On a warm morning in June of 1828, a young man of 29 years of age, five feet three inches in height, fat, poorly dressed, with greasy hair and sagging stockings, stood on the Place Vendome in Paris. He had recently incurred 50 thousand francs of debt attempting to run a failed printing company, and had two mistresses (one a duchess), both old enough to be his mother. With dozens of potboilers of no literary merit whatsoever, all published under various pseudonyms, to his credit, he stood staring up at Napoleon’s column. After a few moments contemplating his hero, he remarked to a man who was probably the only friend he had, “Some day soon, I, too, will conquer the world.” The young man was Honore de Balzac.
Balzac was also one of the most interesting characters of the 19th century and lived, in the 50 years allotted to him, three or four life spans crammed into one. He was a lover of women (mostly rich and many of them with titles), a man of business (who never once had an unqualified success either in investments or management), and a public figure (who was followed, harassed, and ridiculed in a way comparable to how Michael Jackson is today). As a novelist, he wrote 30 failed and virtually forgotten novels before even beginning the work for which he is famous, the uncompleted cycle of 100 fictional works known as The Human Comedy.
There are a number of “firsts” to his credit. Balzac was the original “starving artist in his garret”, whose parents, hardly penniless, gave him a pauper’s pension for two years and set him up in Paris to write, not so secretly hoping for failure, which would force him to take up a real career in the legal profession. In the character of the criminal Vautrin, who is superhumanly strong, intelligent, and crafty, and who appears in several novels and a play, Balzac invented the super criminal, the pre-curser to Moriarty, Fu Manchu, and Hannibal Lecter. He was an early adopter of the “sequel”, and helped to invent the modern book-of-the-month club. Finally, Balzac was one of the originators of literary realism.
Honore de Balzac was born in 1799, roughly mid-way between the years of the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. His father, Bernard Francois Balzac, was a sophisticated crackpot and raconteur, of dubious political conviction, who managed to avoid both the guillotine during the Revolution, and later the persecutions of the Bourbon monarchists. He had memorized much of Voltaire, Montaigne, Erasmus, and Descartes, and was so convinced by his homemade health regimen, which included the seduction of young women well into his 80s, and would allow him to live until 100 years of age, that he bought a Tontine, a popular form of investment at the time, the corpus and interest of which would fall to the last investor living. Balzac’s mother, Laure, was 32 years younger than her husband and, having lost her first child trying in vain to breastfeed him, sent the infant Balzac across town to a wet nurse and didn’t see her child until he was four years old. When Balzac was eight, his mother had an affair with a man her own age, resulting in an illegitimate son, Henri. She promptly sent Balzac to boarding school. In the next six years Balzac was visited only once by his mother and not at all by his father, who thought travel might threaten his longevity.
The eccentricities of his father and his abandonment by his mother represent two of the most formative elements of Balzac’s life, both as a man and as a writer. The former provided Balzac with a predilection for what is most interesting and strange, though very real indeed, in human behavior; in short, a fascination for the raw materials of storytelling. The latter, his mother’s lovelessness, spurred him not only to find the mother he never had, and eventually into a enormously profligate sex life, but also to become one of literature’s most sensitive writers on women and women’s issues. Noel Gerson, in his biography The Prodigal Genius, writes, “Balzac’s understanding of the mind, temperament and moods of the middle-class woman, and often of the aristocratic woman, proved to be uncanny. No other French author had demonstrated such insight, particularly into the world of the woman more than 30 years of age, whose marriage left her cold and who was slowly dying of lethargy and hostility. This woman, Balzac declared, had a right to live—and to love.”
Two volumes, published under his own name, launched Balzac’s career. Both were written to generate cash to pay off his debts, which were forever mounting in order to feed his insatiable appetite for food, luxurious clothing, and furniture, a pattern that would recur throughout his life. The Physiology of Marriage was a book-length treatment of current marital mores, a marriage manual. Its sympathetic treatment of women earned him a lifelong readership. Jules Janin, a critic and novelist, said in 1834, “Woman belongs to M. de Balzac, she belongs to him in all her finery, in her negligee, in the most minute detail of her private space; he dresses her and undresses her.”
The second work was the fantastical novel The Wild Ass’s Skin, a precursor to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was such a critical and financial success that for the first time in his life Balzac found magazine and book publishers competing with cash advances to commission his as-yet unwritten works.
Simultaneous with his publishing success, Balzac became a celebrated figure in Parisian society. His wit and intelligence astonished and intoxicated everyone who met him. It didn’t hurt that he pursued and eventually won the favors of the beautiful and most famous of Paris courtesans, Olympia Pellisier.
The paparazzi of Balzac’s day, the caricaturists, made merciless fun of him over the last 20 years of his life. When he began to affect, in his own rooms, a white wool robe with tassels, of his own design, drawings of Balzac as a buffoonish monk soon appeared in the weeklies. Balzac relished the attention and found new ways of nurturing it. His most famous conversation piece was a walking cane, also of his own design, studded with turquoises and an enormous crimson faceted stone set as the knob in the top. He maintained in public that it possessed magical properties, and hinted that the knob contained a portrait of his secret mistress, painted in the nude, who was a member of the highest aristocracy.
Balzac was gifted with enormous energy and never needed more than four hours of sleep per day. He fueled his literary efforts with as many as two dozen cups of coffee every day—a drink that he never allowed anyone else to prepare for him, and which eventually weakened his system and shortened his life. (A physician warned him in his early 40s that coffee would kill him and that he should stop. Aghast, he replied, “Without coffee I wouldn’t write another word!!”) In the 20 years of his literary maturity, Balzac averaged 25 closely written new pages and an equal number of revised pages, every day, all devoted to his magnum opus, The Human Comedy. This does not include a correspondence with his devoted sister Laure and his many lovers, which was equally voluminous.
Balzac daguerreotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson
Balzac was a man of enormous appetites and most of them were the subject of public comment, if not ridicule. Oddly enough, his love life remained largely out of the public eye. Balzac was nothing if not discrete, an important characteristic if you intend to sustain as many as four love affairs simultaneously. It’s never been determined with certainty the number of illegitimate children he bore, but there was certainly two and probably more. Many of his paramours were aristocratic women, most of them single. Only one, Duchess Claire de Castries, perhaps the woman of highest birth he ever pursued, is known to have rebuffed him. He had affairs with numerous Countesses, Marquises, and Baronesses. Madame De Berny, his first mistress, 20 years older than Balzac, was his lover well into his 40s, and the love of his life, Countess Eveline Hanska, who finally agreed to marry him near the end of his life, was his mistress for more than 15 years.
The “de” in Honore de Balzac indicated that he was a member of the aristocracy. However, there was nothing in the family genealogy to warrant the title, and Balzac didn’t even begin to sign his name with it until he was 30 years of age. One has to wonder, though, having conquered two duchesses before reaching his 25th birthday, if Balzac didn’t believe he deserved the title more than some who’d come by it more honestly.
Much has been made of Balzac’s success with women, most of it perplexed. The man was short, fat, rude, clumsy, poorly and often ridiculously dressed, and doused himself with evil-smelling perfume rather than bathe. Auguste Rodin’s bronze statue of Balzac provides a hint, depicting him rising like some vital life force from living rock. “Apparently his secret lay in his eyes,” writes one biographer, “Although his portraits and crude daguerreotypes of his final years reveal nothing extraordinary. Even the many people who had good cause to dislike him commented on the way he came alive when his eyes flashed, and he appears to have exerted an almost hypnotic influence on women.” It’s impossible to separate the great writer from the great womanizer in Balzac. He pursued both with equal energy and passion. And what he learned from women firsthand, particularly older women, can be found throughout his novels in his insights into human character, both male and female.
Character is Balzac’s greatest achievement. Wilde said, “A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades; who would care to go out to an evening party to meet the friends of one’s boyhood, when one can sit at home with Lucien de Rubempre.” (Of the death of this character, in A Harlot High and Low, Wilde called it “One of the great tragedies of my life”, one that he never got over.)
As mentioned earlier, Balzac was the most influential proponent and the first practitioner of literary realism. The term refers to the depiction of contemporary life and society “as they are”, including clear-eyed and unadorned depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of romanticized or stylized presentation. Balzac had a huge influence on later 19th-century French novelists like Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. It is not hard to find traces of Balzac in Hemingway or Dreiser, or in more recent writers as different as Mailer, Updike, Roth, Bellow, and Jonathan Franzen.
Balzac’s true claim to greatness lies in his ambition, and the extent to which he achieved the goals he set for himself. With less than 20 years left to live, Balzac mapped out a literary achievement so vast that it might today appear to be no more than arrogance. The Human Comedy would be a complete history of French society, both urban and rural, for the 19th century. It would treat all facets of society, including wealth, poverty, politics, crime, war, business, social status, and sexual behavior, and would eventually require fully 100 volumes. Balzac would write about everyone and everything, about banks, commerce, factories, the stock market, the press, and the legal profession. In addition, he would trace the lives of a revolving cast of more than 2,000 characters through various stages of their lives as, in each work, they took center stage, or receded to supporting roles, depending on the book and the subject at hand.
Of those 100 volumes, Balzac completed an astonishing 81 novels, some short and some very long. Though the quality is hardly uniform, there is general critical consensus that roughly half of them are masterpieces. These include the works already mentioned, plus Pere Goriot, Cousin Bette, Colonel Chabert, Lost Illusions, Cousin Pons, Eugenie Grandet, The History of the Thirteen, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, The Vicar of Tours, Gobseck, The Sign of the Cat and Racket, The Wrong Side of Paris, The Black Sheep, and many others. (I’ve read a total of 33 works, so far, and recommend the scintillating Cousin Bette and the shorter Colonel Chabert to the beginner.)
Balzac wrote this introduction to the entire work:
The idea of The Human Comedy was at first as a dream to me, one of those impossible projects which we caress and then let fly; a chimera that gives us a glimpse of its smiling woman’s face, and forthwith spreads its wings and returns to a heavenly realm of phantasy. But this chimera, like many another, has become a reality; has its behests, its tyranny, which must be obeyed.
The work to be written needed a threefold form—men, women, and things; that is to say, persons and the material expression of their minds; man, in short, and life.
The vastness of a plan, which includes both a history and a criticism of society, an analysis of its evils, and a discussion of its principles, authorizes me, I think, in giving to my work the title under which it now appears—The Human Comedy. Is this too ambitious? Is it not exact? That, when it is complete, the public must pronounce.
Of course, Balzac’s ambition allows him to choose a title to stand next to no less a work than The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.
Perhaps Balzac wrote too much. The same criticism has been made of contemporary authors Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. “If only they wrote fewer works,” so goes the criticism, “perhaps there’d be more masterpieces.” It’s like saying if Babe Ruth had only been at bat less often, he might have hit more homers.
But even Balzac’s lesser works have moments of vividness, of great energy, or poignancy. The short story “Madame Firmiani”, burdened by a long introductory third-hand description of the heroine, plus a rushed and sentimental ending, boasts one truly memorable passage:
There comes a moment when, content with her toilet, pleased with her own wit, delighted to be admired, and feeling herself the queen of a salon full of remarkable men who smile to her, the Parisian woman reaches a full consciousness of her grace and charm; her beauty is enhanced by the looks she gathers in—a mute homage which she transfers with subtle glances to everyone else in the room. At moments like these a woman is invested with supernatural power and becomes a magician, a witch, without herself knowing that she is one; involuntarily she inspires the love that fills her own bosom; her smiles and glances fascinate. If this condition, which comes from the soul, can give attraction even to a plain woman, with what radiance does it not invest a woman of natural elegance, distinguished bearing, fair, fresh, with sparkling eyes, and dressed in a taste that wrings approval from even her bitterest rivals.
Have you ever, for your happiness, met a woman whose harmonious voice gives to her speech the same charm that emanates from her manners? A woman who knows how to speak and to be silent, whose words are happily chosen, whose language is pure, and who concerns herself in your interests with delicacy? Her wit is caressing, her criticism never wounds; she neither discourses nor argues, but she likes to lead a discussion and stop it at the right moment. Her manner is affable and smiling, her politeness never forced, her readiness to serve others never servile; she reduces the respect she claims to a soft shadow; she never wearies you, and you leave her satisfied with her and with yourself. Everything about her pleases the eye; in her presence you breathe, as it were, your native air. This woman is all nature. There is no effort about her; she is aiming at no effect; her feelings are shown simply, because they are true. You love her so well that if this angel did wrong you would be ready to excuse her anything. If, for your happiness, you have met with such a woman, you know Madame Firmiani.
I’ll leave the last word to two other critics. Simon Leys, in the New York Review of Books, writes, “To engage in a complete reading of The Human Comedy is akin to embarking on a raft and attempting the descent of a huge wild river: once you start, you cannot get off, you are powerless to stop, you are carried away into another world—more exciting, more intense, more real than the dull scene you left ashore.” And Wilde: “Balzac’s characters have a kind of fervent, fiery colored existence. They dominate us and defy skepticism…. Balzac did not copy life, he created it.”