Honoré de Balzac - Biography
Honoré de Balzac was a major French writer who would in turn be a novelist, playwright, literary critic, art critic, essayist, journalist and even a printer. Balzac’s oeuvre is one of the largest in French literature with 91 published novels and short stories he wrote between 1829 and when he died in 1850. Balzac had in fact planned to write 137 in total. He was born on May 20th 1799 in Tours, a city situated in central France. Born into a bourgeois family he is educated by a nurse until the age of four. Then from 1807 to 1813 Balzac would be in boarding school at the collège des oratoriens de Vendôme also in the Centre region of France. However, from sixteen years of age he would leave his native region and go study in Paris. Very quickly Honoré is placed as a clerk in a attorney’s office and enrolls at the university where he would study civil and criminal law.
However, in 1819 Balzac abandons law for literature. There is a record of his sister writing that it is by preparing legal speeches that Balzac realized the beauty of the French language. At that point he writes Crowell a tragedy in five acts. But this play does not end up receiving many encouragements. In 1821 he meets Laure de Berny who would become both a big inspiration and a lover. It is generally agreed that the kind of love he had for her was almost a maternal one. De Berny would be the first and it would appear the greatest passion of the writer. In 1822 Balzac publishes Clotilde de Lusignan (“Clotilde from Lusignan”) under the alias of Lord R’hoone and the year after he writes La Dernière Fée (“The Last Fairy”), which gets completely ignored, under the pseudonym of Horace de Saint Aubin.
Yet in spite of rather difficult beginnings, Honoré de Balzac would become one of the undisputed masters of the French novel. He would end up writing several genres of novel and would become extremely good at each of them. For example, some of his most famous works include the 1829 Les Chouans (“The Royalists”), which is a historical/political novel. The 1831 Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (“The Unknown Masterpiece”), a philosophical novel. Also in 1831 La Peau de chagrin (“The Magic Skin”), which is a fantasy novel with philosophical undertones. And finally a poetic novel with Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley) published in 1836.
However Balzac becomes most famous at the time of his life for his realistic and psychological novels at such Le Père Goriot (1835, sometimes translated as either “Father Goriot” or “Old Man Goriot”) and Eugénie Grandet (1833, simply translated as “Eugenie Grandet” in English). They all constitute a very important part of his oeuvre but they have unfortunately often led to reductively categorize him as just “a realist author”, thus missing the point of Balzac’s momentous contribution to the imaginary in literature.
Recent research on Balzac in fact underscore, on the contrary, both the romanticism and poetic nature of his novels, pointing out for instance Le Lys dans la vallée: (The Lily of the Valley). Additionally Balzac scholar Jacques Martineau, supports the thesis Balzac had a clear ability for fantasy and even mysticism which inspired him deeply in the writing of many of his novels and short stories.
Balzac was quite methodical and he thus organized his work within a larger ensemble. He entitled it La Comédie Humaine (“The Human Comedy”), spanning from 1829 until his death in 1850, whose title is a reference to Dante’s famous The Divine Comedy. Balzac’s stated project here was to explore the different social classes as well as the individuals within them. Furthermore, he intends to “faire concurrence à l’état civil” (“to compete with the state”), as he himself put it in La Comédie Humaine’s forward. After much correspondence with countess Eve Hanska, Balzac would finally meet her in September 1833 and they would become lovers. The romance would eventually lead to a wedding. The many letters they had written to each other today provides valuable information on the development of La Comédie Humaine.
In 1845 Balzac sought to give a firmer structure to “The Human Comedy” and decided that the complete works would include one hundred and thirty seven novels grouped in three parts. Indeed, Balzac would unite his texts in essentially three generic sets: Études de moeurs (“Studies of Manners”), Études analytiques (“Analytical Studies”), and Études philosophiques (“Philosophical Studies”). He deemed the latter of great importance for he thought it was the window through which one could understand his whole oeuvre. In fact Balzac would even write that La Peau de chagrin (“The Magic Skin”) was the very keystone that linked it all together. Here follows one of the most telling and beautiful passages from it. We can get a sense as to how much Balzac is inspired by certain philosophical as well as even some mystical themes:
I will tell you in a few words the great secret of human life. By two instinctive processes man exhausts the springs of life within him. Two verbs cover all the forms which these two causes of death may take--To Will and To have your Will. Between these two limits of human activity the wise have discovered an intermediate formula, to which I owe my good fortune and long life. To Will consumes us, and To have our Will destroys us, but To Know steeps our feeble organisms in perpetual calm. [...] My one ambition has been to see. Is not Sight in a manner Insight? And to have knowledge or insight, is not that to have instinctive possession? To be able to discover the very substance of fact and to unite its essence to our essence? [...] I have reveled in the contemplation of seas, peoples, forests, and mountains! I have seen all things, calmly, and without weariness; I have set my desires on nothing; I have waited in expectation of everything.”
Overall Honoré de Balzac would paint a broad picture of the society of his time, creating archetype characters such as the young ambitious provincial who wants to conquer Paris, embodied in Eugène de Rastignac, the main character in Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot). We also have Félix Grandet in Eugénie Grandet who personifies a penny pincher tyrant servant. But also Jean-Joachim Goriot, the paragon father whom Balzac qualifies as the “Christ of paternity”, appears also in Le Père Goriot. Or even Vautrin, the convict converted into a policeman, a character who, like many of Balzac’s character, appears in several of his novels.
Balzac will have directly influenced writers such as Gustave Flaubert whose novel, L’Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education) was directly inspired by Balzac’s Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley), and also Flaubert’s Madame Bovary by La Femme de trente ans (A Woman of Thirty). Balzac’s invention of the novel cycle with La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy) together with his principle of having characters reappearing in several novels have also influenced many writers of both his as well as the next century. This included the famous nineteenth century French writer Émile Zola with his novel cycle entitled Les Rougon-Macquart, which is a collection of twenty novel written between 1871 and 1893. Later we see evidence of this happening again, for example, with the internationally acclaimed French writer Marcel Proust.
Today we continue to reprint works of Balzac in several languages, including even his early works. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that his novels are also still nowadays an inexhaustible source of inspiration for movies. We can count about one hundred films based on his work, and that in numerous countries.
Between 1847 and 1847 Balzac moved to the Ukraine to live with the Countess and they would eventually move to Paris together. However, having suffered successive heart attacks, exhausted by the prodigious efforts made throughout his life for his work, so much so he would sometimes reportedly confuse reality and fiction, together with the excessive consumption of coffee, Balzac died on August 19 1850, not long after marrying Eve Hanska. He is buried at the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery where other famous artists are buried, incidentally that includes singer of The Doors Jim Morrison, and at which sad occasion the more than famous French writer Victor Hugo would make a speech in the form of eulogy.