Last reviewed: June 2018
French novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer
May 20, 1799
August 18, 1850
Honoré de Balzac (bahl-zahk) was born Honoré Balzac in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799. His father, originally from the peasant stock of the Albigeois, had risen to become director of commissariat to Napoleon’s 22d Division. In 1799, Napoleon was returning from Egypt to rule for fifteen years over half of Europe. Thus the first years of Balzac’s life passed during the glorious reign of Napoleon, and the emperor’s career had a great effect on the young Balzac’s mind. Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac
From 1807 to 1814, Balzac was a student, first at the Collège des Oratoriens in Vendôme, then at L’Institut Lepître and L’Institut Ganser et Beuzelin, both in Paris. Balzac later spoke of these years as “brutalizing”; he found his school a prison. His schoolmates called him fat and redfaced; his masters thought him dull. Balzac found escape from his humiliations in the library. His appetite for reading was indiscriminate and insatiable: He read everything. There, in escape from the rigors of his schooling, he was laying the foundation for the vast store of knowledge that would later become a legend about him. These detested years in school fed his dreams of power and fame and filled him with contempt for anything less than complete possession of the world. Balzac seemed almost unable to distinguish his imaginings from actuality, and since imagination can always transcend reality, the world he knew was too small for him.
Leaving school, Balzac in 1816 entered the University of Paris to study jurisprudence. Napoleon had fallen, and France was in a state of calm. There were no worlds then to be conquered with arms, but his grandiose dreams of fame and conquest remained with Balzac as he studied law and worked to supplement his allowance in the office of a lawyer. His revolt came in 1819. Balzac left his law clerk’s stool and went home to announce that he would be an author. He wrote under a picture of the former emperor: “What Napoleon could not do with the sword, I shall accomplish with the pen.”
His family was thunderstruck, but Balzac was resolved. He arrived at a compromise with his father: He would go to Paris to write for two years; if in that time he did not succeed, he would enter a more secure profession. Balzac moved to a garret at 9 rue Lesdiguières, Paris, and began to write. When the two years were almost up, however, he had produced no work even hopeful of success except a play, Cromwell, which had come to nothing, and his father set a date for him to evacuate his room. Then he met a young man named Auguste Le Poitevin and, writing under various pseudonyms, began turning out hack work in collaboration with him. He made a little money and was granted a reprieve.
With Le Poitevin, Balzac had entered into complete literary prostitution. In 1821, he returned home but continued writing. His chief desire was to earn enough money to be freed from his family. He wrote at a prodigious rate, living almost without sleep at his writing table, stimulated by countless cups of coffee. At this time, he met with perhaps the most profound experience of his life and found his self-reliance, but not through his writing. He met Madame Laure de Berny. Madame de Berny was already forty-five, a grandmother with a daughter older than Balzac. Almost twenty-two, Balzac had never known love; he found it in this woman. The extent of her influence on his life can be seen in his saying: “There is nothing that can match the last love of a woman who is giving a man the fulfillment of his first love.”
Madame de Berny was the turning point in the development of his literary genius, but even she could not save his business sense. When the pressures of his association with her sent him again to Paris, between 1826 and 1828, Balzac entered into three business speculations that, having failed, saw him in debt for some ninety thousand francs. Ironically, having escaped the necessity of driving himself to write for freedom from his parents, he promptly made it necessary to write for freedom from his creditors. He continued to write at an incredible pace, turning out novels, essays, stories, articles, and pamphlets like a machine.
While his genius matured, his debts increased. He found his first fame in 1830 with Scenes from Private Life in two volumes. In 1831, he added the “de” to his name, obtained a larger apartment, a valet, and a horse and carriage, and he began to have political ambitions. In 1833, he met Éveline Hanska, a Russian noblewoman whom he courted for eighteen years before she became his wife. That was the pattern of his life: His dreams stayed always ahead of his achievement. Although the critic Hippolyte Taine called his work the greatest gallery of human portraits since William Shakespeare and Balzac was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1845, he died in Paris on August 18, 1850, blind, broken, and alone except for his mother, in a house not paid for, while the wife he had married only the March before waited indifferently in another room for his death.
In more than 350 titles, Balzac created and peopled a world of his own, often with more than a hundred characters in a single novel. In his work, Balzac despised detail. He sought to distill from the world its pure essence, its universal qualities. He held as an axiom that everything, singly and in combination, acts and reacts upon everything else: All forces are mobile, none free. Moreover, he believed that every life expends an equal sum of energy. One may dissipate that energy upon inconsequential matters and live many years, or one may concentrate that energy upon one ideal and live fewer years; but those who live quickly do not live a shorter time. Therefore, in a work of fiction, only monomaniacs are important. People are great insofar as they concentrate on one ideal, and tragedy occurs when such concentration is thwarted. Any motive is worthy of tragedy if followed by a single purpose.
Balzac sheers away great quantities of dross and reveals the basic motives that govern human action. His world is poorer than the real world, but it is more intense. His masterwork, in which his world is most fully depicted, is The Human Comedy. This work has a wholeness of conception perhaps unparalleled in literature. Balzac made the first arrangements for the collected edition in 1842. In that year, the first three volumes appeared. From 1843 to 1846, at the rate of two to four volumes per year, the first edition was completed at sixteen volumes. For this edition, Balzac wrote the celebrated foreword in which he outlines his plan for the various parts of The Human Comedy: The Scenes from Private Life depict childhood and youth, with the false steps to which they are prone. The Scenes from Provincial Life show the age of passion, calculation, self-interest and ambition. The Scenes from Parisian Life portray finally the various tastes and vices, with all the unbridled forms of behavior of capital cities—for it is there that good and evil meet and have their strongest repercussions.
The Scenes from Private Life depict childhood and youth, with the false steps to which they are prone. The Scenes from Provincial Life show the age of passion, calculation, self-interest and ambition. The Scenes from Parisian Life portray finally the various tastes and vices, with all the unbridled forms of behavior of capital cities—for it is there that good and evil meet and have their strongest repercussions.
Dying in Paris in 1850, Balzac did not live to complete the Scenes from Military Life , which depict society “when it steps out of itself for the purpose of either defense or conquest,” and he barely began the planned Scenes from Rural Life. In 1847, Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons appeared as the last important works published in Balzac’s lifetime. Perhaps his greatest works, they crown his last misery. At the time they were published, Balzac was already dying of heart and digestive ailments.