory of existence became a thing to speak of. Men who had hitherto only concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe into their mouths and became philosophers.

You could say much the same thing about coffee, which turned people into what the pharmacologist Louis Lewin, quoted by Pendergrast, calls “coffee house politicians who drink cup after cup…and by this abuse are inspired to profound wisdom.” Lewin calls the symptoms of caffeine usage “a remarkable loquaciousness sometimes accompanied by accelerated association of ideas,” which sounds about right to me. (It’s also true that the effects of caffeine in such settings are hard to separate from those of nicotine. Pendergrast quotes a contemporary observer of the London coffeehouse: “The whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge.”)

And writers and artists of all kinds—who quickly turned coffee into an essential component of the bohemian life—have long been aware of how deeply coffee affects us, both creatively and in smaller, more human ways. As one of them writes:

Everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop…Forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

Another notes:

I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything—social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.

The former quote is from Balzac; the latter, from Jerry Seinfeld. And it’s my lady caffeine who joins them—and all of us—together, as we enjoy one of the most profound pleasures that life has to offer.

A writer’s routine: Honoré de Balzac

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All writers have heard somewhere or other that Balzac had a horrendous routine. Two weeks to two months were spent on a book. During this time he went to bed after eight after a light dinner with white wine; he awoke and was back at his desk by 2 A.M., where he then wrote until six, drinking coffee from a pot kept permanently on the stove. At six he took a bath for an hour, than drank more coffee until his publisher came with proofs and took away corrected ones from the day before and new manuscript pages. From nine until twelve he wrote again, then breakfasted on eggs and more coffee. From one until six he worked at corrections.

When a book was done he then saw friends or mistresses, or disappeared from sight.

Hallie and Whit Burnett, Fiction Writer’s Handbook

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2011 at 7:36 am

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