Balzac’s Interpretation of the Letter “Z”


“One day, Gozlan met him in the Champs Élysées, just as he had left Delphine’s salon. He looked chilly and anxious. The chill he attributed to the unheated drawing-room that he had quitted; but it was due mostly to his condition of mind, then much exercised by something of prime importance to him, the finding of a name for a story which he had written but could not christen, in spite of protracted meditation. It was a man’s name he wanted–a name unusual, striking, suggestive of the extraordinary nature of the person he had created. ‘Why not try the names you see in the street?’ said Gozlan incautiously. ‘The very thing,’ answered Balzac, whose face grew radiant. ‘Come along with me. We will seek it together.’ Realizing too late into what an adventure he had allowed himself to be entangled, Gozlan tried in vain to escape. Protests were of no use. Balzac dragged him off; and, with noses in the air and absorbed gaze, the two men promenaded along the Rue Saint-Honoré a number of other streets, knocking up against the people they met and provoking a good deal of profane language from these latter… At length, Gozlan like Columbus’ sailors, having more than enough of the tramp, refused to play follow-my-leader any longer; and only after a long palaver was he dragged up one last narrow street dubbed variously the Rue du Bouloi, du Coq Héron, and de la Jussienne throughout its course. Here, suddenly, Balzac stopped dead, and pointed to the word Marcas, inscribed over a door. ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for,’ he cried. ‘It exactly suits my man. The person that owns the name ought to be some one out of the common,–an artist, a worker in gold, or something of that kind.’ Inquiry proved that the real Marcus was a modest tailor. However, his name was selected, and the initial Z was tacked on to it for the book, Z being by the novelists’s interpretation a letter of mystic import.”

Balzac, Frederick Lawton, Ballantyne, Hanson & Co., 1919.