Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Balzac’s novels, assembled under the collective title The Human Comedy, form a literary monument composed of some ninety-five works, with more than two thousand characters, which provides a comprehensive survey and analysis of French society and culture at all levels during the first half of the nineteenth century.
The son of a peasant, Bernard-François Balzac had risen in society to become the head of the hospital administration and deputy mayor of the town of Tours. His wife, Anne Laure Sallambier, was the daughter of an affluent merchant. At the time of their arranged marriage, he was fifty-one and she was nineteen. Perhaps understandably, the eccentric elderly husband and romantic (but soon bitter) young wife both engaged in extramarital affairs and were not always devoted parents. When their son Honoré was born in 1799, he was sent to a wet nurse and was joined two years later by his sister Laure. After spending the first four years of his life away from his mother, he lived at home until he was seven (though even during this period he attended boarding school and was only brought home on Sundays). At the age of eight, he was sent to the Collège de Vendôme for five years, partly to get him out of the way while his mother had a child by another man, during which time he later claimed never to have been visited by his parents. Many of his biographers see his perception of this early neglect, especially on the part of his mother, as one of the reasons that several of his early love affairs were with older women. These relationships, many of which developed into friendships that lasted for decades, may in turn account for the many portraits of strong, intelligent women in his novels.
Balzac studied law for three years, a knowledge of which later became useful to him as a novelist, but after passing his law examinations in 1819 he announced to his family his determination to become a writer. Despite their apparent coldness, his parents generously agreed to support him for a two-year trial period, during which he lived in a fifth-floor attic in Paris and wrote a five-act verse tragedy on Oliver Cromwell. The experiment was a failure, never produced or even published during his lifetime, but Balzac was committed to his new vocation and merely resolved to turn from the theater to journalism and novel writing to support himself.
He produced a series of novels under various pseudonyms over the next several years, all written in haste and many in collaboration with other hack writers. During this time he also borrowed large sums of money, much of it from his mother and mistress, to establish himself in business, first as a printer, then as a publisher, and eventually as a typefounder, the beginning of a lifelong series of business failures. As a result of these speculative ventures as well as of an always extravagant lifestyle, he was heavily in debt throughout his life, despite a considerable income from his writing in later years.
In 1829, Balzac published Les Chouans (English translation, 1890), the first of his novels to have lasting merit and, significantly, the first published under his own name. Indeed, for his next novel, La Peau de chagrin (1831; The Magic Skin, 1888), the first of his masterpieces, he even embellished his name by the addition, before his surname, of the particle “de,” a sign of nobility to which he was not entitled by law or birth. It is a sign of the esteem of posterity that his name has since been written invariably, if technically inaccurately, as “Honoré de Balzac.”
As a result of the pressure to earn money created by his constant condition of indebtedness, Balzac’s literary output reached staggering proportions. In the twenty years between 1830 and 1850, the period of his maturity as a writer, he produced some ninety-five novels, featuring more than two thousand characters, as well as several hundred short stories, essays, reviews, and plays. Even more remarkable than the sheer quantity of his work is its remarkably high quality. All but a handful of his novels are of the first rank. Balzac was able to produce so much good work only by virtue of his tremendous physical and mental vitality.
Balzac would begin a typical working day at midnight, when his servant would knock on his door to wake him. He always worked in a long white robe, similar to a monk’s, at a table with candles, blank paper (of a slightly blue tinge—so as to tire his eyes less rapidly—and with an especially smooth surface that would allow him to write as quickly and effortlessly as possible), an inkwell, and several raven’s quill pens. He never used any notes or books, having already fixed everything in his mind before writing. Balzac would then write for eight hours with no interruptions except for preparing and drinking large quantities of strong black coffee. At eight, he would have a light breakfast and a bath and send the night’s work to the printer.
The composition of a novel had only just begun for Balzac at this stage. At about nine o’clock he would begin revising the proofs of the pages he had written the night before. His emendations and additions were often much longer than the text he was correcting, and he therefore required that his galleys be printed on large sheets, with the text occupying only a small square in the middle. After he had completely filled all the margins with scribbled changes, he would...
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As a young man, Balzac attended the Sorbonne, where he acquired a life-long and passionate devotion to literature. He published his first successful novel, Les Denier chouan, in 1829. This event marked the beginning of an extraordinarily prolific literary career in which he produced over ninety novels and short stories. His masterpiece was La Comédie humaine, a long series of novels that contained many of his finest works, such as Eugénie Grandet (1833) and Le Père Goriot (1834). He also wrote and produced plays, several collections of poems, and several works of literary criticism. Early in his career, Balzac produced a number of sensational novels under pen names. Although he could never be described as a subtle or delicate novelist, his heavy use of tiny details helped to portray the lives of ordinary people realistically. Attention to detail, combined with his unbounded energy and passion for life, allowed Balzac to create a vast and exciting panorama of life in early nineteenth-century France in his novels.
Embedded in this panorama was Balzac’s determination to expose the evil and venality that he believed permeated French society during the early nineteenth century. He was never troubled by censorship during his lifetime—largely because his political views did not conflict with those of the various regimes that held power—however, his realistic exposure of human foibles upset the guardians of public morality of the late nineteenth century. The Roman Catholic church placed his complete works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, despite the fact that Balzac had never been as hostile toward organized religion as many of his French and European literary contemporaries. In fact, he regarded organized religion as necessary to hold society together, and criticized it in his work only when he believed that it failed to meet his exalted standard. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the governments of many countries, including Russia, Canada, the United States, and Spain temporarily banned selected titles from his long list of novels. Explicit sexual content and overt political criticism in his work did not prompt these actions. It was Balzac’s frequently unflattering portrayals of the upper echelons of French society that upset his various censors.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Honoré de Balzac grew up in a bourgeois family in Tours, then moved with them to Paris, where he completed his undistinguished education—he was apparently too much of a dreamer to perform well in classes. Working as a clerk in law and financial practices and attending the Sorbonne lectures of Victor Cousin and François Guizot in the evenings led him to develop an abhorrence for the mundane existence of the salaried working class. In 1819, he suddenly announced that he intended to become a writer, and there followed years of misery as he eked out his living in rented attics, existing like a hermit by extraordinary economy and by producing a flood of anonymous cheap tracts and novels. Although his family hoped that these conditions would bring Balzac back to his senses, unyielding patterns were formed instead, traits that would continue for the rest of his life. His prodigious energy, combined with a strong will, established his daily regimen of writing—often twenty hours, nonstop—which he sustained by his own blends of coffee. His penniless existence helped whet his appetite for financial success to the degree that he was often tempted to embark on the most elaborate schemes to make his fortune. It was not that his ideas, such as forming a publishing company that would produce inexpensive copies of the classics, were unsound; in fact, his notions were far ahead of his time. His sense of management, however, as well as his choice of partners and financial...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Honoré Balzac was born in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799, of bourgeois parents. He was to acquire the predicate of nobility—the name by which he is known today—when, in 1831, in tribute to his official commitment to embark on the writing of The Human Comedy, he dubbed himself Honoré de Balzac. This change of name is symptomatic of Balzac’s lifelong craving to be an aristocrat and to enjoy the deep respect and the want-for-nothing lifestyle that accompanied that status.
The eldest of four children, Balzac was treated very coldly by his parents, who entrusted him to the care of a wet nurse for four years, then sent him to board with a family of strangers for two years, and finally had him attend...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
The eldest of four children, Honoré de Balzac was born as Honoré Balzac on May 20, 1799, in Tours, France, where his father was a high government official. His mother inculcated in young Honoré a taste for the occult and for Swedenborgian metaphysics. After his early studies, distinguished only by the breadth of his reading, Balzac attended law school while auditing classes at the Sorbonne.
Although Balzac was graduated in 1819, he rejected a legal career and decided instead to write plays. His first work, a verse tragedy about Oliver Cromwell, was judged a failure by friends and family. Undaunted by their verdict, however, Balzac began writing penny dreadfuls and gothic thrillers under various pseudonyms....
(The entire section is 362 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Honoré de Balzac (BOL-zak) was born in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799. His father, Bernard-François, was a government official of peasant origin. His mother, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, from a family of similar background but higher status, was twenty-two years younger than her husband. Honoré, the first of their four children, felt closest to his sister Laure in his childhood and early youth. Educated at boarding schools, he was a voracious reader and showed an early interest in philosophy. In 1814, the Balzac family moved to Paris.
From 1816 to 1818, Balzac attended the Sorbonne, studying law and...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Honoré de Balzac is an almost pure example of the creative impulse at work. Founded in the author’s broad knowledge of society, his characters grow, interact, and pursue their trades as if they had a life of their own. Balzac acknowledged their autonomy, which he believed was limited only by the basic laws of his lifelike world. While a higher justice occasionally intervenes in Balzac’s world, it is primarily human choices that determine the ironic course of the myriad individual lives in The Human Comedy.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Honoré de Balzac (bahl-zahk) was born Honoré Balzac in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799. His father, originally from the peasant stock of the Albigeois, had risen to become director of commissariat to Napoleon’s 22d Division. In 1799, Napoleon was returning from Egypt to rule for fifteen years over half of Europe. Thus the first years of Balzac’s life passed during the glorious reign of Napoleon, and the emperor’s career had a great effect on the young Balzac’s mind.
From 1807 to 1814, Balzac was a student, first at the Collège des Oratoriens in Vendôme, then at L’Institut Lepître and L’Institut...
(The entire section is 1272 words.)
Born in southwestern France in 1799, Honore de Balzac was a man whose temperaments and habits were perfectly suited to the changeable and exuberant age in which he lived. After completing his early education at boarding schools, Balzac studied for law and worked in a notary’s office in Paris. Meanwhile, he was also studying literature at the Sorbonne. With his parents’ somewhat reluctant support— they paid for a garret for him—he tried his hand at writing. This period, 1819 to 1824, produced a number of unsuccessful and undeveloped philosophical and literary works, but it also proved to be a valuable apprenticeship.
Around the time Balzac was finding his novelist’s voice, he also formed the first in a series of close relationships with women from whom he received warmth—and sometimes passion, critical response, and the gift of insight into the female psyche. Balzac met Laurie de Berny when he was 22 years old and she was twice that. Their love affair lasted eight years, but their friendship endured until her death in 1836. He also formed a close, if platonic friendship with a schoolmate of his sister, Zulma Carrud, from whose military officer husband he gathered material about life in the Napoleonic campaigns. The third woman to influence the developing novelist during this period was the Duchess of Abrantes. From her, he gathered entertaining anecdotes on life inside the Imperial court and was introduced to the salons of nobility, which would be reproduced later in La Comedie.
After a period of newspaper and hackwork necessitated by financial need, Balzac finally published his first literary worked, Le Dernier Choan, which would later become the first volume of La Comedie Humaine. This book, though commercially unsuccessful, impressed the literary establishment with its rich rendering of details from ordinary life and its fully drawn characters. ‘‘La Grande Bretèche,’’ first published as in a volume of La Comedie Humaine title Autre Étude de Femme, or Another Study of Women in 1842, shows the full flowering of the new Romantic Movement in Balzac’s fiction.
Balzac died a newlywed in his Paris apartment in August of 1850. Despite humble origins, constant financial difficulties, and his irrepressible appetites, he left behind an impressive and lasting literary legacy. His rich personal life informed his fiction, which is still read today.