de BALZAC (1799 - 1850 )
(Courtesy: Oxford World's Classics)
Honoré de Balzac
(1799-1850), one of the great novelists of all literature and author of "La
Comédie humaine", came of Midi peasant stock through his grandfather,
whose surname had originally been Balssa,' and Parisian stock through
his mother. He was born at Tours, where his father had an employment to do with
army supplies. At the College des Oratoriens at Vendrûme (1807-13) he
seemed a loutish, far from brilliant pupil, but he was, in secret, devouring
the school library so rapidly that he had a breakdown.
By 1814 his father
was employed in Paris and Balzac went to a private school. There, in a
lawyer's office, he acquired the sound knowledge of law and the ways of
lawyers, which pervades his work. In 1819 his parents agreed to his forsaking
law for literature, and gave him a meager allowance. On this he scraped
along in a garret and wrote poems, history, and a tragedy (Cromwell),
all equally bad.
In 1820 his parents
made him return home to Villeparisis, near Paris, where they had retired.
Here he published several overwrought, sensational novels under pseudonyms
but earned neither fame nor money. Then, once more on his own in Paris,
he devoted himself to grandiose, often harebrained, commercial schemes
in the hope of winning fortune and freedom to write.
But in spite of financial help from women friends he was, at
the age of twenty-nine, over 100,000 francs in debt.
by failure he picked up his pen and within five months had produced
Les Chouans (1829).
This, the first
novel to be published under his own name, and his first success,
showed his great gift for setting a scene with living figures, acting
from plausible motives.
He had at last
gotten into his stride.
output became prodigious - some ninety-one novels and tales between 1829
and 1848 over and above the increasing demands of regular journalism. Balzac
possessed legendary stamina, working from ten to fourteen hours daily, often
going to bed at six in the evening and rising at midnight to write till
the following mid-day, subsisting meanwhile on strong black coffee which
be brewed himself. In 1832, shortly after the publication of La Peau de
chagrin, Balzac received a letter of admiration and criticism from Mme Hanska
(1801-82), a wealthy Polish countess.
This began a long correspondence
and - without hindering others - a liaison with Mme Hanska. The outcome, in
1850, was marriage (celebrated in Berdichev), after Mme Hanska had been eight
years a widow, and too late for her money to be of use: Balzac, whose powers
had been failing for some time, died only a few months later.