Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2261
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 send them back to be reset. Even experienced compositors had difficulty deciphering these corrections, and even at double wages they would refuse to work more than an hour at a time on his proof sheets. When Balzac received the second revised galleys he would repeat the process, sometimes entirely rewriting a book in this manner fifteen or twenty times. Often the exorbitant cost of these typesetting charges would come out of his own fees, but his effort to make all of his work as nearly perfect as possible could never be compromised. He kept a copy of each of his books together with all the successive revisions, and these would often total two thousand pages for a two-hundred-page novel. Finally, toward five in the afternoon, he would finish the day’s writing. He would then eat, perhaps see a friend, and plan the next night’s writing. At eight he would go to bed, to be awakened again at midnight for another sixteen to eighteen hours of continuous labor.
Only a powerful constitution allowed him to carry out such a demanding work schedule, and Balzac was not the stereotypical delicate poet. Though only five feet, two or three inches tall, he was very strongly built, with a thick, muscular neck, broad shoulders, and a huge chest. His bulk made him an easy target for caricaturists, and most of the likenesses of Balzac that remain are caricatures, not only because of his build but also because he always insisted on attempting to dress in the latest, and invariably the least flattering, fashions, frequently carrying one of his famous gem-studded walking sticks. Despite his lack of what would normally be thought good looks and his absurd manner of dressing, Balzac was quite attractive to women because of his depth of understanding and the intensity of his personality, which immediately dominated any gathering at which he was present, an intensity that even his enemies admitted.
Balzac’s workload certainly played a part in shortening his life—he died at the age of fifty-one—but in any given year or two he produced more lasting work than many of his contemporaries did in their entire careers. The huge scale of his achievement makes it impossible to represent or judge his work on the basis of one or two, or even a dozen, examples. Although Le Père Goriot (1835; Father Goriot, 1844) and Eugénie Grandet (1833; English translation, 1859) might be singled out as his best-known works, there are literally dozens of others of the same caliber. It is doubtful that any other writer has produced so much work of such consistent quality, a consistency that extends over the full twenty years of his maturity. Early novels such as La Peau de chagrin and late novels such as La Cousine Bette (1846; Cousin Bette, 1888) are equally likely to be chosen as examples of his best work. Whereas some critics have noticed certain types of development over this period, for example a tendency toward greater realism, exceptions can be found to every rule. Balzac seems to have reached his full development almost at one stroke, at age thirty, and to have continued at full power until a year or two before his death, with few pauses between masterpieces.
When Balzac began the program for La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896; also known as The Human Comedy), he set himself the task of writing the gigantic work in three sections: the “Studies of Manners,” which would depict every kind of character and every way of living for every stratum of society; the “Philosophical Studies,” which would analyze the motivating causes behind all of this social behavior; and the “Analytical Studies,” which would outline the principles behind these various effects and causes. While his project was never to be finished (at his death he left some fifty titles of works to be written in order to complete the structure of the whole), the novels he did write are usually grouped according to these categories, with the “Studies of Manners” further subdivided into scenes of private, provincial, Parisian, political, military, and country life.
In 1842, Balzac signed a contract to issue a collected edition of his works, a massive undertaking requiring the collaboration of three publishers. Believing that “Collected Works” was too commonplace a title for the edition, they asked Balzac to find another title. He chose The Human Comedy by way of contrasting his work with Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) and also to suggest its comprehensive scope, announcing in his preface to the edition his intention to present a history and criticism of the whole of society.
Although Honoré de Balzac lived to write “only” 95 of the 144 novels he had planned for the structure of The Human Comedy, the completed sections constitute one of the greatest achievements ever produced by the literary imagination, a series of explorations not only of French society of the first half of the nineteenth century but also of an unparalleled range of human types. Balzac was, in his time, France’s most popular writer and, internationally, France’s most respected author. Since that time, his prestige has steadily grown. As André Maurois has asserted, “It has been said that the works of Balzac, of William Shakespeare, and of Tolstoy constitute the three great monuments raised by humanity to humanity. That is true and moreover The Human Comedy is the vastest and most complete of the three.”
Bertault, Philippe. Balzac and the Human Comedy. Translated by Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1963. Primarily a study of The Human Comedy rather than of its author, but it does include analysis of the effects of Balzac’s life on his work, and features a convenient ten-page biographical sketch at the beginning of the text.
Gerson, Noel B. The Prodigal Genius: The Life and Times of Honoré de Balzac. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. Written by a best-selling author for a general audience. Despite occasional sensationalism, an absorbing and well-researched account and a very good introduction for the nonspecialist.
Hunt, Herbert J. Honoré de Balzac: A Biography. London: Athlone Press, 1957. A straightforward historical narration of the major events of Balzac’s life, competent and concise, though superseded by more recent works. Hunt’s running commentary on the literary works is often still interesting. Many passages quoted in French are not translated.
Marceau, Félicien. Balzac and His World. Translated by Derek Coltman. New York: Orion Press, 1966. More a study of Balzac’s characters than of his life, but interspersed with much relevant biographical information.
Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. The definitive biography by France’s premier literary biographer. Primarily aimed at an audience already knowledgeable about the subject. A thorough and usually objective account of the facts of Balzac’s life, clarifying many previously obscure details. Despite its close attention to specifics, however, Maurois’ book is also a highly readable and entertaining narrative.
Oliver, E. J. Balzac, the European. London: Sheed & Ward, 1959. An overview of both the life and the novels, organized around a variety of thematic emphases such as “Women of Letters,” “Religion,” and “The Absolute.” Provides a usefully condensed survey.
Pritchett, V. S. Balzac. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. Includes more than two hundred valuable illustrations of Balzac, his contemporaries, and his environment, among them forty high-quality color plates. Extremely valuable for orienting the reader unfamiliar with Balzac and his time and place.
Zweig, Stefan. Balzac. Edited by Richard Friedenthal. Translated by William Rose and Dorothy Rose. New York: Viking Press, 1946. After Maurois, Zweig is the best biographer of Balzac. Although slightly dated, this fascinating book reads almost like a novel about his life. Zweig’s tendency to offer his own interpretations of events makes his work more subjective than Maurois’, and perhaps less reliable in some particulars, but it remains the best introduction for the nonspecialist.
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