Honoré de Balzac: A writer for all seasons

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) is recognized as one of the great French novelists. Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and Henry James all acknowledged their debt to this prodigious observer of social manners and critic of human behaviour.

In the early days Balzac published several sensational novels under pseudonyms, earning neither fame nor money. Then, in 1829, he wrote Les Chouans, a historical novel about Royalist insurrections in Brittany and Normandy during the French Revolution. It was his first success, revealing his gift for peopling a scene with living characters who act from plausible motives. He went on to write some ninety-one novels and tales in addition to his contributions to newspapers and magazines.

As early as 1834, Balzac began to conceive grouping his novels and tales as sections of a whole, to be published under a collective title indicating its purpose and scope. His aim was realised in the 1842-48 collected edition of 17 volumes which he called La Comédie humaine, perhaps influenced by Dante’s La Divina Commedia. Balzac said of it, “One generation is a play with four or five thousand striking characters. My book is that play.”

La Comédie humaine is a panorama of French society during the Consulate, the Empire, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy (the period from 1799 to 1830). Throughout the various books, characters appear and reappear at different stages of their existence now taking principal parts, now minor. All strata of society and professions are represented. The underlying theme is self-interest as the supreme motive of human conduct. Some of the best known studies of Parisian and provincial life fall into the group called “Studies of manners”, including Eugénie Grandet and Le Père Goriot.

Many of his novels were initially serialized, like those of Dickens. Their length was not predetermined. Illusions Perdues extends to a thousand pages after starting inauspiciously in a small-town print shop, whereas La Fille aux yeux d’or (1835) opens with a broad panorama of Paris but becomes a closely plotted novella of only fifty pages.

Balzac’s greatness as a novelist has been measured in terms of the fact that the characters he created are discussed and used as types for comparison as if they had actually existed. Paul Bourget, a later French novelist and critic, astutely remarked of him, “Balzac seems to have less observed the society of his times, than to have contributed to shaping it.” Reading him today, one is struck by how little has changed and by his cynically accurate account of human foibles. Balzac’s vision of a society in which class, money, and personal ambition are the major players was even endorsed by Friedrich Engels, who wrote: “I have learned more from Balzac than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.”

The sculptor Auguste Rodin spent seven years preparing a monument to Balzac, studying the writer’s life and work, posing models who resembled him, and ordering clothes to his measurements. The work was commissioned in 1891 and a full size plaster model displayed in 1898. But the model was eventually rejected and Rodin moved it to his home in Meudon. On 2 July 1939 (22 years after the sculptor’s death) the model was cast in bronze for the first time and placed on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. It can be seen today in the gardens of the Musée Rodin in Paris – a fitting monument to a larger than life genius.

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One comment on “Honoré de Balzac: A writer for all seasons

  1. Thanks for the great post about my favorite author. I love the quote by Engels and haven’t run across it before but am passing it on to the Balzac reading group.

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