Thursday, July 2, 2015

Balzac: A Passionate Life -- An Insight Into One Quality of Greatness

The current audio book I have been "reading" during my daily commute is The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods by Hank Haney. In the annals of golf history Tiger Woods is one of the great ones, if not the greatest. While reading this book, which I am about a third of the way through, Haney repeatedly underscores one of the key attributes of Tiger's greatness: his ability to focus. But he also stated that there was another quality that contributed to his success: his ability to keep a mental edge.

What he's saying is that lesser athletes get caught up in celebrating their victories and accomplishments so much that they eventually lose their edge, that need to win, to perform at the top of their game. Haney cited one golfer who won two majors one year, the first and second of his career, and he was done. He never won a major tournament again. He proved he could do it and that was enough.

But Tiger is something different.

And the reason this leaped out at me was that it's the same thing I've heard sportswriters and sportscaster say about Tom Brady. They marveled at his ability to perform year in and year out as if he had never won a championship before. He always played like those players who are hungry, with a longing to win the big one.

And so, as I watch this movie about Balzac, I see once again what separates the great ones from the herd. He had a vision for something major, and made sacrifices to nurture it, feed it, fan its flames... was even willing to be misunderstood for it, as revealed in this exchange...

Laure d'Abrantès: Whom do you love, besides yourself?
Balzac: I don't love myself. It's the work I carry within me that I love.

As I watch, I find it interesting how much my fictional interview with Balzac last summer seems so perfectly reflected in this portrayal by Gérard Depardieu.

Balzac: A Passionate Life is first and foremost a story about a writer. If you're a writer you will likely find a measure of inspiration in this telling of his story. It's been my experience, at least, that writers are drawn to other stories by writers about writers (eg. Martin Eden by Jack London, Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham), especially when it's a story well told.

The film was originally a min-series made for French television. Now it is a very long (200 minutes) film, best enjoyed episodically. Depardieu's portrayal of Balzac shows him as passionate, idealistic and eccentric, pursuing many women simultaneously and in constant battle with creditors. For sure the real Balzac's lifestyle was eccentric. He wrote all night and slept from six a.m. till just after noon each day. And, as the film shows, coffee was a staple of his life, no doubt for the caffein rush that provided his energy.

The version of the film that I've been watching is dubbed over in English, and it is probably the worst over-dubbing that I have ever seen, comparable to Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? Nevertheless, I have been enjoying the story because of its reminders about what it takes to achieve truly great things: a passionate flame in the breast that will not die, a commitment to work hard, a willingness to take risks and be misunderstood.

His was not a particularly happy life, but his own sorrows were not the theme of his work. In one scene a woman asks why he doesn't write about his own pain. He replies, "That doesn't make for good literature. A writer deserving of his name paints the suffering of others, not those which he sees in his own mirror."

While working on my lecture "Picasso, Storytelling and The Unknown Masterpiece" I was impressed by the motivations and qualities that drove such men as Picasso and Balzac. I later wrote a blog post on this theme titled Five Qualities Shared by Balzac, Picasso and Dylan.

To all my friends who are writers: write on!

No comments: