scenes from the writing life: dinner with balzac and other insane people


So the next time you hear a writer on the radio or catch him on the tube or watch him on the monitor or find yourself sitting next to him at dinner, remember he isn’t the author of the books you admire; he’s just someone visiting the world outside his study or office or wherever the hell he writes. Don’t expect him to know the customs of the country, and try to forgive his trespasses when they occur. Speaking of dinner, when the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt told a friend, a Parisian doctor, that he wanted to meet a certifiable lunatic, he was invited to the doctor’s home for supper. A few days later, Humboldt found himself placed at the dinner table between two men. One was polite, somewhat reserved, and didn’t go in for small talk. The other, dressed in ill-matched clothes, chattered away on every subject under the sun, gesticulating wildly, while making horrible faces. When the meal was over, Humboldt turned to his host. "I like your lunatic," he whispered, indicating the talkative man. The host frowned. "But it’s the other one who’s the lunatic. The man you’re pointing to is Monsieur Honoré de Balzac."

—from Arthur Krystal, “When Writers Speak,” The New York Times, September 25, 2009