Balzac architecte (1856)

By Leon Gozlan

No drawing, nor stone in the ground, remains of the dream house near Paris which the young novelist was never able to complete. By the time Balzac resold the whole property in 1840, with debts of 100,000 francs, it had collapsed back into the landscape, together with the terraced plantations of pineapples with which he had surrounded it. The principal house, occupied then by Balzac’s mistress, later became the retirement retreat of the former Prime Minister, Leon Gambetta.

As a partial record, we have this account by his secretary (from Balzac en Pantoufles, translated here by Susie Dowding).

The two residences where he left the most vivid traces of his life are the little house at Passy in the rue Basse, and Les Jardies, a small, unpromising plot of land that he had bought at Ville-d’Avray – I don’t quite know when – and which cost him so much more than he was accustomed to spend. There isn’t a poem of Indian or Chinese style that contains as many verses as the aggravations that this land at Les Jardies made for Balzac. And one could say that even if he resided, thought and worked there for several years, he never positively lived there. He camped there more than fully living in it. Was this really a proper house, this chalet whose green shutters had never seen the shadow of a chest of drawers, where nothing resembling a curtain had ever been hung? 

(The real house of Les Jardies was the one on the same plot of land, twenty or thirty steps from his own, where habitation was almost possible, where, I don’t know whether wisely he had stored some of his good furniture that he had at rue des Bataillies and his rich library. Mme la Comtesse de V…lived with her family in this dwelling entirely without architectural merit.)

The famous villa of Les Jardies was built by Balzac just opposite this insignificant building. As to the land, it had a fairly dire rustic aspect, and offered so many challenges that one questions the motives for Balzac choosing it. It didn’t just lean towards the main road from Sevres to Ville-d’Avray, it positively fell on it. 

It would, I believe, be difficult for a tree of a certain size to take root on such a steep slope. The painter-decorators of the theatre may be allowed to find it extremely original; but it is wildly antipathetic to the pleasure of walking. The landscape gardeners, under the crazy direction of Balzac spent entire months supporting through the means of small stones, all these successive terraces, that were always inclined to cascade cheerfully one upon the other at the first downpour. I have seen them almost continually occupied in re-establishing these hanging gardens, the new incarnation of those of Semiramis. It was their despair. 

(I will never forget the astonishment of the actor Frederick Lemaitre when he came to Les Jardies to discuss Vautrin. To stop his feet from escaping underneath him, he fixed two stones under his shoes, exactly as one would place under a piece of furniture to steady it on an uneven floor. When he moved off, he took out the stones, kept them in his hand, to carry out the same trick further on. It was one of the most entertaining ruses to observe.) 

Balzac alone kept his calm as the landowner in the midst of these perpetual landslips. He possessed to a supreme degree, that rare quality of seeming to be completely ignorant of everything happening around him. He would have disconcerted a thunderclap. One imagines him unbothered by a site so difficult to cultivate, because of these problems, not offering the luxury of shade to people strolling in the garden. It offered no shade at all. Perhaps it has, since this already far-distant time, increased in stability and vegetation. But, good God! I can only compare it to the slope of the Peak of Tenerife. 

(However, we should mention that one sole tree, an acrobat of a tree, a rather beautiful walnut tree, had managed to gain a foothold on this perilous slope. On a plateau of several metres, it sat in isolated dominon. If we talk of it a little late in the day, it is because it did not always belong to Balzac. The commune of Sevres, by a strange division of land, had retained it from the plot of Jardies. So Balzac possessed Les Jardies, Sevres the walnut tree. This walnut tree is an amusing drama to recount, or moreover a comedy.)

Some lines from the Memoires de Saint-Simon decided Balazac, in search of a rural location, in favour of Les Jadies. In the days when Louis XIV lived at Versailles, the courtiers set up camp around Saint-Cloud, Meudon,  Luciennes, Sevres, and Ville d’Avray, and a thousand other communes neighbouring to or nearly neighbouring to Versailles. Les Jardies grew up then from the perpendicular yellow mud. Then the bad times for the monarchy came, and Les Jardies disappeared. Balzac wanted to restore a bit of the past, possibly imaginary; imaginary at least as regards to the topography. For were Les Jardies really here? I have heard plenty of doubts about this. Sevres and Ville-d’Avray have always denied Balzac Les Jardies: they would only call it ‘the Vines of M. de Balzac’. Whatever may be the case, Balzac had scarcely built the perimeter walls and put in place the entrance gate with double green doors when he had engraved in gold letters on a plaque of black marble underneath the bell: LES JARDIES.

The entrance gate was installed and swinging on its hinges well before the house it was supposed to be defending was erected. The building of this house had long attracted the caustic wit of Parisians, always on the lookout for signs of weakness in a great man. Balzac’s great weakness was in the field of building. It must not be forgotten, not to excuse him, for a taste for building is highly respectable, that it was at that time his only joy, the only means of rest from the travails of the mind with which he burdened himself. It has been claimed that in directing the construction of the pavilion of Les Jardies himself with a ruthless despotism he had forgotten the staircase. As he rejected any advice, any observation, any criticism from an architect or his builders, we have to admit this fact, that he had neglected to order the staircase in the interior equipment of the house, and that one fine day the builders and architects ran to him saying:

Monsieur de Balzac, the house is completed; when would you like us to make the staircase?

There is a second fact here, important enough to deserve an explanation. Balzac dreamt of Les Jardies having spacious square rooms, reflecting the pleasing aspect of the four sides of the façade. Furthermore, in the architect’s plans, this minotaur of a staircase devoured a third of a room here, half of another; it disfigured the drawing created by the poetic pencil of the architect. He tried to reduce it, to twist it, to relegate it to the corners of the building, of a building too precisely designed to offer space; this wretched staircase would spoil everything. The builders threw their plaster in the air, the architect broke the arms of his compass. It was during one of these moments of struggle with the knottiness of the problem, that Balzac must have said to himself: ‘If the staircase wishes to be the master in my own home, I will show the staircase the door.’ Which is what he did. So his apartments spread out without interruption, with no other limits than the four walls; and the staircase was constructed outside against the exterior wall, as punishment for its demanding claims. Balzac could have argued that in Holland and Belgium whole towns are constructed on this simple system, carrying the staircase on their back like a rucksack; he always refused to explain this. 

He stood his ground; but the staircase, did it do as much? Did it resist the cold damp nights of our beautiful France? I do not know. Furthermore, one couldn’t exactly say that the pavilion of Les Jardies is entirely devoid of that interior convenience of an inconvenient staircase. There are some of these last, leading fairly directly where one wants to go, for the adornment of which Balzac planned to clothe the balustrade in a purple velvet livery.

He planned an infinite amount for Les Jardies. On the bare wall of each room he himself wrote in charcoal which rich furnishing he intended to install. During several years I read these dusty words on the surface of the plaster:

HERE PAROS MARBLE FACING;

HERE A CEDAERWOOD STYLOBATE; 

HERE A CEILING PAINTED BY EUGENE DELACROIX;

HERE AN AUBUSSON TAPESTRY;

HERE CIPOLIN MARBLE;

HERE DOORS IN THE STYLE OF THE TRIANON;

HERE A MOSAIC PARQUET FLOOR MADE FROM RARE TROPICAL TIMBER.

These wonders never came to be more than inscriptions in charcoal. All the same, Balzac enjoyed the joke of this ideal furnishing, and laughed as much and even more than I, the day I wrote in capital letters larger than his, in his own bedroom, as empty as all the other rooms:

HERE A PAINTING BY RAPHAEL, PRICELESS, SUCH AS HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE.

The only thing that wasn’t lacking at Les Jardies… but see how the conversation unfurled between Balzac and I on the subject of this numerous, invisible but real furnishing, of which he tried to manage my surprise:

You have never noticed, while admiring the perfections that I bring to the interior decoration of Les Jardies, he said to me, a rare, ingenious invention that I could almost claim as my own work, I don’t quite dare say my personal masterpiece?

No, my dear Balzac, I hadn’t yet noticed this innovation, and it would be very kind of you if you would…

Look around you; what do you see?

What I have seen for a long time: walls entirely free from the vulgar impediments of furniture which would have wrecked the line of the perspective. To use a phrase even more explicit, I see nothing at all.

Look harder.

Still nothing.

Ah! You’re not trying.

No, I assure you…

Well look, here is the beauty of my invention, the impossibility of seeing it in your position. Without that, it would have been imperfect, bad; we would have had to start again.

But what is it?

Is it not odious and stupid, he continued, that for centuries one ran wires all along the walls and that at the end of these wires is seen a great bell as stupid as it is indiscreet? Examine it, study the bell that I created for people who don’t like to be shaken by the disagreeable sound of raw iron, for studious people, for thinking people… one doesn’t see it at all. Look for it! it is hidden in the wall to the extent that it is not seen at any point. Henceforth, one would no more see a man ring than see him think. Already M. Scribe has adopted this type of bell which he seemed enchanted by. Every room of les Jardies has a similar one. Come and see if I lie.

I followed Balzac, who showed me with pride, in every room, a model bell of his invention, and he and I gave in, he with the self-admiration of the creator, I by the weakness of a courtesan, to the primitive pleasure of ringing all the bells.

One had to see his joy at ringing these bells which proclaimed his triumph and which echoed the solitude of the pavilion. Thus at Les Jardies the bells abounded; but however hard one rang them, few servants ran to the noise.