Born in 1799 in the French city of Tours, Honoré de Balzac is a French writer, playwright, literary critic, art critic, journalist and publisher. He is today remembered as one the greatest novelists of the French tongue whose literary reputation has transcended national borders and reached world-wide recognition. He is also the most prolific writer that France has ever had. Indeed, the exceptional avidity for reading that marked his teenage years had soon become an avidity to write all forms of writings. His magnum opus is The Human Comedy in which he has included ninety-five of his novels in addition to numerous short stories and essays. Even when Balzac died, numerous other works meant to be included in The Human Comedy were left unfinished.
Honoré de Balzac was born to a family belonging to the upper middle class in which he was the eldest of four children. The nobiliary particle “de” was originally added to his family name by his father without any official basis, but just because Balzac’s father along with his son believed that professional merits are more valuable than what one inherits from ancestors. Balzac’s father originally served as one of the King’s secretaries and as vice mayor of the city of Tours.
At a very early age, young Balzac was sent by his family to a Catholic congregation known as “Les Oratoriens de Vendôme” where he spent six years learning the basics of language, law and religion. He then joined another school in Tours to go later in 1814 to study in Paris. Although he was meant to follow a law career, being trained in a notary office for three years, Balzac always preferred reading fiction. He eventually decided to start writing his own short stories and novels in which he made use of his experience and knowledge of the world of law. Balzac’s early attempts at writing were completely disappointing and were faced by the disapproval and discouragement of his family and friends. His biographers agree that he was encouraged almost only by his beloved sister Laure who joined him in some of his writing and who also published his first biography eight years after his death.
With his family’s consent, Balzac started a career as a writer. He settled in Paris and started by producing a first book that he entitled Cromwell (1820). The latter, which was a five-act tragedy written in verse, was very negatively assessed by the literary men of the time and Balzac was advised to give up writing, a tip that he had never taken seriously. Indeed, he soon started to release a series of novels which were published anonymously. His earliest works of fiction included Falthurne, Sténie, The Vicar of Ardennes, Annette and the Criminal, among many other titles. Such works ranged from adventure novels to political, philosophical and historical novels.
In 1825, Balzac decided to venture into the world of publication and purchased a printing house. He went bankrupt very soon, however, and was forced to return to writing in order to face his debts. Though failing in the different business enterprises that he took, it was then that Balzac’s novels started to achieve considerable success among the literary circles in Paris. He was accepted among the city’s literary élites, attended its most celebrated literary salons and played an important role in establishing the copyright law in France. In 1837, his The Spinster was exceptionally successful after being serialized in French newspapers. While the practice of serialization was quite popular in England by that time, it was first introduced by Balzac in France.
Balzac was a very serious and hard-working writer who knew how to organize his time and to devote it to various writing tasks. He often worked on more than one project at a time. Later, he classified his numerous works into three categories, namely “Studies of Mores,” “Analytical Studies” and “Philosophical Studies.” All kinds of texts were collected in The Human Comedy whose title was inspired from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Balzac’s voluminous opus, which offers a rare observation of the different classes and social stereotypes of the French society, is today considered as an indispensable historical reference about the era. For many a critic, Balzac is considered to be the father of French realism, yet many other critics think that to associate him only with realism is reductionist. Indeed, Balzac’s genius does not manifest only in his faithful painting of reality and history. His works transcend realism to cover philosophical questions and even psychological questions such as in The Physiology of Marriage, The Unknown Masterpiece and The Atheist’s Mass.
In 1831, Balzac publishes La Peau de chagrin (often translated to The Wild Ass’s Skin), a philosophical essay that he considers to be a fundamental key to the understanding of his whole oeuvre. A next important work included in the section entitled “Scenes from Parisian Life” of The Human Comedy is Father Goriot which tells the story of an aged criminal. The book marks Balzac’s first use of the technique of recurrent characters that is much frequent in his oeuvre as a whole.
Other publications followed to include The Lily of the Valley and Lost Illusions. While the former tells a love story and offers a painting of the French society of the first half of the nineteenth century, the latter is a philosophical novel in which the reader can easily detect Balzac’s personal disappointments and failures in business and journalism. While Balzac’s historical fiction is patently influenced by Walter Scott that he avidly read and that he considered as an example to emulate, it was itself a source of inspiration for important French writers of the second half of the nineteenth century such as Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola and Marcel Proust. Zola’s naturalism is often defined as an analytical form of Balzac’s realistic painting of life. Another major novelist greatly influenced by Balzac is the American expatriate Henry James.
Another business that Balzac wanted to do was the publication of magazines such as “La Chronique de Paris” and “La Revue parisienne.” Though these magazines were quite successful and were joined by other famous French literary men such as Victor Hugo, they were still a complete financial failure. Apart from realistic fiction, Balzac also ventured into the fantastic in many of his writings. This was mainly the result of his great admiration for the German fantastic writer ETA Hoffmann, the author of the famous The Sandman, among other works. Balzac also used to publish Hoffmann’s own short stories in his magazines. The fantastic for Balzac, as well as for many of his contemporaries, had philosophical and psychological dimensions and deserved serious attention. Being a convinced Catholic, Balzac’s stories also dealt with themes related to mysticism, esotericism and spirituality, but also to universality and humanism. In The Atheist’s Mass, for instance, he depicts harmony and coexistence between belief and non-belief.
Balzac’s large cast of characters in The Human Comedy are mostly round, complex characters. They often evolve from the beginning to the end of the story while they usually resist classification. Indeed, Balzac’s characters are neither purely good nor purely evil, but rather a combination so complex to be deciphered by the reader. In an attempt to find some financial backup, impecunious Balzac also made some attempts at theatre, since theatrical performances were the shortest way to make profit for nineteenth-century writers. These attempts were soon doomed to failure, however, and he returned to fiction writing.
In politics, Balzac was a vehement defender of the French Crown unlike many of his contemporaries such as Victor Hugo. The idea of the legitimacy of the king was expressed not only in his political publications and in his magazines, but also in a number of his fictional works, mainly in Les Chouans (1829). Balzac was not an implacable enemy of republicans, though. He often presents the disagreement between royalist and republican tendencies as a tolerable difference in political opinion. In addition, Balzac’s conservatism did not prevent him from sympathizing with the working class. His painting of the miseries of the poor is believed to have influenced world thinkers and philosophers such as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx himself.
On the personal level, Balzac married only towards the end of his life, although he knew and loved many women before that. His health was continuously waning and many biographers believe that this was because of the exhausting lifestyle and writing habits that he had. It was in 1833 that Balzac made the acquaintance of the Polish Countess Hanska, one of his readers, who would become his wife only seventeen years later. During these seventeen years, the couple kept in touch through correspondence. Their letters were published after Balzac’s death under the title Letters to a Stranger. Unfortunately, when Balzac married the countess in 1850, his health was seriously deteriorating. He died only a few months after marriage after having made a gigantic contribution to French literature.