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Balzac’s genius for detail creates ‘The Human Comedy’

Posted in Historical articles, Literature on Saturday, 29 October 2011

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This edited article about literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 851 published on 6 May 1978.

Honore de Balzac, picture, image, illustration

Honore de Balzac meets Madam Hanska who would become his idol

Britain has its Dickens, Russia its Tolstoy, Germany its Goethe. To France belongs the gigantic figure of Honore de Balzac, whose 20 volume panorama of French society, The Human Comedy, has placed him firmly among the literary immortals.

He was condemned in his lifetime, and even today by many critics, for his tortuous style and minute descriptions of even the smallest objects, to say nothing of his habit of breaking the flow of a novel by launching into a learned dissertation on one of his pet subjects.

Yet his work has endured for the sheer power of much of his writing, and for the accuracy of his insight into human nature.

History has handed down to us a picture of a paunchy figure, often dressed in a monastic white robe with a gold chain as a girdle. He wrote week after week for 12 hours at a stretch, sustained with jugs of black coffee, while he worked on his great project, The Human Comedy, finally dying at the age of 51 from overwork. In that short span of life, Balzac still managed to pack in a great deal of living, away from his desk.

Balzac was born in 1799 at Tours, the eldest son of a taciturn father and a mother who was 30 years younger than her husband. After a rather unhappy childhood, much of it spent away at boarding school, he rejected his parents’ wish that he should become a lawyer, and headed for Paris.

There he starved in a garret while trying to establish himself as a writer. His early novels, published under pseudonyms, brought him neither money nor fame.

In 1826 he embarked on a publishing venture which failed, leaving him saddled with heavy debts which took him ten years to pay off. It was to set the pattern of his whole life in which he accumulated debts, paid them off, and then acquired fresh debts, largely because of his complete inability to be sensible with money.

Balzac’s first success came with Les Chouans, a romantic story of the royalist insurrection in La Vendee and Brittany. Soon after this, he met Madam Hanska, a Polish countess, who became his idol, though he saw her rarely. He did, however, correspond with her for 17 years, before marrying her only a few months before his death.

Now a successful author, he launched himself into The Human Comedy, which he intended to write as a series of novels under that general title. He grouped his novels in various categories, scenes of private life, provincial life and country life, military life and Parisian life. The whole comprises what one critic called a record office, filled with “archives” on every stratum of French society during a period in French history when money and careerism governed almost everything.

Balzac caught it all exactly, if often long-windedly, in his novels, recreating down to the smallest detail, the dress speech, background, and even the income and expenditure of his characters. These characters became so real in Balzac’s mind that he often confused them in his mind with living people whom he knew. Fortunately, each novel is complete in itself, and it is not necessary to read them all to obtain the full flavour of Balzac’s work.

Despite all his working years as a writer, when he produced more than 90 novels, he travelled frequently abroad, or visited friends in the country. Always he spent money recklessly on wild-brained schemes, such as when he went to Sardinia to make his fortune by melting the silver out of the slag heaps of the Roman mines.

His schemes for making fortunes were as absurd as they were numerous, but his buoyant nature was never for long depressed by their total failure.

Between the get-rich schemes, he found other ways of throwing away his money. For no reason at all, beyond the fact that he was bored with his apartment, he had a villa constructed which he furnished at great expense, and then spent years fighting off his creditors.

A warm-hearted, excitable man, Balzac seemed to be at war most of the time with a large number of his friends, and particularly his publishers. These had to bear with a novelist who insisted on completely rewriting his novels at proof stage, in a handwriting so illegible that the printers had to employ a special team of men to decipher it.

Strangely, though highly regarded, Balzac was never made a member of the French Academy. More than once he was put forward as a candidate, but the majority of those who had the power to admit him into those hallowed halls were against him. The reason they gave for their refusal to vote for him was that he had not sufficient fortune to keep up the position of an Academician.

“Since they do not like my honorable poverty,” Balzac wrote to a friend, “they will have to do without my riches later on.” Riches, in the sense of monetary wealth, he was never to possess. Despite his enormous industry, he was in debt to the very end of his life, and it was left to his widow, aided by the sale of his copyrights, to pay off his many remaining debts.

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