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Tuesday
Dec082009

Comment on paie ses dettes quand on a du génie

A brief essay ("How to pay your debts when you're a genius") by this French man of letters on another French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

The following story was told to me with the request that I never repeat it; and for that reason I wish to tell absolutely everyone.

He was sad judging by his knitted brows, his large mouth less distended and lippy than normal; his manner of speaking was punctuated by brusque pauses as he paced the double passage of the Opera; he was sad.   

He it was indeed, the greatest business and literary mind of the nineteenth century; he, the poetic intellect lined in figures like the office of a treasurer; he, the man of mythological bankruptcies, and phantasmagoric and hyperbolic enterprises whose light he always forgot to turn on; the greatest pursuer of dreams endlessly in search of the absolute; he, the most curious, the most comical, the most interesting and the most vain character in The Human Comedy; he, that eccentric as unbearable in life as he was delicious on paper, that fat child and bloated genius so brimming with qualities that he hesitated to subtract some for fear of losing others, and to spoil that incorrigible and fatal monstrosity.

What could make such a great man fall into such a black mood and walk as he was walking, his chin on his paunch?  What could make him scrunch his forehead into The Skin of Chagrin?

Did he of dream of four-cent pineapples, a suspended bridge made from creepers, a stairless villa with boudoirs set in chiffon?  What princess approaching forty would have glanced at him with one of those deep looks which beauty owes to genius?  Or his brain, as heavy as an industrial machine, is it racked by all the Sufferings of an Inventor?

No, alas, no!  The sadness of a great man is a very commonplace form of sadness, earthly, ignoble, shameful and ridiculous.  He was in that mortifying situation we all know in which every passing minute carries on its wings the chance of salvation; in which, his eye pinned to the clock, the genius of invention senses the need to double, triple, decuple its forces in proportion to the time that remains and the approaching speed of that fatal hour.  The illustrious author of the theory of the bill of exchange had a bill of twelve hundred francs to pay by the next day and the evening was already getting on.

In these sorts of cases it sometimes happens that the mind hurried, devastated, kneaded, and crushed by the cogs of necessity suddenly hurls itself, by an unexpected and victorious burst, outside that very prison.

This is what probably happened to the great novelist, for a smile appeared on his lips at the contraction that inflicted upon him lines of pride;  his eyes gained their composure, and our man, calm and reseated, made his way towards Rue Richelieu with a sublime and cadenced step.

He entered the house where a rich and prosperous businessman had already abandoned the work of the day to tea and a fireside corner.  He was received with all the honors his name deserved, and after a few minutes expounded the purpose of his visit in these words:   

"Would you like to have, on the day after tomorrow, in Le Siècle and Les Débats, two fabulous articles along the lines of, 'Varieties of the French in their own words,' two fabulous articles written and signed by me?  My fee is fifteen hundred francs.  So for you this is a gold mine."  

It turned out that the publisher, in contrast to his counterparts in the industry, found such an argument quite reasonable because a deal was immediately struck.  Changing his mind, our man insisted that the fifteen hundred francs be delivered upon the appearance of the first article; then he returned peacefully towards the passage of the Opera.
   
A few minutes later he notified a small young man with an aggressive and spiritual physiognomy who had recently served as a breathtaking preface for the Rise and Fall of
César Birotteau, and who was already known in journalistic circles for his clownish, almost impish verve; piety had yet to trim his talons, and to him the religious tabloids happily opened their candle snuffers:

"Edward, would you like to have one hundred fifty francs tomorrow?"  "Gee whiz!"  "Alright then, come have a coffee."  

The young man drank a cup of coffee which initially brought his little southern constitution to a fever.

"Edward, tomorrow I must have three large columns on 'The Varieties of the French in their own words'; by morning, mind you, and early at that.   The whole article has to be recopied and signed in my own hand; this point is paramount."

The great man said these words with such admirable accentuation and that arrogant tone which he sometimes offers to a friend he cannot welcome into his home: "A thousand pardons, dear friend, to leave you at the door; I have a private audience with a princess whose honor is at my disposal.  You surely understand ..."

Edward shook his hand as if he were his benefactor and ran off to the task.
   
The great novelist ordered his second article on Rue de Navarin.

The first article appeared two days later in Le Siècle.  Strangely, it was signed neither by the small young man nor by the great author, but by a third name quite well known at that time in Bohemia for his tomcat romances and Comic Opera.

His second friend was and still is fat, lazy and lethargic; moreover, he has no ideas whatsoever and can only string words together in the fashion of Osage necklaces.  And because it takes much longer to cram three long columns of words than to create a whole book of ideas, his article came out only a few days later.  It was included not in Les Débats, but in La Presse.

The bill of twelve hundred francs was paid; everyone was perfectly satisfied except the publisher, who was almost so.  And this is how to pay your debts ... when you're a genius.

If some smart Aleck took all this for a back-page joke, an assault on the glory of the greatest man of our century, he would be shamefully wrong.  I only sought to show that the great poet knew how to settle a bill of exchange as easily as he could write the most mysterious and intriguing of novels.

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