Memo to William Maxwell: Read Balzac

During William Maxwell’s tenure as fiction editor of The New Yorker, one of his favorite and most frequently published authors was Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose stories became a staple of the periodical. Maxwell and Warner’s happy and profound literary friendship is chronicled in their copious correspondence, collected in The Elements of Lavishness. It’s a feast of intelligence and expression that will delight any devoted reader, even one unfamiliar with the works of the authors. From descriptions of hurricanes, blackouts, and other dramatic occurrences to accountings of mundane matters of domestic aggravation, from rites of private passage to painstaking tinkerings with the nuts and bolts of literary work, it’s a marvelous testament to a friendship.


My favorite exchange is one from January 1961, in which Warner urges Balzac upon Maxwell, who has expressed a distaste for the novelistic geniuses of the 19th century: “The pace irritates me, and I see everything coming for miles and miles. I think you and Mrs. Woolf between you gave me such a taste for surprises that the whole Victorian age was thereby cut off from me.”


Warner responds: “I think you will come to Balzac yet. When one has disproved all one’s theories, outgrown all of one’s standards, discarded all one’s criterions, and left off minding about one’s appearance, one comes to Balzac. And there he is, waiting outside his canvas tent—with such a circus going on inside.”

And a week later she gives very sound advice about where to start one’s approach to La Comédie Humaine: “About Balzac. My father would have said, Begin with La Cousin Bette. But I myself say, Begin with Les Illusions Perdues [Lost lllusions] and be damned about it. . . . But I think you should leave all this to summer vacation. Balzac’s material is Clay, human and otherwise. If one can only read him from time to time, the clay sets, and it is difficult to begin again. I have an idea, anyway, that one should read at the tempo at which the author wrote. Balzac wrote fast and recklessly, and read that way he emerges very much himself.”

Pete Hamill told me recently that everything anyone needs to know about the newspaper business can be found in Lost Illusions. Reading it recently, and despite all the digital turbulence surrounding the journalistic enterprise these days, I can see what he means.

And speaking of both “fast and recklessly” and digital transformations, you can download all 700 pages of Lost Illusions in a flash here.