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.