Baudelaire pretended to be surprised that anyone could think of Balzac as a realist. It had always seemed to him, he said, that the novelist was 'a passionate visionary'. The only perverse element in this claim is the suggestion that Balzac was not a realist as well as a visionary, and more broadly, that realism is not a vision. At one of the founding moments of European realism, in the early pages of Le Père Goriot, Balzac describes, or rather keeps saying he can't describe, the miserable Paris boarding-house where much of the novel is set:
The first room exhales an odour for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the 'odeur de pension'. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing . . . Yet, in spite of these stale horrors, the sitting-room is as charming and as delicately perfumed as a boudoir, when compared with the adjoining dining-room.
The panelled walls of that apartment were once painted some colour, now a matter of conjecture, for the surface is encrusted with accumulated layers of grimy deposit, which cover it with fantastic outlines.
LRB 3 January 2008 | PDF Download