Tag Archives: Balzac

Tom Wolfe



“Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies”

By Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes

The New York Times

May 15, 2018



An obituary of journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was published in today’s New York Times.

A few thoughts of my own about Wolfe.

I am not that qualified to comment. I was never a big fan his and am not that well acquainted with his works. But, I do know something about writing, and I would like to comment from that angle.

The Times obituary notes: “In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.” It goes on to say, about Wolfe’s best-selling novel (his first) The Bonfire of the Vanities:

Although a runaway best seller, “Bonfire” divided critics into two camps: those who praised its author as a worthy heir of his fictional idols Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Dreiser, and those who dismissed the book as clever journalism, a charge that would dog him throughout his fictional career. [italics added] …

Mr. Wolfe’s fictional ambitions and commercial success earned him enemies — big ones.

“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”

“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.”

Mr. Mailer’s sentiments were echoed by John Updike and John Irving.



I read The Bonfire of the Vanities. I was caught up in it at first, but by the end was getting bored. Wolfe’s characters are stock figures. They are completely uninteresting. They have no humanity. They do not come alive.

A character like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities has no depth or personality. He is meant to merely represent a stereotype, and the same is true of other characters in the book, such as the black youth injured in an auto accident for which McCoy is arrested and a reporter for the New York Post type tabloid. The novel left me feeling, by the end, profoundly unsatisfied and empty.

Wolfe is decidedly not worthy of comparisons to Balzac, Zola, Dickens, or Dreiser, all of whom I have read (though, in the case of Zola, not as much as I would like to have) and admire greatly.

The Times obituary states that “Mr. Wolfe became one of the standard-bearers of the New Journalism, along with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.” It is my opinion that most of them — with the exception of Gay Talese — were seriously overrated. (Breslin could not write.) The reason I would qualify this statement of mine with regard to Gay Talese is that Talese — unlike, say, Didion, and Wolfe — never had pretensions to be anything but a journalist. And, Talese’s nonfiction works were well researched and well written.

The Times obituary states:

Every morning [Wolfe] dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.

“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.

This kind of dedication to writing is impressive. It reminds me of Anthony Trollope, who, as he famously noted in his autobiography, had to do his “allotment” of pages every day. Wolfe’s daily writing routine seems to be what would amount to very good advice for would be writers.

“There is this about Tom,” Byron Dobell, Wolfe’s editor at Esquire magazine, is quoted in the Times obituary as saying. “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”

Balzac did not have the “gift of fluency.” Like Dreiser, he wrote clumsily (but not as badly as Dreiser did). I love Balzac, but not for his style. And, incidentally, Balzac is the polar opposite of Wolfe, in that his characters are completely believable, unforgettable, totally human. I never cared for Tom Wolfe.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 16, 2018

the wrong word?


“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas


I have always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here and have mentioned this now and then to some English professors. No one ever responded. They didn’t care, apparently. Perhaps because they don’t teach Victorian lit, or don’t like A Christmas Carol. (Maybe they find it not worth deconstructing.) Who knows?

I queried family members about this over the past few days. We had the following exchange.



Hi, everyone.

Regarding the above Dickens passage, I always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here. Any thoughts?



My brother wrote back: “With what would you replace it?”



I responded to my brother as follows:

Thanks for the email. To answer you as best I can.

Dickens wrote:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change [by which slang term Dickens meant what we would nowadays call the Stock Exchange], for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. …

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain. …

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the ware-house door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol, Stave I, “Marley’s Ghost”

What I think:

There is nothing in this passage to indicate that Scrooge was immoral, which is how “sinner” is commonly understood. The passage instead conveys, unmistakably, with no other inferences, that Scrooge was a cold fish devoid of human feeling.

We learn throughout the story that Scrooge is uncaring to persons such as his clark, Bob Cratchit; hard edged as a businessman; and feared by his creditors. He lacks the virtue of Christian charity or “fellow feeling,” but he does not appear to have vices normally associated with sinners.

I think better would be:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old ____”




I think “misanthrope” would actually be the best choice.



A conclusion (as I view it)

The following are my thoughts subsequent to the email exchange:

Michael Slater, Charles Dickens’s biographer, describes A Christmas Carol as being “written at white heat.” It was completed in six weeks.

Dickens often wrote hastily, and was always pressured by deadlines (as are most writers).

It has been said that James Joyce (as related by Samuel Beckett, and told in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce) spent a whole day writing and endlessly rewriting a single sentence of Ulysses (not Molly Bloom’s soliloquy).

Dickens, in contrast to perfectionists like Joyce and Flaubert, wrote hastily, without obsessing over niceties of style. He is a great stylist in his own way, I would be inclined to say, but his genius is broader in scope. Another writer who resembles him on a certain level is Balzac, who churned out novel after novel with characters such as Père Goriot invented out of whole cloth who were idiosyncratic and memorable for that reason — yet entirely human (not abstractions or papier-mâché characters), but you can never forget them or put his books down. (They are eminently readable). Yet, Balzac was a careless writer and seemed not to care about style.

What about Dickens? He outranks Balzac in genius and stature. But, he could occasionally be careless.

Which is a comforting thought for other writers, no?

I think I’m right. “Sinner’ was the wrong word here, and it rings false.


— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017

“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. A 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

Obviously, the book (Zweig’s) was brilliantly translated.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  September 2017