Everything about Honore de Balzac is on a grand scale, from his encyclopaedic vision for the novel to his appetite for food and drink; from the enormity of his debts to his Herculean 18-hour writing sessions. He even aggrandised his name, changing it from the ordinary ‘Balssa’ to the aristocratic ‘de Balzac’.
His life’s quest was to accomplish with the pen what Napoleon had achieved with the sword – and, although he died at 51 having only partly realised his vision for his novel cycle La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), he’d completed over 90 novels and novellas of his great work, including Le Pere Goriot (Father Goriot), as well as numerous other essays, criticisms and studies.
The definitive edition of La Comedie Humaine was published in 24 volumes between 1869 and 1876, and includes an estimated 2472 named characters and 566 unnamed ones. For the massive embrace of his literary achievement and his supreme mastery of French, Balzac has fittingly been called ‘the Shakespeare of the novel’.
Balzac lived to see wealth and power shift from the landed aristocracy to the moneyed commercial and industrial middle classes, and, following the example of Comte de Buffon, who catalogued the natural world in his 44-volume bestselling Histoire Naturelle (Natural History) published from 1749 to 1804, Balzac set out to catalogue the entire social species of his day. His overarching scheme was to include all his novels, written and unwritten, in one enormous portrait of contemporary society.
As would be expected from the author who set out to write a comprehensive account of early 19th century France, a nation that was changing rapidly at the hand of a shocking series of violent revolutions and the rise and fall of Napoleon, Balzac was a man of superhuman energy. The task he set himself was Napoleonic in scale. Inspired by Homer, he introduced to his work characters who would reappear in different novels throughout the cycle. In 1840, Balzac named his cycle The Human Comedy after Dante’s Divine Comedy, because it was to survey the only realm not included in Dante’s epic: the earthly, human sphere.
One of the most powerful shaping forces of Balzac’s human environment was money, and this becomes a pervasive theme of La Comedie Humaine. It’s also central to Le Pere Goriot. As Goriot says:
‘Money is life itself, it’s the mainspring of everything.’
Originally published in Revue de Paris in 1834 and in book form in 1835, Le Pere Goriot opens in November 1819, about four years after the time in which Austen’s Persuasion is set. But what was background in Austen’s novel becomes the focus of Balzac’s: the rise of the bourgeoisie and the increasing power of money.
The three central characters in Le Pere Goriot – the old man Goriot, the student Eugene de Rastignac and the mysterious Monsieur Vautrin – are all obsessed with money, all for apparently quite different reasons, but ultimately because they are each struggling to get ahead in the moral wilderness of post-Napoleonic Paris. As Vautrin explains:
‘you have to dirty your hands if you want to live well. The only thing that matters is to know how to get them clean again; in that art lies the whole morality of our times.’
Although Le Pere Goriot centres on the Lear-like fortunes of Goriot and his two beautiful daughters who have made successful society marriages, the story is told through the eyes of Rastignac, a classic Balzac character and one close to the author himself. Like Vautrin, Rastignac is one of Balzac’s most memorable creations and reappears in other novels of La Comedie Humaine.
A handsome young law student from the provinces, Rastignac – the only son of an impoverished noble family – is determined to find social success in Paris. In his attempts to navigate the labyrinth of Parisian society, Rastignac is assisted by his relative and mentor, the glamorous society hostess Mme de Beauseant, whose influential name guides him like Ariadne’s thread and is his magic key to the heart of Paris, ‘the space that lay between the column of the Place Vendome and the dome of the Invalides; there lay the splendid world that he had wished to gain.’
Balzac uses heroic metaphors of knights and chivalry for his non-heroic times. The knights of old accepted armour, swords and horses from their mistresses, and Rastignac accepts money and the trappings of a gentlemen from his. As his mistress says to him:
‘Well Eugene, the things I offer you are the weapons of the times, tools needed by a man who wants to make himself someone of consequence.’
Like Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Rastignac discovers that in Paris ‘social success is everything, it is the key of power’, and that social success comes through the patronage of powerful women, not through hard work in a profession. Once you have the patronage of a society hostess, ‘You can then set our ambitions as high as you like, you will have the entry everywhere.’
But Rastignac tries to balance his ambition and need for money with the needs of his soul: ‘It is perhaps only those who believe in God who do good secretly, and Eugene believed in God.’
Balzac’s grand ambitions for the novel arose during the 1820s and 30s, a time when the novel was still seen as a literary form inferior to drama and poetry. But Balzac’s vision for the novel came to him gradually, and he had many false starts. Born in Tours, 10 years after the 1789 Revolution, Balzac was the eldest of four children. His father was a civil servant, first under Louis XVI and then under Napoleon. Balzac’s childhood was spent in the wake of the Revolution, his early teens in the heroic days of Napoleon, and his adulthood during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy (under Louis XVIII and Charles X) and the July Revolution of 1830, which established the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, ‘the bourgeois king’.
After the fall of Napoleon, Balzac’s family moved to Paris. Here Balzac finished school and studied law, but, much to his parents’ dismay, he abandoned his legal career to become a writer. In 1819 his play Cromwell was a failure. He turned to writing sensational novels under various pseudonyms, hoping to make his fortune. Then, when a series of failed business ventures in publishing and printing nearly ended in bankruptcy, Balzac returned wholeheartedly to writing.
Inspired by the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, which were the talk of Paris, Balzac decided to use an historical event – the story of a group of Breton peasants, the Chouans, who’d joined a royalist uprising in 1799 – as the basis of a novel, and in doing so was one of the first novelists to treat history as a serious subject for fiction. Having thought up his idea, with typical impatience Balzac immediately left Paris for Brittany to research his novel. Les Chouans – his first novel to appear under his own name – was published in 1828 and became an instant success.
Balzac then embarked on a frenzy of creation. While continuing to frequent the aristocratic salons of Paris, he managed to write up to 18 hours a day, working by candlelight, dressed in a white monkish gown with a golden belt. To keep himself awake, he drank endless cups of coffee. He wrote that with coffee ‘everything leaps into action; thoughts and ideas rush pell-mell over one another, like battalions of the grand army on the field of battle …’
The publication in 1831 of Le Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin), a philosophical novel about the power of money admired by the elderly Goethe, brought Balzac fame across Europe, but he continued to struggle under insurmountable debt.
Balzac’s life, driven by a quest for love and fame (the two chivalric ideals of the lost heroic age he so admired), was irreversibly altered in 1832 when he received an anonymous letter from a female admirer. In the author of the letter – eventually revealed to be Mme Evelina Hanska, the wife of a wealthy, ailing Polish count – Balzac found the damsel who would inspire him to his mighty feats of writing. In 1833 Balzac met Evelina in Switzerland. Captivated by her physical and spiritual beauty, he fell madly in love with her. Following a passionate correspondence, they eventually married in March 1850, several years after her husband’s death and just months before Balzac’s own death. In order to clear his debts so they could marry, Balzac was spurred to even greater heights of productivity: between 1832 and 1835 alone he completed over 20 works, including Le Pere Goriot.
Balzac was an extremely popular novelist in his day, famous throughout Europe and much admired by his contemporaries, including Victor Hugo, Gaultier, Dumas pere, George Sand, Chopin, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
In 1973 the American writer and musician Ed Sanders (famous for The Family, his 1971 study of Charles Manson) read the entire works of Balzac. Inspired by his reading, he decided to write in minute detail about his life in SoHo in the 1960s (a time when the warehouse and factory lofts where he lived illegally still had oil stains from machinery from 50 years earlier), noting in his novel Fame and Love in New York (1980) such social details as the exact month in 1967 in which the word ‘beatnik’ was replaced by ‘hippie’.
Balzac, with his dazzling wit and appetite for food, drink and the salons of Paris, was fittingly played by Gerard Depardieu in the 1999 French television film Balzac: A Life of Passion.