Balzac, Coffee, Novels, Stories


Balzac was reputed to have drunk fifty cups of coffee a day. He worked continually, though not quickly, since he was obsessed with revision. He was known to rework particular passages many times as one would a poem, perpetually tinkering with individual words and phrases until he felt he could do no better. I’m sure the coffee helped. “Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. Coffee roasts your insides. Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.”

The result of this attention is now obvious. Balzac changed literature by writing with absolute fealty to the real world. His people did not speak in sweeping romantic terms, nor did his heroes win (if there were any heroes to be found at all). He strove to depict life at it was: the small struggles, the petty jealousies, the empty triumph of victory. The first work of his I read was The Wild Ass’s Skin, a slim volume I picked up from a sidewalk book cart for a dollar. In it he wrote of the spring-swollen Seine bearing the corpses of suicides, the bodies sweeping in the fast current beneath the bridges only to be fished out when they came to rest downstream. The narrator pondered if suicide too had a season. It was bleak and unbearably sad, but this observation and the question it provoked in the character told me more about him than a dozen pages of exposition. The power of revision at work. All that was necessary was to show me the character in action.


Balzac getting down with the café in his nightshirt. Click to see the video.

The state coffee puts one in when it is drunk on an empty stomach under these magisterial conditions produces a kind of animation that looks like anger: one’s voice rises, one’s gestures suggest unhealthy impatience: one wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque, ill-tempered about nothing. One actually becomes that fickle character, The Poet, condemned by grocers and their like. One assumes that everyone is equally lucid. A man of spirit must therefore avoid going out in public. I discovered this singular state through a series of accidents that made me lose, without any effort, the ecstasy I had been feeling. Some friends, with whom I had gone out to the country, witnessed me arguing about everything, haranguing with monumental bad faith. The following day I recognized my wrongdoing and we searched the cause. My friends were wise men of the first rank, and we found the problem soon enough: coffee wanted its victim.

I am in the early stages of a complicated novel that entwines the storylines of three very different characters, though not immediately. It is set in the early seventeenth century, so it it crucial to me that I avoid imprinting any modern sensibilities onto these people. After all, in 1600 it was still common for public torture to be viewed as entertainment, so much so that a pardoned criminal might have his contract bought by a merchant or guild so that the torture and execution could still take place and thus not deprive the public of its show. But reading contemporary accounts as well as novels of the period (particularly Robinson Crusoe) I have found that, certain details aside, these people are not so different from their modern counterparts. They still feel confusion and elation, ambition and resentment.

That said, it is necessary to really crawl inside them. My method is usually to imagine the scenario and then write the character reacting to it. After all, the world is random enough in the way things unfold. In this way I hammer out a draft. This time is much harder than in my previous three novels, because I am utilizing the points of view of three very different people with three entirely unlike backgrounds and experiences.  It’s sort of a mess, this first draft, but now I have the confidence that the process of revision will shape it into the sort of story I am trying to tell.

The problem with noveling is that I get so deeply inside the characters and their language that I may neglect to tell an actual story. One way I have been coping with this is to make sure I write two or three flash fiction pieces a week. You’ll notice them here, mostly, though I have more at another site as well as for other small publications like 101 Words.  By doing this, I get to practice revision on a small scale and still spend some time focusing on the primary aspects of a story.  I find that constraints like these can be really helpful.

NaNoWriMo is coming up, too, and that’s a thirty-day stretch that’s all about word count. I have had great success with that in the past, and I hope this year is no exception.


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  1. jimsonweed99

    The Secretary…eating bags of coffee grinds. Didn’t Balzac die of indigestion? Much better read, even in translation, over Henry James, who does much the same “record of life” agenda but digs far, too far, into the internal monologue.
    I read some ragged pulpish looking novel from Del Ray, printed in the sixties, abriged, full of so many short stories. Cant remember the title.
    One of the more abusive myths is that Novels are written by one person…a editor always intervenes, no?

    • J Hardy Carroll

      The editor almost always intervenes indeed. I am sure Balzac had one. The contemporary who reads best of all is Turgenev. His stories still have a freshness that is seldom approached.

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