Honoré de Balzac
|French literary history|
Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) was a French novelist. Along with Flaubert, he is generally regarded as a founding father of realism in European literature. His work, the bulk of which is collectively entitled La Comédie humaine, is a broad panorama of French society in the period of the Restoration (1815-1830) and the July Monarchy (1830-1848).
Balzac's literary output began with chronicles and sketches on widely varied social and artistic topics. The journals to which he contributed were increasingly looking for short fiction, which Balzac was able to provide. A collection Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes from Private Life) came out in 1829, and was well received: these were tales told with a journalistic eye which looked into the fabric of modern life and did not shun social and political realities. Balzac had found a distinctive voice.
He had already turned out potboiler historical novels in the manner of Walter Scott and Anne Radcliffe, on commission from publishers, but only under pseudonyms ('Horace de Saint-Aubin', for example, was responsible for the scandalous Vicaire des Ardennes (1822), banned for its depiction of pseudo-incestuous relations and, more importantly, of a married priest). With Le Dernier chouan, however (1829) he entered the mainstream as an author of full-length fiction.
This sober tale of provincial France in Revolutionary times was soon overshadowed by the success in 1831 of La Peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass's Skin), a fable-like tale delineating the excesses and vanities of contemporary life. With public acclaim and the assurance of publication, Balzac's subsequent novels began to shape themselves into a broad canvas depicting the turbulent unfolding of destinies amidst the visible finery and squalor of Paris, and the dramas hidden under the surface of respectability in the quieter world of provincial family life.
In Le Père Goriot (Old Father Goriot, 1835), his next big success, he transposed the story of King Lear to 1820s Paris to rage at a society bereft of all love save the love of money. His novels are unified by a vision of a world in which the social and political hierarchies of the Ancien Régime had been replaced by a pseudo-aristocracy of favouritism, patronage and commercial fortunes, and where a "new priesthood" of financiers had filled the gap left by the collapse of organised religion. "There is nothing left for literature but mockery in a world that has collapsed" he remarked in the preface to La peau de chagrin, but the cynicism grew less as his oeuvre progressed and he revealed great sympathy for those whom society pushes to one side when the old certainties have gone and everything is up for grabs.
Along with shorter pieces and novellas there followed notably Les Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions, 1843), Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (The Harlot High and Low, 1847), Le Cousin Pons (1847) and La Cousine Bette (1848). Of novels in provincial settings Le curé de Tours (The Vicar of Tours, 1832), Eugénie Grandet (1833), Ursule Mirouet (1842) and Modeste Mignon (1844) are highly regarded.
Many of his novels were initially serialized, like those of Dickens, but in Balzac's case there was no telling how long they would end up. Illusions perdues extends to a thousand pages after starting inauspiciously in a small-town print shop, whereas La fille aux yeux d'Or (Tiger-eyes, 1835) opens grandly with a panorama of Paris but ties itself up as a closely-plotted novella of only fifty.
Balzac's work habits were legendary — he wrote for up to 15 hours a day, fuelled by innumerable cups of black coffee, and without relinquishing the social life which was the source of his observation and research. (Many of his stories start with fragments of the plot overheard at social gatherings, before uncovering the real story behind the gossip.) He revised obsessively, sending back printer's proofs almost obscured by changes and additions to be reset. Even a sturdy physique like his paid the price of his ever expanding plans for new works and new editions of old ones. There was unevenness in this prodigious output, but some works which are really only work-in-progress such as Les employés (The Government Clerks, 1841), are of real interest.
Curiously, he continued to worry about money and status even after he was rich and respected, and believed he could branch out into politics or into the theatre without letting up on his novels. His letters and memoranda reveal that ambition was not only ingrained in his character, but acted on him like a drug — every success leading him on to enlarge his plans still further — and ahead of time, around 1847, his strength began to fail. A polarity can be found in his cast of characters between the profligates who expend their life-force and the misers who live long but become dried-up and withdrawn. His contemporary Victor Hugo exiled himself to Guernsey in disgust at French politics, but lived on to write poems about being a grandfather decades after Balzac's death. Balzac himself could not, by temperament, draw back or curtail his vision.
In 1849, as his health was failing, Balzac travelled to Poland to visit Eveline Hanska, a wealthy Polish landowner in Wierzchownia, with whom he had corresponded for more than 15 years. They married in Berdyczów in 1850, and three months later, Balzac died.
He lies buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, overlooking Paris, and is commemorated by a monumental statue commissioned from Auguste Rodin, standing near the intersection of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse. "Henceforth" said Victor Hugo at his funeral "men's eyes will be turned towards the faces not of those who are the rulers but of those who are the thinkers." the funeral was also attended by Frederick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas-perè and Dumas-fils et al.
La Comédie humaine consists of 95 finished works (stories, novels or analytical essays) and 48 unfinished works (or which exist only as titles). It does not include Balzac's 5 theatrical plays or his collection of humorous tales, the Contes drolatiques (1832-37).
Selected titles of La Comédie humaine:
After his death Balzac became recognised as one of the fathers of Realism in literature, and distinct in his approach from the "pure" Romantics like Victor Hugo. La Comédie humaine spanned more than 90 novels and short stories in an attempt to comprehend and depict the realities of life in contemporary bourgeois France. In the 20th Century his vision of a society in flux, where class, money and personal ambition were the major players, achieved the distinction of being endorsed equally by critics of Left-wing and Right-wing political tendencies.
He guided European fiction away from the overriding influence of Walter Scott and the Gothic school, by showing that modern life could be recounted as vividly as Scott recounted his historical tales, and that mystery and intrigue did not need ghosts and crumbling castles for props. Maupassant, Flaubert and Zola were writers of the next generation who were directly influenced by him, and Marcel Proust acknowledged his influence.
In one of his last tales, Les comédiens sans le savoir (The Unwitting Actors, 1847) a provincial is rescued from a ruinous speculation by a boulevardier who asks him "Will you not now concede, my friend, that Paris is bigger than you are?". What Balzac had brought to fiction was the social context, a factor unrecognized by the Romantics, for whom the inner world of the individual was all that counted.
In the 1960s, the counter-culture unearthed two strange and mystical novels from Balzac's early years: the quasi-autobiographical Louis Lambert (1832) and Séraphîta (1834), in which an angel guides the gender-bending hero/heroine around the solar-system. Some academics have claimed that alchemy, animal-magnetism and other esoteric theories underlie Balzac's interpretation of society, and that his credentials as a Realist should be questioned. This idea, explored in particular by French critic Albert Béguin in his collection of essays Balzac lu et relu (1965), emerges from a remark attributed to Charles Baudelaire, who observed that Balzac's work was not so much 'observational' as 'visionary'. More recently, critics have conjoined these two models of a visionary and Realist Balzac to create a more nuanced version of his work. The critical literature on Balzac is moreover very large, and one can find almost any shade of opinion if one looks for it.
It is Balzac the observer of society, morals and human psychology who continues to appeal to readers today. His novels have always remained in print. His vivid realism and his encyclopedic gifts as a recorder of his age outweigh the sketchiness and inconsistent quality of some of his works.