Honore de Balzac: Biography & Books

Instructor: Maria Cochran

Maria has taught Composition, Communication, Literature and Intro to Humanities since 2000. She holds a doctorate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication

French writer Honore De Balzac (1799--1850), over his short and intensive life, wrote dramas, stories, and novels. His greatest contribution to the world of literature is the collection of close to 100 novels and stories entitled, ~'La Comedie Humaine~' or ~'The Human Comedy~' which provides an in-depth, realistic, and often cynical portrayal of French society in the first half of the 19th century.

Honore de Balzac: Biography and Books

A prolific author, Honoré De Balzac wrote more literary works than most of us have time to read in a lifetime. A reclusive workaholic, Balzac was famous for his exhaustive writing schedule. He took short naps between dinner and midnight and then wrote incessantly through the night while chain-drinking cup after cup of coffee. Fifty years after the writer's death, French sculptor Auguste Rodin created a monument to Balzac: a heavy-set figure, wrapped in a robe. While such strange choice of attire for an acclaimed man of letters created a controversy, the sculpture is a truthful portrayal of Balzac in his natural element -- writing through the night wrapped in a robe.

The Monument to Balzac by Auguste Rodin, 1898
Monument to Balzac by Auguste Rodin

Balzac's Early Life and Writing Career

Celebrated for his insightful depiction of the Parisian aristocratic society, Balzac himself was an outsider in it, partly due to his innate social awkwardness, but primarily due to his humble origins. Balzac's father came from a peasant family of Balssa. As he rose from rags to riches, he changed his name to Balzac (ac being the aristocratic names' ending). His son Honoré went further by adding an aristocratic prefix de to his name. An aristocrat in name, in his life, Balzac was never at ease with Parisian aristocrats. Most likely, it is this dual point of view of an insider/outsider that helped him achieve such realism in the depiction of the high society.

The family was never a safe haven for young Balzac; his parents lived separate lives, and Honoré spent his childhood in boarding schools. A precocious child, neglected by his parents, unpopular with the classmates, he spend his days reading.

Balzac's decision to become a man of letters and not a lawyer, following his father's wishes, led to a break up with the family. To support himself, Honoré started writing fashionable romantic novels and tried himself at various businesses. As a businessman, Balzac failed miserably but his writing soon started earning him a modest living. The novel Magic Skin (also translated as A Wild Donkey's Skin), published in 1830. brought Balzac his first fame. In 1833, Balzac combined all the pieces he had written in a body of work, Comedie Humaine or Human Comedy, a collection of almost 100 novels and stories about various layers of the French society from peasants to bourgeois to aristocrats.

Balzac and ''Women of Balzac Age''

Most female protagonists in Balzac's novels are between the ages of 30 and 40, which at the time was considered ''past a woman's prime.'' Showing that these 30-plus-year-old women can ''still love and be passionate'' was innovative for the time and earned Balzac a reputation of ''a true connoisseur of a woman's soul.'' Incidentally, a woman past 30 (more likely, 40 now) is still often referred to as ''a woman of Balzac age.''

Women readers were among Balzac's most devoted fans. One of them, Polish aristocrat Evelina Ganska wrote a fan letter to the author, which started a 17-year long correspondence and a tumultuous affair between the two. After Ganska's husband died, she and Balzac finally got married. Their short life together, full of fights and bitter mutual recrimination, was disappointing to both and, arguably, contributed to Balzac's death five months after the wedding, on August 18, 1850

Balzac's Writing Style

''His life was short. Let you judge him by his books because a man is weak and mortal, but the books are eternal if they tell the truth, make people think, or give them hope,'' declared another French writer Victor Hugo at Balzac's funeral. In spite of the popularity of Balzac's first romantic novels, it is the works Balzac wrote later in his life, particularly between 1830 and 1835, that earned him fame as the great European realist.

Balzac introduced a new set of themes in Western literature related to the material life in the industrial society. Class, money, and the struggle for material benefits and social status are key sources of conflict in his works. German social and political philosopher Friedrich Engels argued that he had learned more about industrial society from Balzac's books than from ''all the professional historians, economists, and statisticians put together.''

Balzac's Human Comedy, mercilessly realistic, often cynical, is an encyclopedia of social morals and human types in the France of 1820-1830. Balzac's characters are multi-faceted, morally ambiguous, and fully human; even his lesser characters are complex.

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