“Black Coffee”

 

Let us take a day in Balzac’s working life, a day typical of thousands.

Eight o’clock in the evening. The citizens of Paris have long since finished their day’s work and left their offices, shops, or factories. After having dined either with their families, or their friends, or alone, they were beginning to pour out into the streets in search of pleasure. Some strolled along the boulevards or sat in cafés, others were still putting the finishing touches to their toilet before the mirror prior to a visit to the theater or a salon. Balzac alone was asleep in his darkened room, dead to the world after sixteen or seventeen hours spent at his desk.

Nine o’clock. In the theaters the curtain had already gone up, the ballrooms were crowded with whirling couples, the gambling-houses echoed to the chink of gold, in ‘the side streets furtive lovers pressed deeper into the shadows-but Balzac slept on.

Ten o’clock. Here and there lights were being extinguished in houses, the older generation was thinking of bed, fewer carriages could be heard rolling over the cobbles, the voices of the city grew softer–and Balzac slept.

Eleven o’clock. The final curtain was falling in the theaters, the last guests were turning homeward, from the parties or salons, the restaurants were dimming their lights, the last pedestrians were dis­appearing from the streets, the boulevards were emptying as a final wave of noisy revelers disappeared into the side streets and trickled away–and Balzac slept on.

Midnight. Paris was silent. Millions of eyes had closed. Most of the lights had gone out. Now that the others were resting it was time for Balzac to work. Now that the others were dreaming it was time for him to wake. Now that the day was ended for the rest of Paris his day was about to begin. No one could come to disturb him, no visitors to bother him, no letters to cause him disquiet. No creditors could knock at his door and no printers send their messengers to insist on a further installment of manuscript or corrected proofs. A vast stretch of time, eight to ten hours of perfect solitude, lay before him in which to work at his vast undertaking. Just as the furnace which fuses the cold, brittle ore into infrangible steel must not be allowed to cool down, so he knew that the tensity of his vision must not be allowed to slacken: “My thoughts must drip from my brow like water from a fountain. The process is entirely unconscious.”

He recognized only the law which his work decreed: “It is impos­sible for me to work when I have to break off and go out. I never work merely for one or two hours at a stretch.” It was only at night, when time was boundless and undivided, that continuity was possible, and in order to obtain this continuity of work he reversed the normal division of time and turned his night into day.

Awakened by his servant knocking gently on the door, Balzac rose and donned his robe. This was the garment which he had found by years of experience to be the most convenient for his work. In winter it was of warm cashmere, in summer of thin linen, long and white, permitting complete freedom of movement, open at the neck, provid­ing adequate warmth without being oppressive, and perhaps a further reason why he had chosen it was· because its resemblance to a monk’s robe unconsciously reminded him that he was in service to a higher law and bound, so long as he wore it, to abjure the outside world and its temptations. b woven cord (later replaced by a golden chain) was tied loosely round this monkish garment, and in place of crucifix and scapular there dangled a paper-knife and a pair of scissors. After taking a few steps up and down the room to shake the last vestiges of sleep from his mind and send the blood circulating more swiftly through his veins, Balzac was ready.

The servant had kindled the six candles in the silver candelabra on the table and drawn the curtains tightly as if this were a visible symbol that the outer world was now completely shut off, for Balzac did not want to measure his hours of work by the sun or the stars. He did not care to see the dawn or to know that Paris was waking to a new day. The material objects around him faded into the shadows -the books ranged along the walls, the walls themselves, the doors and windows and all that lay beyond them. Only the creatures of his own mind were to speak and act and live. He was creating a world of his own, a world that was to endure.

Balzac sat down at the table where, as he said, “I cast my life into the crucible as the alchemist casts his gold.” It was a small, unpre­tentious, rectangular table which he loved more than the most valu­able of his possessions. It meant more to him than his stick that was studded with turquoises, more than the silver plate that he had pur­chased piece by piece, more than his sumptuously bound books, more than the celebrity he had already won, for he had carried it with him from one lodging to another, salvaged it from bankruptcies and catastrophes, rescued it like a soldier dragging a helpless comrade from the turmoil of battle. It was the sole confidant of his keenest pleasure and his bitterest grief, the sole silent witness of his real life: “It has seen all my wretchedness, knows all my plans, has overheard my thoughts. My arm almost committed violent assault upon it as my pen raced along the sheets.” No human being knew so much about him, and with no woman did he share so many nights of ardent companionship. It was at this table that Balzac lived-and worked himself to death.

A last look round to make sure that everything was in place. Like every truly fanatical worker, Balzac was pedantic in his method of work. He loved his tools as a soldier loves his weapons, and before he flung himself into the fray he had to know that they were ready to his hand. To his left lay the neat piles of blank paper. The paper had been carefully chosen and the sheets were of a special size and shape, of a slightly bluish tinge so as not to dazzle or tire the eyes and with a particularly smooth surface over which his quill could skim without resistance. His pens had been prepared with equal care. He would use no other than ravens’ quills. Net to the inkwell–not the expensive one of malachite that had been a gift from some admirers, but the simple one that had accompanied him in his student days–stood a bottle or two of ink in reserve. He would have no precaution neglected that would serve to insure the smooth, uninterrupted flow of his work. To his right lay a small notebook in which he now and then entered some thought or idea that might come in useful for a later chapter. There was no other equipment. Books, papers, research material were all unnecessary. Balzac had digested everything in his mind before he began to write.

He leaned back in his chair and rolled back the sleeve of his robe to allow free play to his right hand. Then he spurred himself on with half-jesting remarks addressed to himself, like a coachman encouraging his horses to pull on the shafts. Or he might have been compared to a swimmer stretching his arms and easing his joints before taking the steep plunge from the diving-board.

Balzac wrote and wrote, without pause and without hesitation. Once the flame of his imagination was kindled it continued to glow. It was like a forest foe, the blaze leaping from tree to tree and growing hotter and more voracious in the process. Swiftly as his pen sped over the paper, the words could hardly keep pace with his thoughts. The more he wrote the more he abbreviated the words so as not to have to think more slowly. He could not allow any inter­ruption of his inner vision, and he did not raise his pen from the paper until either an attack of cramp compelled his fingers to loosen their hold or the writing swam before his eyes and he was dizzy with fatigue.

The streets were silent and the only sound in the room was the soft swish of the quill as it passed smoothly over the surface of the paper or from time to time the rustle of a sheet as it was added to the written pile. Outside the day was beginning to dawn, but Balzac did not see it. His day was the small circle of light cast by the candles, and he was aware of neither space nor time, but only of the world that he was himself fashioning.

Now and then the machine threatened to run down. Even the most immeasurable will-power cannot prolong indefinitely the natural measure of a man’s physical strength. After five or six hours of con­tinuous writing Balzac felt that he must call a temporary halt. His fingers had grown numb, his eyes were beginning to water, his back hurt, his temples throbbed, and his nerves could no longer bear the strain. Another man would have been content with what he had already done and would have stopped work for the night, but Balzac refused to yield. The horse must run the allotted course even if it foundered under the spur. If the sluggish carcass declined to keep up the pace recourse must be had to the whip. Balzac rose from his chair and went over to the table on which stood the coffee pot.

Coffee was the black oil that started the engine running again; for Balzac it was more important than eating or sleeping. He hated tobacco, which could not stimulate him to the pitch necessary for the intensity with which he worked. “Tobacco is injurious to the body, attacks the mind, and makes whole nations dull-witted,” but he sang a paean in praise of coffee:

“Coffee glides down into one’s stomach and sets everything in motion. One’s ideas advance in column of route like battalions of the Grande Armée. Memories come up at the double bearing the standards which are to lead the troops into battle. The light cavalry deploys at the gallop. The artillery of logic thunders along with its supply wagons and shells. Brilliant notions join in the combat as sharpshooters. The characters don their costumes, the paper is covered with ink, the battle has begun and ends with an outpouring of black fluid like a real battlefield enveloped in swathes of black smoke from the expended gunpowder.”

Without coffee he could not work, or at least he could not have worked in the way he did. In addition to paper and pens he took with him everywhere as an indispensable article of equipment the coffee-machine, which was no less important to him than his table or his white robe. He rarely allowed anybody else to prepare his coffee since nobody else would have prepared the stimulating poison in such strength and blackness. And just as in a sort of superstitious fetishism he would use only a particular kind of paper and a certain type of pen, so he mixed his coffee according to a special recipe, which has been recorded by one of his friends: “This coffee was composed of three different varieties of bean-Bourbon, Martinique, and Mocha. He bought the Bourbon in the rue de Montblanc, the Martinique in the rue des Vieilles Audriettes, and the Mocha in the Faubourg St. Germain from a dealer in the rue de l’Université whose name I have forgotten though 1 repeatedly accompanied Balzac on his shopping expeditions. Each time it involved half a day’s journey right across Paris, but to Balzac good coffee was worth the trouble.”

Coffee was his hashish, and since like every drug it had to be taken in continually stronger doses if it was to maintain its effect, he had to swallow more and more of the murderous elixir to keep pace with the increasing strain on his nerves. Of one of his books he said that it had been finished only with the help of “streams of coffee.” In 1845, after nearly twenty years of overindulgence, he admitted that his whole organism had been poisoned by incessant recourse to the stimulant and complained that it was growing less and less effective, and that it caused him dreadful pains in the stomach. If his fifty thousand cups of strong coffee (which is the number he is estimated to have drunk by a certain statistician) accelerated the writing of the vast cycle of the Comédie humaine, they were also responsible for the premature failure of a heart that was originally as sound as a bell. Dr. Nacquart, his lifelong friend and physician, certified as the real cause of his death “an old heart trouble, aggravated by working at night and the use, or rather abuse, of coffee, to which he had to have recourse in order to combat the normal human need for sleep.”

The clock struck eight at last and there came a tap at the door. His servant, Auguste, entered with a modest breakfast on a tray. Balzac rose from the table where he had been writing since midnight. The time had come for a brief rest. Auguste drew back the curtains, and Balzac stepped to the window to glance at the city which he had set out to conquer. He again became conscious that there was another world and another Paris, a Paris that was beginning its work now that his own labors had for the time being come to an end. Shops were opening, children were hastening to school, carriages were rolling along the streets, in offices and counting-houses men were sitting down at their desks.

To relax his exhausted body and refresh himself for the further tasks that awaited him, Balzac took a hot bath. …

 

— Stefan Zweig, Balzac; translated by William and Dorothy Rose

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts a websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin.
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