Honoré de Balzac, one of the great European writers and founder of the modern novel, is the embodiment of nineteenth century France. His monumental work La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1885-1893), comprising more than one hundred novels, short stories, and studies, along with several unfinished works, chronicles the transition from a feudal society to an industrialized economy. The prolific creator of more than two thousand characters, linked by family relations or coincidence, Balzac offers a scientific and unified vision of society and the human condition, from the trivial anecdote to the sweeping depiction of the machinations of power. Country life, the bourgeoisie, politics, the military, philosophy: All aspects of French society would eventually find themselves the object of his scrutiny.
Balzac’s father, born Bernard-François Balssa into an uninterrupted line of peasants in the south of France, changed his name to Balzac, that of an ancient noble family, and eventually added the supposedly aristocratic de. He became a clerk in a lawyer’s office, moved to Paris before his twentieth birthday, and rose to occupy such lofty positions as secretary to the King’s Council. At the age of fifty, this rather eccentric man accepted an arranged marriage to Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, eighteen years of age, who came from an ambitious family of haberdashers in Paris. Two years later, in 1799, Honoré was born in Tours. Hours after his birth, he was sent to live with a wet nurse; later, he would see this as his mother’s desertion.
At the age of eight, Balzac was sent to the ancient Collège de Vendôme, which would be his home for the next six years. During this time, he would see his mother twice. Even before entering the school, Balzac was an avid reader of adventure stories such as Robinson Crusoe (1719), The Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), accounts of Napoléon’s victories, and the Bible. His solitary time was spent reading and inventing small amusing gadgets, such as the three-nib pen, a time-saver for students required to write lines.
Establishing a rather mediocre record in Latin, geography, history, physics, chemistry, fencing, music, and mathematics, Balzac was sent in 1815 to the Collège Charlemagne in Paris, where the concierge supplied him with forbidden books and coffee—a status symbol because it was a product from the far-off colonies, and later in his life, the fuel of his fictional world. From 1816 to 1818, he studied law at the École de Droit in addition to history, philosophy, and literature at the Sorbonne. Balzac’s intellectual development was nurtured by a limitless curiosity, which he hoped to satisfy by following a list he had drawn up of 164 items of future research from gastronomy, acoustics, zoology, and cosmography to differential calculus, cereal-growing, and Presbyterianism. By this time, his will to achieve greatness was clearly established. Despite being offered a full-time position in a Paris law firm, with the chance to take it over after a short apprenticeship, in 1819 Balzac was allowed by his parents to dedicate the following two years to his dream of becoming a writer—with the condition, however, that he live an invisible and disciplined life in Paris, pretending to be visiting relatives in the south of France.
During this time, Balzac, when not immersed in Descartes and Spinoza at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, discovered the novel, then considered to be the type of book read by servants to idle women. To an educated person, such works lacked subtlety and philosophical importance. Tales of the supernatural and gothic novels, for example, were in demand. Balzac became spellbound by this new literary genre, which did not bear the rigor of rhymes but which, with the spread of literacy, could well be his road to glory. Balzac’s earliest unfinished novels—Sténie, Falthurne, and Corsino—date from this period.
In 1821, Balzac and Auguste de l’Égreville, a twenty-eight-year-old writer, entered into a professional relationship whereby Balzac would write some novels under single authorship (under his name or a pseudonym) and some in collaboration with l’Égreville, all of which the latter would sell to publishers. In 1822, five such novels were published. Thus began Balzac’s first commercial literary enterprises. Living on his own and practically a kept man, deeply in debt to his lover, Laure de Berny, a married woman, Balzac set up shop as a printer seven years after embarking on a literary career. Although monetary rewards were scarce, he came to know the writers Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny. Balzac’s life as a printer came to an end in 1828, when his business collapsed.
Published in 1829, Le dernier chouan (renamed Les Chouans; translated as The Chouans, 1890), the first building block in the construction of The Human Comedy, depicts a monarchist...