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Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac

The French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was the first writer to use fiction to convey the total social scene prevailing within one country at a particular period in its history. Commonly regarded as the founder of social realism, he also had affinities with the romantics.

Born at Tours on May 20, 1799, Honoré de Balzac was sent as a boarder, at the age of 8, to the Oratorian College of Vendôme, an old-fashioned school where the discipline was harsh and conditions primitive. The semiautobiographical work Louis Lambert (1832) gives a fairly faithful account of this period of Balzac's life. The boy sought refuge from his surroundings in books, but excessive reading eventually brought on some kind of nervous malady, and he was brought home in 1813. The following year his family moved to Paris, where he completed his secondary education and in 1819 took a degree in law. The not inconsiderable legal knowledge Balzac acquired at this time, both in the lecture hall and in the office of the solicitor for whom he worked, was put to good use in a number of the novels and stories of his maturity that turn on disputed legacies (Le Cousin Pons, 1846-1847), marriage settlements (Le Contrat de mariage, 1835), petitions in lunacy (L'Interdiction, 1836), and bankruptcy proceedings (César Birotteau, 1837; Illusions perdues, 1837-1843).

Early Life

To his parents' disappointment, Balzac refused to enter the legal profession and instead declared his intention to devote himself to a literary career. His father gave him a small allowance on the understanding that at the end of 2 years he should produce a masterpiece or else abandon his ambitions. Although the expected great work did not materialize, Balzac persisted, and between 1820 and 1825 he wrote a number of sensational or humorous novels, some of them in collaboration with friends and none signed with his own name. These books were devoid of literary merit, but he earned his living by them and learned some useful lessons in the art of fiction.

Casting about for ways of making his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next set himself up as a publisher. In 1825, he launched one-volume editions of the works of the French authors Molière and La Fontaine, but they did not sell well. Undaunted, he acquired a printing business on borrowed capital and later a type foundry. These commercial ventures were also failures, and Balzac's brief business career ended in 1828, when his affairs were liquidated, leaving him with very large debts.

Thereafter he returned to literature and in 1829 published the first novel that he signed with his own name. This was Le Dernier Chouan (the title was changed in later editions to Les Chouans), a historical novel based on the Breton rebellion against the republican government in 1799. Balzac had undertaken careful research on the background, traveling to Britanny in order to ensure that his descriptions of the countryside and its inhabitants would be authentic. Since there was a vogue for historical novels, the book was well received. But real fame came to him 2 years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a semifantastic story in which the talismanic shagreen skin of the title is discovered to have the magical property of granting whatever wish the owner utters. Every time the skin is used in this way, however, it shrinks, and the young man who has acquired it knows that his own life-span contracts correspondingly. The tale thus becomes an allegory of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive, two principles which, according to Balzac, are utterly irreconcilable.

Author and Socialite

Throughout the 1830s Balzac engaged in furious activity, working hard and enjoying himself hugely, in reckless disregard of the moral he had enunciated in La Peau de chagrin. The constant struggle to earn enough to keep his creditors at bay drove him to impose on himself a timetable of work that eventually ruined even his robust constitution. And as the pressure of his commitments to publishers mounted, he increased his hours from 10 to 14 or even 18 a day, keeping himself awake by frequent cups of strong coffee.

Whenever Balzac earned a respite from his herculean toil, he would plunge into bouts of social dissipation which were only a little less exhausting. Though of sober disposition—he never drank to excess and considered the use of tobacco to be enfeebling—he enjoyed good food and was capable of devouring gargantuan meals. In appearance he was unprepossessing, a thick-set man with massive neck and fleshy chin, his enormous head crowned by a mop of greasy black hair. But his magnetic gaze unfailingly compelled attention. He did his best to offset the inelegance of his person by dressing splendidly and wearing ostentatious jewels. In spite of this strain of vulgarity, the liveliness of his conversation and the reputation his books had given him of being an expert on feminine psychology made him a welcome guest in a number of fashionable salons.

The Human Comedy

Balzac's lifework, apart from the early novels already mentioned and a few plays toward the end of his career, consists of a massive series of some 90 novels and short stories collected under the title La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). It was not until 1841 that this title, probably suggested to him by Dante's Divine Comedy, made its appearance. The Human Comedy was subdivided into smaller cycles of novels: "Scenes of Private Life," "Scenes of Political Life," Scenes of "Parisian," "Provincial," "Country" Life, and so on. There was a separate group of "Philosophical Studies," in which Balzac gave freer rein to his love of the fantastic and the macabre and to his interest in metapsychical phenomena such as thought transference and mesmerism. The "Philosophical Studies" often have historical settings, whereas the rest of The Human Comedy consists of stories that are set in Balzac's own time and describe various aspects of French society during the period of the Bourbon restoration (1814-1830) and of the July Monarchy, which followed.

Apart from the unifying element provided by a common historical background, Balzac also devised an original method of linking the novels by causing characters that he had introduced into one novel to reappear in subsequent stories. This practice, extended more and more as The Human Comedy took shape, enhanced the realistic illusion and also permitted Balzac to develop the psychology of individual characters more fully than would have been feasible within the limits of a single novel.

Social and Ethical Assumptions

In the important preface to his collected works that Balzac wrote in 1842, he defined his function as that of "secretary of French society." Accordingly, every class of people, from the cultivated aristocrat down to the brutish peasant, has a place in The Human Comedy. In the novel Le Père Goriot, lodging-house keepers, usurers, duchesses, students, retired clerks, and gangsters rub shoulders in a manner strangely convincing in spite of the inherent improbability of the situations.

Balzac often ascribed the basest motivations to his characters. He once wrote that the lust for gold and the search for pleasure were the sole principles that ruled humanity. Although capable of dramatizing cases of magnificent self-sacrifice or touching expiation (as he does in Le Lys dans la vallée, 1836, and Le Curé de village, 1838-1839), in the vast majority of instances Balzac presents naked self-seeking served by feverish energy and unflagging willpower. This is where the realism of his work shades off into something else. It was the French poet Baudelaire who first pointed out that Balzac was primarily a visionary, and it was he too who said that Balzac's characters were all replicas of their creator since they were all possessed of "genius." In the sense that single-minded determination to achieve one's aim is part of genius, the remark has considerable validity. The monomaniac-the man obsessed by some transcendent purpose or passion or perhaps by some vice, to the point of sacrificing his own comfort and the welfare of his dependents—is constantly encountered in Balzac's more impressive novels, among them Eugénie Grandet (1833), Le Père Goriot (1834), La Recherche de l'absolu (1834), and La Cousine Bette (1846).

It is true that Balzac was writing in an age characterized more by individual endeavor than by collective effort. This was a period when the struggle for existence among the poor or for social advancement among the less fortunate was at its fiercest. The rigidly hierarchical framework of society which had existed before the French Revolution had disappeared, and no solidly stratified social organization had yet replaced it. Balzac himself deplored the anarchic individualism that he observed around him, and in the comments strewn through his novels he argues desperately in favor of restoring the authority of central government under an absolute monarch as a means of extinguishing the jungle warfare of conflicting interests. Human nature, in his view, was fundamentally depraved; any machinery, legal, political, or religious, whereby the inherent wickedness of men could be held in check ought to be repaired and strengthened. But this teaching went against the tendencies of the age; toward the end of his career, in the mid-1840s, Balzac could see France heading for a new popular revolution which would finally sweep away the domination of "throne and altar." This gloomy prospect partly accounts for the deeper pessimism of his last works.

Marriage and Death

During his last years Balzac suffered increasingly from poor health, and his morale had been weakened by the constant frustrations and disappointments he endured in the one great love affair of his life. In 1832 he had received his first letter from Madame Hanska, the wife of a Polish nobleman who owned extensive estates in the Russian Empire. Balzac was flattered and excited, and he met her in Switzerland the following year. Thereafter they kept up an ardent correspondence, interrupted by occasional vacations spent together in different parts of Europe. In 1841 her husband died, but Madame Hanska obstinately refused to marry Balzac despite his earnest pleas. Only when he fell gravely ill, during a last visit to her mansion in the Ukraine, did she consent. The wedding took place at her home on March 14, 1850. The long journey back to France took a serious toll on Balzac's health, and he died in Paris on Aug. 18, 1850, only a few weeks after his return.

Further Reading

Herbert J. Hunt, Honoré de Balzac (1957) is a concise biography. More detailed is André Maurois, Prometheus: The Life of Balzac (1965; trans. 1965). Stefan Zweig, Balzac (1946; trans. 1947), still repays study. The fullest account of Balzac's literary output is Herbert J. Hunt, Balzac's Comédie Humaine (1959), in which the novels and other writings are studied in chronological order. In F.W.J. Hemmings, Balzac: An Interpretation of "La Comédie Humaine" (1967), an attempt has been made to trace certain thematic patterns in the work as a whole. A thorough study of The Comédie humaine is Félicien Marceau, Balzac and His World (1955; trans. 1967). Other useful general studies are Samuel Rogers, Balzac and the Novel (1953), and E.J. Oliver, Honoré de Balzac (1964). □

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Balzac, Honoré de

HonorÉ de Balzac

Born: May 20, 1799
Tours, France
Died: August 19, 1850
Paris, France

French novelist

The French novelist Honoré de Balzac was the first writer to use fiction to convey the social scene prevailing at a particular period in one country's history.

Childhood

Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799, the eldest son of four children of Bernard François and Anne Charlotte Balzac. His mother was thirty-two years younger than his father, and the young Honoré was taken into another home and cared for until the age of four. His mother saw the birth of her son as her duty and treated him indifferently. Her lack of affection overshadowed his childhood. Sent to boarding school at the age of eight, Honoré sought a place to escape from the fierce school discipline. He found this place in books. But excessive reading eventually brought on a nervous condition, which affected his health, and he was brought home in 1813. The following year his family moved to Paris, France, where he completed his secondary education in law.

Adulthood

Rebelling against his parents, Balzac refused to enter the legal profession and instead declared writing as his profession. Despite disappointment, his father provided a small allowance with the understanding that he had to be financially independent within two years. Working together with friends, Balzac wrote several sensational (superficial, appealing to the senses) novels, none signed with his own name. These books were without literary merit, but he earned his living by them.

Searching for ways to make his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next entered a series of business ventures using borrowed funds. These commercial ventures were also failures, leaving him with very large debts.

Thereafter he published the first novel that he signed with his own name. Le Dernier Chouan was a historical novel. Since historical novels were the fashion, the book was well received. But real fame came to him two years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a fantasy that acts as an allegory (a symbolic representation) of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive.

Author and socialite

The constant struggle to earn enough to keep his creditors at bay drove him to a timetable of work that eventually ruined his health. He increased his hours from ten to fourteen or even eighteen a day, keeping himself awake with frequent cups of strong coffee. Whenever Balzac took a break from his writing, he would frequent fashionable salons (stylish lounges), where he was well received by female readers.

The Human Comedy

Balzac's lifework consists of a series of some ninety novels and short stories collected under the title La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy ) in 1841. The Human Comedy was subdivided into smaller groups of novels: "Scenes of Private Life," "Scenes of Political Life," "Scenes of Parisian," "Provincial," and "Country Life." There was a separate group of "Philosophical Studies."

The novels were linked by both history and character. This practice enhanced the realistic illusion and also permitted Balzac to develop the psychology (involving the mind) of individual characters more fully than would have been feasible within the limits of a single novel.

Social and ethical assumptions

In a preface to his work in 1842, he defined his function as that of "secretary of French society." Accordingly, every class of people, from aristocrat to peasant, has a place in The Human Comedy.

Balzac often assigned the basest (lowest in value or quality) motivations to his characters. He once wrote that the lust for gold and the search for pleasure were the sole principles that ruled humanity. The monomaniacthe man obsessed by a purpose or passion, to the point of sacrificing his own comfort and the welfare of his dependentsis constantly encountered in Balzac's more impressive novels.

Balzac was writing in an age when the struggle for existence or social advancement among the poor was at its fiercest. Balzac himself disliked the disorderly individualism that he observed around him. Human nature, in his view, was basically depraved (morally wrong; evil); any machinerylegal, political, or religiouswhereby the wickedness of men could be stopped, ought to be repaired and strengthened.

Marriage and death

During his last years Balzac suffered from poor health, and his morale had been weakened by the disappointments he endured in his one great love affair. In 1832 he had received his first letter from Madame Hanska, the wife of a Polish nobleman. Thereafter they kept up a correspondence, interrupted by occasional vacations spent together in different parts of Europe. In 1841 her husband died, but Madame Hanska obstinately refused to marry Balzac. Only when he fell gravely ill did she agree. The wedding took place at her home on March 14, 1850. The long journey back to France took a serious toll on Balzac's health, and he died on August 18, 1850.

For More Information

Keim, Albert, and Louis Lumet. Honoré de Balzac. New York: Haskell House, 1974.

Robb, Graham. Balzac: A Life. New York: Norton, 1994.

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Balzac, Honoré de

Honoré de Balzac (băl´zăk, bôl–, Fr. ōnôrā´ də bälzäk´), 1799–1850, French novelist, b. Tours. Balzac ranks among the great masters of the novel. Of a bourgeois family, he himself later added the "de" to his name. Neglected in childhood, he was sent to a grammar school at Tours and later to a boarding school at Vendôme, where he was a dull student but a voracious reader. In 1816 he began studying law at the Sorbonne, but after receiving his license in 1819 he decided to abandon law for literature. Half starving in a Paris garret, Balzac began writing sensational novels to order, publishing them under a pseudonym. Throughout his life he worked with feverish activity, sleeping a few hours in the evening and writing from midnight until noon or afternoon of the next day. He was ridden with debts, which were increased rather than relieved by his business ventures. Balzac's first success, Les Chouans (1829, first published as Le Dernier Chouan), was followed by La Peau de chagrin (1831). In the next 20 years he produced the vast collection of novels and short stories called "La Comédie humaine." This, his greatest work, is a reproduction of the French society of his time, picturing in precise detail more than 2,000 characters from every class and every profession. The chief novels in "La Comédie humaine" are Louis Lambert (1832), Eugénie Grandet (1833), La Recherche de l'absolu (1834), Le Père Goriot (1835), Les Illusions perdues (1837), César Birotteau (1837), La Cousine Bette (1847), and Le Cousin Pons (1847). Outweighing Balzac's faults—his lack of literary style, his moralizing, his tendency toward melodrama—are his originality, his great powers of observation, and his vivid imagination. His short stories include some of the best in the language, but his attempts at drama failed. Though an unattractive, awkward man, Balzac formed several famous liaisons. Only a few months before his death he married the Polish Countess Evelina Hanska, with whom he had conducted a romantic correspondence for 18 years.

See The Human Comedy (with introductions by G. Saintsbury, 40 vol., 1895–98); Balzac's Letters to His Family, 1809–1850 (ed. by W. S. Hastings, 1934); biographies by H. J. Hunt (1957, repr. 1969), A. Maurois (1966, repr. 1983), and G. Robb (1994); studies by C. Prendergast (1979) and R. Butler (1983); bibliography and index comp. by W. H. Royce (1929, repr. 1969).

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"Balzac, Honoré de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Balzac, Honoré de

Balzac, Honoré de (1799–1850) French novelist. One of the greatest novelists of the 19th century, Balzac's first success was Les Chouans (1829). More than 90 novels and short stories followed during a lifetime of extraordinary creative effort. He organized these works into a grand fictional scheme, intended as a detailed, realistic study of the whole of contemporary French society, which he called La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). Among his best-known novels are Eugénie Grandet (1833), Le Pére Goriot (1834–35), and La Cousine Bette (1846).

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