Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mr. Coffee

Honoré  de Balzac, after a couple of espressos,
checking for palpitations

"When you have produced the finest grind with the least water possible, you double the dose by drinking two cups at a time; particularly vigorous constitutions can tolerate three cups. In this manner one can continue working for several more days."

We all know that writers are coffee hounds.  But the grandpére of them all was Honoré de Balzac, whose two-fisted approach to the Drink of the Gods is quoted above.

Given his prodigious output, it's not surprising that Balzac relied on stimulants.  His magnum opus, The Human Comedy, comprises more than ninety novels, novellas, and stories totaling millions of words and featuring hundreds of major characters and thousands of one- or two-scene walk-ons.  There is literally nothing like it in the world; the works are layered over one another, the heroes or heroines of one subordinate (or just glimpsed) in another, the characters rising and falling through all the levels of society, from the fields and huddled houses of small provincial towns to the palaces and grand hôtels of Paris.

The Comedy is studded with individual masterpieces: Pére Goriot (a variation on "King Lear"), Eugénie Grandet, Lost Illusions, A Harlot High and Low, Cousin Bette, and others, short and long.  Many of them were published in installments, as he wrote them, meaning that he was pantsing on a grand scale, making it up as he went along, absolutely stuck with what he had already written.  And, of course, "The Human Comedy" itself, written over a remarkably short span of 14 or 15 years, was perhaps literature's supreme feat of pantsing.  He did it all, writing session after writing session, by the seat of his pants.

And on coffee.  Lots of coffee.

Balzac's entire life was arranged to accommodate his writing and his coffee.  He ate dinner in the afternoon and went to bed around 6 PM.  At midnight he was up and knocking back the first in an unending bucket brigade of cups of strong black coffee.  He wrote through the night and into the following day, sometimes  straight through the following day, without going back to bed.  Pounding that caffeine, he occasionally worked for 48 hours uninterrupted, conducting the imaginary orchestra of Paris.

He wrote (probably after a couple of cups) about how it affected him:  "Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink -- for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder."

This is a serious jones.  But I have to say I'd take coffee intravenously if it would allow me to write like Balzac.  I'd snort instant.  Problem is, for coffee to help you write like Balzac, first you have to be Balzac.

Or maybe I could find a new grind.

Tim - Sundays


  1. Sounds like we have something in common. When I say I am a coffee addict, I mean it. No joke. I'm totally addicted. And not just to coffee. It has to be espresso. I cannot even imagine going to work without stopping at Dark Horse Espresso Bar. I come here on a regular basis since it's the closest coffee joint to my workplace. Whether caffeine is a miracle drug or junk is hard to say. However, it speeds up the wake-up process and saves me a lot of time; it makes my waking up less of a struggle and helps me focus on work.

  2. I recently took two AA-like vows: One) No more coffee. Two) No more food puns.

    Tim, I don't think it's very likely I'll ever see you showing up at one of our meetings.

    PS. Didn't HB check out at 51? Just a thought:)

  3. I heard 50 cups a day and dead at 50. His coffee pot rests in honor at the Balzac museum

  4. I'd hesitate to draw a causal relationship between his coffee drinking and his early death. He was massively overweight and largely sedentary, and fifty wasn't as young then as it is now. Despite all the efforts of the food nazis in their neverending quest to say "no" to all food and drink that people actually like, studies continue to demonstrate that coffee has many positive effects and none of the expected negative ones -- it doesn't even raise blood pressure.

    Cara, I actually meant to reference your earlier note on Balzac and the Magic Bean, but it slipped away from me. Jeff, giving up coffee for me would be tantamount to deciding to see only in black-and-white for the rest of my life. Meghan -- hmmm. Is that a sneaky plug, or what?

    I'm going to go grind some beans.

  5. Just goes to show that too much of a good thing...I have heard that smell of coffee in a coffee shop can drop one's blood pressure 50 points. And a few cups of coffee a day are supposed to relax you. Ah, balance! I'm okay with you writing like Tim Hallinan. Balzac was probably unique :)

  6. Given the way Balzac spent his days and nights, from what deep well of personal experience was he drawing all these words? I mean, it's not as if he had time to get out and see anything...