Honoré de Balzac (20 May 1799 – 18 August 1850) was a French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus was a sequence of almost 100 novels and plays collectively entitled La Comédie humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815.
Due to his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature. He is renowned for his multi-faceted characters; even his lesser characters are complex, morally ambiguous and fully human. Inanimate objects are imbued with character as well; the city of Paris, a backdrop for much of his writing, takes on many human qualities. His writing influenced many famous authors, including the novelists Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Marie Corelli, Henry James, Jack Kerouac, and Italo Calvino as well as important philosophers such as Friedrich Engels. Many of Balzac's works have been made into films, and they continue to inspire other writers.
An enthusiastic reader and independent thinker as a child, Balzac had trouble adapting himself to the teaching style of his grammar school. His willful nature caused trouble throughout his life, and frustrated his ambitions to succeed in the world of business. When he finished school, Balzac was apprenticed as a legal clerk, but he turned his back on law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine. Before and during his career as a writer, he attempted to be a publisher, printer, businessman, critic, and politician. He failed in all of these efforts. La Comédie Humaine reflects his real-life difficulties, and includes scenes from his own experience.
Balzac suffered from health problems throughout his life, possibly due to his intense writing schedule. His relationship with his family was often strained by financial and personal drama, and he lost more than one friend over critical reviews. In 1850, he married Ewelina Hańska, his longtime paramour; he died five months later.
Balzac's mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family's wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was eighteen at the time of the wedding, and Bernard-François fifty. As British writer and critic V. S. Pritchett explained, "She was certainly drily aware that she had been given to an old husband as a reward for his professional services to a friend of her family and that the capital was on her side. She was not in love with her husband.
Honoré (so named after Saint Honoré of Amiens, who is commemorated on 16 May, four days before Balzac's birthday) was actually the second child born to the Balzacs; exactly one year previous, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. Honoré's sisters Laure and Laurence were born in 1800 and 1802, and his brother Henry-François in 1807.
At the age of eight Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme, where he studied for seven years. His father, seeking to instill the same hardscrabble work ethic which had gained him the esteem of society, intentionally sent very little spending money to the boy. This made him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.
Balzac had difficulty adapting himself to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the "alcove", a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: "Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!") Still, his time alone gave the boy ample freedom to read every book which came his way.
Balzac worked these scenes from his boyhood – as he did many aspects of his life and the lives of those around him – into La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator states: "He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.
But though his mind was receiving nourishment, the same could not be said for Balzac's body. He often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a "sort of a coma". When he returned home, his grandmother said: "Voilà donc comme le collège nous renvoie les jolis que nous lui envoyons!" ("Look how the academy returns the pretty ones we send them!") Balzac himself attributed his condition to "intellectual congestion", but his extended confinement in the "alcove" was surely a factor. (Meanwhile, his father had been writing a treatise on "the means of preventing thefts and murders, and of restoring the men who commit them to a useful role in society", in which he heaped disdain on prison as a form of crime prevention.)
In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River.
In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous professors. François Guizot, who later became prime minister, was Professor of Modern History. Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne, delivered lectures on French and classical literature to packed audiences. And – most influential of all – Victor Cousin's courses on philosophy encouraged his students to think independently.
Once his studies were completed, Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the law; for three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a friend of the family. It was during this time that he began to understand the vagaries of human nature. In his 1840 novel Le Notaire, Balzac wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees "the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.
In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but his apprentice had had enough of the law. He despaired of being "a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that's what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite. He announced his intention to be a writer.
The loss of this opportunity caused serious discord in the Balzac household, although Honoré was not turned away entirely. Instead, in April 1819, he was allowed to live in the French capital – as English critic George Saintsbury describes it – "in a garret furnished in the most Spartan fashion, with a starvation allowance and an old woman to look after him," while the rest of the family moved to a house twenty miles [32 km] outside Paris.
In 1820, he completed the five-act verse tragedy Cromwell. Although it pales in comparison to later works, some critics consider it a quality text. When he finished, Balzac went to Villeparisis and read the entire work to his family; they were unimpressed. He followed this effort by starting (but never finishing) three novels: Sténie, Falthurne, and Corsino.
In 1821 Balzac met the enterprising Auguste Lepoitevin, who convinced the author to write short stories, which Lepoitevin would then sell to publishers. Balzac then quickly turned to longer works, and by 1826 he had written nine novels, all published under pseudonyms and often produced in collaboration with other writers. For example, the scandalous novel Vicaire des Ardennes (1822) – banned for its depiction of nearly-incestuous relations and, more egregiously, of a married priest – was attributed to a 'Horace de Saint-Aubin'. These books were potboiler novels, designed to sell quickly and titillate audiences. In Saintsbury's view, "They are curiously, interestingly, almost enthrallingly bad. He indicates that Robert Louis Stevenson tried to dissuade him from reading these early works of Balzac's. American critic Samuel Rogers, however, notes that "without the training they gave Balzac, as he groped his way to his mature conception of the novel, and without the habit he formed as a young man of writing under pressure, one can hardly imagine his producing La Comédie Humaine. Biographer Graham Robb suggests that as he discovered the Novel, Balzac discovered himself.
Also during this time, Balzac wrote two pamphlets in support of primogeniture and the Society of Jesus. The latter, regarding the Jesuit order, illustrated his life-long admiration for the Catholic Church. Later, in a preface to La Comédie Humaine, he wrote: "Christianity, and especially Catholicism, being a complete repression of man's depraved tendencies, is the greatest element in Social Order.
In the late 1820s, Balzac also dabbled in several business ventures, a penchant his sister blamed on the temptation of an unknown neighbor. The first of these was a publishing enterprise which turned out cheap one-volume editions of French classics including the works of Molière. This business failed miserably, with many of the books "sold as waste paper". Balzac had better luck publishing the memoirs of Laure Junot, Duchesse d'Abrantès – with whom he also had an affair.
Borrowing money from his family and other sources, he tried again as a printer and then as a typefounder. But as with the publishing business, Balzac's inexperience and lack of capital caused his ruin in these trades. He gave the businesses to a friend (who made them successful) but carried the debts for many years. In April 1828, he owed his own mother 50,000 francs.
This penchant for une bonne spéculation never left Balzac. It resurfaced painfully much later when – as a renowned and busy author – he traveled to Sardinia in the hopes of reprocessing the slag from the Roman mines in that country. Toward the end of his life, he became captivated by the idea of cutting of oak wood in Ukraine and transporting it for sale in France.
In 1832 (after writing several novels), Balzac conceived the idea for an enormous series of books that would paint a panoramic portrait of "all aspects of society." When the idea struck, he raced to his sister's apartment and proclaimed: "I am about to become a genius. Although he originally called it Etudes des Mœurs, it eventually became known as La Comédie Humaine, and he included in it all of the fiction he published in his lifetime under his own name. This was to be Balzac's life work and his greatest achievement.
After the collapse of his businesses, Balzac traveled to Brittany and stayed with the de Pommereul family outside Fougères. It was here that he drew inspiration for Les Chouans (1829), a tale of love gone wrong amid the Chouan royalist forces. A supporter of the crown himself, Balzac paints the counter-revolutionaries in a sympathetic light – even though they are the center of the book's most brutal scenes. This was the first book Balzac released under his own name, and it gave him what one critic called "passage into the Promised Land". It established him as an author of note (even if the surface owes a debt to Walter Scott) and provided him with a name outside the pseudonyms of his past.
Soon afterwards, around the time of his father's death, Balzac wrote El Verdugo – about a 30-year-old man who kills his father (Balzac was 30 years old at the time). This was the first work signed "Honoré de Balzac". Like his father, he added the aristocratic-sounding particle to help him fit into respected society, but it was a choice based on skill, not birthright. "The aristocracy and authority of talent are more substantial than the aristocracy of names and material power," he wrote in 1830. The timing of the decision was also significant. Robb frames it this way: "The disappearance of the father coincides with the adoption of the nobiliary particle. A symbolic inheritance. Just as his father had worked his way up from poverty into respectable society, Balzac considered toil and effort his real mark of nobility.
When the July Revolution overthrew Charles X in 1830, Balzac declared himself a Legitimist, supporting Charles' House of Bourbon – but with qualifications. He felt that the new July Monarchy (which claimed widespread popular support) was disorganized and unprincipled, in need of a mediator to keep the political peace between the King and insurgent forces. He called for "a young and vigorous man who belongs neither to the Directoire nor to the Empire, but who is 1830 incarnate…. He planned to be such a candidate, appealing especially to the higher classes in Chinon. But after a near-fatal accident in 1832 (he slipped and cracked his head on the street), Balzac decided not to stand for election.
1831 saw the success of La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass's Skin), a fable-like tale about a despondent young man named Raphaël de Valentin who finds an animal skin promising great power and wealth. He obtains these things, but loses the ability to manage them. In the end, his health fails and he is consumed by his own confusion. Balzac meant the story to bear witness to the treacherous turns of life, its "serpentine motion.
In 1833, Balzac released Eugénie Grandet, his first best-selling novel. A story about a young lady who inherits her father's miserliness, it also became the most critically acclaimed book of his career. The writing is simple, yet the individuals (especially the bourgeois title character) are dynamic and complex.
Le Père Goriot (Old Father Goriot, 1835) was his next big success, in which Balzac transposes the story of King Lear to 1820s Paris in order to rage at a society bereft of all love save the love of money. The centrality of a father in this novel matches Balzac's own position – not only as mentor to his troubled young secretary, Jules Sandeau, but also the fact that he had (most likely) fathered a child, Marie-Caroline, with his otherwise-married lover, Maria Du Fresnay.
In 1836, Balzac took the helm of the Chronique de Paris, a weekly magazine of society and politics. He tried to enforce strict impartiality in its pages and a reasoned assessment of various ideologies. As Rogers notes, "Balzac was interested in any social, political, or economic theory, whether from the right or the left. The magazine failed, but in July 1840, he founded another publication called the Revue Parisienne. It lasted for only three issues.
These dismal business efforts – and his misadventures in Sardinia – provided an appropriate milieu in which to set the two-volume Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions, 1843). The novel concerns Lucien de Rubempré, a young poet trying to make a name for himself, who becomes trapped in the morass of society's darkest contradictions. Lucien's journalism work is informed by Balzac's own failed ventures in the field. Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (The Harlot High and Low, 1847) continues Lucien's story. He is trapped by the Abbé Herrera (Vautrin) in a convoluted and disastrous plan to regain social status. The book undergoes a massive temporal rift; the first part (of four) covers a span of six years, while the final two sections focus on just three days.
Le Cousin Pons (1847) and La Cousine Bette (1848) tell the story of Les Parents Pauvres (The Poor Relations). The conniving and wrangling over wills and inheritances reflects the expertise gained by the author as a young law clerk. Balzac's health was deteriorating by this point, making the completion of this pair of books a significant accomplishment.
Many of his novels were initially serialized, like those of Dickens. Their length was not predetermined. Illusions Perdues extends to a thousand pages after starting inauspiciously in a small-town print shop, whereas La Fille aux yeux d'or (Tiger-eyes, 1835) opens with a broad panorama of Paris but becomes a closely plotted novella of only fifty.
He revised obsessively, covering printer's proofs with changes and additions to be reset. Balzac sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense for both himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product was frequently quite different from the original book. While some of his books never reached a finished state, some of those – such as Les employés (The Government Clerks, 1841) – are nonetheless noted by critics.
Although Balzac was "by turns a hermit and a vagrant", he managed to stay connected to the social world which nourished his writing. He was friends with Théophile Gautier and Pierre-Marie-Charles de Bernard du Grail de la Villette, and he knew Victor Hugo. Nevertheless, he did not spend as much time in salons and clubs as did many of his characters. "In the first place he was too busy," explains Saintsbury, "in the second he would not have been at home there…. [H]e felt it was his business not to frequent society but to create it. He would, however, often spend long periods staying at Château de Saché, near Tours, the home of his friend Jean de Margonne, his mother's lover and father to her youngest child. Many of Balzac's tormented characters were conceived in the small second-floor bedroom. Today the Château is a museum dedicated to the author's life.
In February 1832, Balzac received a letter from Odessa – lacking a return address and signed only by "L'Étrangère" ("The Foreigner") – expressing sadness at the cynicism and atheism in La Peau de Chagrin and its negative portrayal of women. He responded by purchasing a classified advertisement in the Gazette de France, hoping that his secret critic would find it. Thus began a fifteen-year correspondence between Balzac and "the object of [his] sweetest dreams": Ewelina Hańska.
She was wed to a man twenty years older than herself: Wacław Hański, a wealthy Polish landowner living in Kiev; it was a marriage of convenience to preserve her family's fortune. In Balzac, Ewelina found a kindred spirit for her emotional and social desires, with the added benefit of feeling a connection to the glamorous capital of France. Their correspondence reveals an intriguing balance of passion, propriety and patience; Robb says it is "like an experimental novel in which the female protagonist is always trying to pull in extraneous realities but which the hero is determined to keep on course, whatever tricks he has to use.
When Wacław Hański died in 1841, his widow and her admirer finally had the chance to pursue their affections. Competing with the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, Balzac visited her in St. Petersburg in 1843 and impressed himself on her heart. After a series of economic setbacks, health problems, and prohibitions from the Tsar, the couple was finally able to wed. On 14 March 1850, with Balzac's health in serious decline, they drove from their home in Wierzchownia to a church in Berdyczów and were married. The ten-hour journey to and from the ceremony took a toll on both husband and wife: her feet were too swollen to walk, and he endured severe heart trouble.
Although he married late in life, Balzac had already written two treatises on marriage: Physiologie du Marriage and Scènes de la Vie Conjugale. These works suffered from a lack of first-hand knowledge; Saintsbury points out that "Cœlebs cannot talk of [marriage] with much authority." In late April the newly married couple set off for Paris. His health deteriorated on the way, and Ewelina wrote to her daughter about Balzac being "in a state of extreme weakness" and "sweating profusely". They arrived in the French capital on 20 May, his fifty-first birthday.
Five months after his wedding, on 18 August, Balzac died. His mother was the only one with him when he expired; Mme. Hańska had gone to bed. He had been visited that day by Victor Hugo, who later served as pallbearer and eulogist at Balzac's funeral.
He is buried at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris. "Today," said Hugo at the ceremony, "we have a people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius. The funeral was attended by "almost every writer in Paris", including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils. Later, Balzac became the subject of a monumental statue by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, which stands near the intersection of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse. Rodin featured Balzac in several of his smaller sculptures as well.
Some critics consider Balzac's writing exemplary of naturalism – a more pessimistic and analytical form of realism, which seeks to explain human behavior as intrinsically linked with the environment. French novelist Émile Zola declared Balzac the father of the naturalist novel. Elsewhere, Zola indicated that, whereas Romantics saw the world through a colored lens, the naturalist sees through a clear glass – precisely the sort of effect Balzac attempted to achieve in his works.
At the same time, the characters represent a particular range of social types: the noble soldier, the scoundrel, the proud workman, the fearless spy, and the alluring mistress, among others. That Balzac was able to balance the strength of the individual against the representation of the type is evidence of the author's skill. One critic explained that "there is a center and a circumference to Balzac's world.
Balzac's use of repeating characters, moving in and out of the Comédie's books, strengthens the realist representation. "When the characters reappear," notes Rogers, "they do not step out of nowhere; they emerge from the privacy of their own lives which, for an interval, we have not been allowed to see. He also used a realist technique which French novelist Marcel Proust later named "retrospective illumination", whereby a character's past is revealed long after she or he first appears.
A nearly infinite reserve of energy propels the characters in Balzac's novels. Struggling against the currents of human nature and society, they may lose more often than they win – but only rarely do they give up. This universal trait is a reflection of Balzac's own social wrangling, that of his family, and an interest in the Austrian mystic and physician Franz Mesmer, who pioneered the study of animal magnetism. Balzac spoke often of a "nervous and fluid force" between individuals, and Raphaël Valentin's decline in La Peau de Chagrin exemplifies the danger of withdrawing from the company of other people.
The influence of Paris permeates La Comédie. Nature takes a back seat to the artificial metropolis, in contrast to the depictions of weather and wildlife in the countryside. "If in Paris," Rogers says, "we are in a man-made region where even the seasons are forgotten, these provincial towns are nearly always pictured in their natural setting. Balzac himself said, "the streets of Paris possess human qualities and we cannot shake off the impressions they make upon our minds. His labyrinthine city provided a literary model used later by English novelist Charles Dickens and Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. The centrality of Paris in La Comédie Humaine is key to Balzac's legacy as a realist. "Realism is nothing if not urban," notes critic Peter Brooks; the scene of a young man coming into the city to find his fortune is ubiquitous in the realist novel, and appears repeatedly in Balzac's works, such as Illusions Perdues.
Balzac concerned himself overwhelmingly with the darker essence of human nature and the corrupting influence of middle and high societies. He worked hard to observe humanity in its most representative state, frequently passing incognito among the masses of Parisian society to do research. He used incidents from his life and the people around him, in works like Eugénie Grandet and Louis Lambert.
Balzac had a significant influence on the writers of his time and beyond. He has been compared to – and cited as an influence on – Charles Dickens. Critic W. H. Helm calls one "the French Dickens" and the other "the English Balzac". Another critic, Richard Lehan, says that "Balzac was the bridge between the comic realism of Dickens and the naturalism of Zola.
French author Gustave Flaubert was also substantially influenced by Balzac. Praising his portrayal of society while attacking his prose style, Flaubert once wrote: "What a man he would have been had he known how to write! While he disdained the label of "realist", Flaubert clearly took heed of Balzac's close attention to detail and unvarnished depictions of bourgeois life. This influence shows in Flaubert's work L'education sentimentale, which owes a debt to Balzac's Illusions Perdues. "What Balzac started," says Lehan, "Flaubert helped finish.
Marcel Proust similarly learned from the Realist example; he adored Balzac and studied his works carefully. Balzac's story Une Heure de ma Vie (An Hour of my Life, 1822), in which minute details are followed by deep personal reflections, is a clear ancestor of the style used by Proust in À la recherche du temps perdu.
Perhaps no author was more affected by Balzac than the American expatriate novelist Henry James. In 1878 James wrote with sadness about the lack of commentary attention paid to Balzac, and lavished praise on the French writer in four essays (in 1875, 1877, 1902, and 1913). "Large as Balzac is," James wrote, "he is all of one piece and he hangs perfectly together. He wrote with admiration of Balzac's attempt to portray in writing "a beast with a hundred claws. In his own novels, James chose to explore more of the psychological motives of the characters and less of the historical sweep exhibited by Balzac – a conscious style preference. "[T]he artist of the Comédie Humaine," he wrote, "is half smothered by the historian. Still, both authors used the form of the realist novel to probe the machinations of society and the myriad motives of human behavior.
Balzac's vision of a society in which class, money and personal ambition are the major players has been endorsed by critics of both left-wing and right-wing political tendencies. Marxist Friedrich Engels wrote: "I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together. Balzac has received high praise from critics as diverse as Walter Benjamin and Camille Paglia. In 1970 Roland Barthes published S/Z, a detailed analysis of Balzac's story Sarrasine and a key work in structuralist literary criticism.
Balzac has also influenced popular culture. Many of his works have been made into popular films, including Les Chouans (in 1947), Le Père Goriot (BBC mini-series, in 1968), and La Cousine Bette (PBS mini-series, in 1974, starring Margaret Tyzack; film in 1998, starring Jessica Lange). He is significantly included in Francois Truffaut's film, The 400 Blows (1959). As a screenwriter, Truffaut believed Balzac and Proust to be the greatest French writers. He was also adapted into a character in Orson Scott Card's alternate history series The Tales of Alvin Maker. Balzac is presented as a crude but deeply witty and insightful man. In 2000, Chinese author Dai Sijie published Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), in which a suitcase filled with novels helps to sustain city youths sent to the countryside for "re-education" during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was made into a film (adapted and directed by the author) in 2002.
Incomplete at time of death
As "Lord R'Hoone", in collaboration
As "Horace de Saint-Aubin"
Selected titles from La Comédie humaine