The Realists: Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Galdos, Henry James, Proust. Eight Portraits by C.P. Snow. Scribners, 336 pp. $12.95.


C.P. Snow is not interested in literary definitions, and, despite his title, he makes no claim to be exhausting his subject. He has left Flaubert, whom many would consider the preeminent realist, out of his book, and in Dickens has included a novelist who even Snow admits is not actually a realist at all. Large, sometimes multi-volume biographies have been written on all these men, and they have been the subject of numerous critical studies. Why a new book on these eight writers? Snow has not excused himself. Obviously an avid reader, he is convinced that there is an intimate connection between an author’s life and his work, and in eight moderately lengthy essays has written of these men simply, it would seem, because he wanted to.

If the book has a theme as a whole, it is that there are no common characteristics for the world’s great novelists (in his epilogue he notes that nearly all of them were short fat men, and incompetent at math, though there is at least one exception in each of these categories). He sees some generalities that can be stated about realistic novels that we read them out of a natural human appetite for stories, and to discover things about ourselves and others: that they concern an actual social setting in which people are projected and examined — but his individual chapters show that not much can be stated in general about realistic novelists.

Their outer circumstances varied. From the lowest echelon of the middle class, Dickens was profoundly wounded by class much of his work shows that wound while Tolstoy was a member of the aristocracy, and James and Proust certainly mixed in it. Tolstoy led a famously happy childhood, but Balzac and Dickens were wretchedly neglected. Stendhal, Balzac, and Dickens were consumed by ambition from their earliest years, while Tolstoy was never comfortable all his life in his vocation as a writer, and Proust seemed content through his early manhood to bide his time. Nearly all of these men seemed to have trouble with money, squandering it on women, expensive goods, or games of chance, but Dickens was a shrewd hard businessman, and the prudent Henry James handled the moderate amount that he made quite effectively. Dickens was a critical and popular success in his early twenties, and Dostoevsky at least a critical success, but others of this group had to wait much longer, sometimes detoured into other kinds of writing: Stendhal never found much success in his lifetime, but uncannily predicted the time, many years after his death, when his work would find acclaim.

One thinks of the quintessential realistic novelist as rapt by the spectacle of society around him, absorbing the lives of others and blending like a chameleon into various milieus: Balzac was such a man, and so, with his wonderful mimetic ability, was Dickens, but Stendhal was never much interested in anyone but himself — he made a life-long study of his own emotions — and Tolstoy, as a budding saint, was a ferocious egotist. One tends to think also of psychological insight as the mark of a great novelist. Dostoevsky, of course, was without parallel in this regard, both in insight and psychological imagination, but Tolstoy was rather ordinary, and in fact disliked his fellow countryman’s strange imaginings; this greatest of novelists for the most part simply recorded what he saw around him, but with an acute and penetrating sensibility that has not been matched elsewhere in the history of the novel.

Like most modern biographers, Snow has written a great deal about the sex lives of his subjects, and here, perhaps, he has used a little too much imagination of his own. We think of a strong libido as a natural component of the artist, but Henry James was impossibly inhibited, and Stendhal, while full of romantic longings, apparently preferred talk to action. Balzac, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Tolstoy were all ardently sexual men, but Snow is quick to point out that for a man like Balzac sex was one of life’s supreme pleasures, while for Tolstoy it was an unpleasant need, and woman the enemy. Proust was an active and for the most part contented homosexual, though the one major unsatisfactory affair of his life, with Alfred Agostinelli, became a large part of his great novel, as he wrote of Marcel’s jealousy toward Albertine. Both Tolstoy and Dickens made unhappy marriages, but Snow believes Dostoevsky’s last marriage, to the very young Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, to have been an extremely happy and fortunate one.

The only writer not familiar to most readers is the Spaniard, Benito Perez Galdos. Born into a middle class family, he had a quiet childhood, somewhat overprotected, and was much interested in art and literature; he had a painter’s eye and might have been successful in any of the arts. All his life he was quiet and unassuming, and as a young man would sit with his friends by the hour in cafes, making paper birds and speaking little. He never had any doubt about his vocation as a writer, and wanted to be the greatest his country had produced. After a slow start he wrote a long series of historical novels, then turned to the contemporary scene, and eventually, over a long career, produced a corpus as large as Balzac’s and not, according to Snow, inferior in quality. He led a quiet life, writing through the morning, lunching with his sisters, and, in the afternoon, going to a lower class neighborhood to visit a prostitute for sex. This extraordinary habit, in an otherwise decorous life, eventually led to financial difficulties, but was responsible for his acute understanding of the lower classes — they loved this kind, elegant, and famous man who paid his daily visits — and, according to Snow, Galdos had an understanding of all levels of society that no other writer can match. His masterpiece is the massive Fortunata y Jacinta.

One great virtue of a work like The Realists is that it acts as a guide through the works of these writers, and whets the reader’s appetite. One would not think to call their lives happy — as Snow points out, a “great writer has to live with the worst side of his nature as well as the best” — but they were full and rich. We can admire the attempt these men made, to leave a record of a society, create a vast host of characters, incorporate philosophy, theology, and psychology into their novels, entertain their readers — what writer nowadays attempts as much? — and, in an age when most writers lead quiet academic lives, we can even be thankful for their excesses. Snow does not see much of what he would call realism being written today, nor does he see much hope of it for the future. But he does have a great appreciation for the past masters, and he writes with the inside knowledge of a man who has published eleven novels himself. He is a witty and incisive writer. In the picture on the back jacket of his book, in fact, he looks short, a little on the plump side.