Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), one of the great European writers and founder of the modern novel, is the embodiment of nineteenth century France. His monumental work, LA COMEDIE HUMAINE (1829-1848; THE HUMAN COMEDY [1885-1893]), comprising over a hundred novels, short stories, studies and several unfinished works, chronicles the transition from a feudal society to an industrialized economy.
His 1842 preface to THE HUMAN COMEDY, an attempt to marry science and art in the nineteenth century, outlines the guiding principles of his panoramic thought through its comparison of human types to animal species, its theory that all creation proceeded from a single, primordial entity and diversified under the influence of environment, the destructive power of passion and the perfecting power of society. By the time the preface was written, Balzac had had several lovers, including the Russian countess, Eveline Hanska, whom he eventually married shortly before his death, and had established a pattern of behavior that included coffee-fueled writing marathons and a distinct inability to extricate himself from a crushing debt load.
BALZAC: A LIFE is a spellbinding account of the man, literary genius, philosopher, observer of the human condition, and defender of the throne and altar. Graham Robb’s meticulous and rich anecdotal retelling of Balzac’s ideals, passions and failures reveals his dichotomous nature, driven by his love for Countess Hanska, partially in compensation, perhaps, for the erratic behavior of his clearly nonmaternal mother, and his boundless intellectual curiosity. Intertwined with probing comments that evoke the richness and complexities of THE HUMAN COMEDY, this biography offers a beautifully told and supremely sensitive rendering of the life of one of France’s most influential writers.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCI, September 1, 1994, p. 19.
The Christian Science Monitor. September 29, 1994, p. 13.
Kirkus Reviews. LXII, June 1, 1994, p. 760.
Library Journal. CXIX, July, 1994, p. 94.
London Review of Books. XVI, July 7, 1994, p. 14.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 11, 1994, p. 2.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 11, 1994, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, June 27, 1994, p. 62.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 17, 1994, p. 8.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, August 28, 1994, p. 1.
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...
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