My favorite French writer is Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), one of the giants of French literature, who introduced me to nineteenth century France through La Comedie Humaine.
As a Romantique, he was a powerful visionary who combined the gifts of observation of contemporary life in the first half of nineteenth century France with the influence of the material and social environment on its citizens. He urged the writer of his day to consider himself a “teacher of men”. Victor Hugo was one of the first to see Balzac as a “revolutionary writer” and Balzac saw himself as a public writer but never played the public role as Hugo did in the 19th century or Voltaire in the 18th (Pendergast, 60).
One reason I love the writings of Balzac is that he incorporates his studies of society not only as a writer, but also as a scientist and a historian. He was inspired by the work of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a French naturalist, who traveled with Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypte on a military and science expedition from 1798 to 1801.
(Nina Burleigh gives much detail to this expedition in her excellent book Mirage.**see more about this in my post on Napoleon: https://frenchquest.com/2015/11/13/my-history-review-of-france-la-premiere-moitie-du-xix-siecle-napoleon-bonaparte/ )
Balzac used Hilaire’s writings to show the parallel between zoological and social species to supply a basic structure and coherence as an ‘archaeologist’ and set a goal of popularizing the astonishing facts of modern science (Pendergast, 142). Balzac dedicated my favorite character, Père Goriot, to Saint-Hilaire as a tribute of his genius.
In addition, to gain a better understanding of life in Paris after the Revolution, Balzac shows the great principles of order, politics and morality of this time in French society in La Comedie Humaine (Clark, 160). As Balzac describes, “La Comedie Humaine was a society with its own geography, its genealogy and its families, its places and things, its persons and its facts; its coat of arms, its nobles and bourgeois, its artisans and peasants, politicians and dandies, its army, in a word, its world (Balzac, avant-propos, 1:19). Balzac describes the first half of the nineteenth century world of Paris as a mobile landscape, la rapidité du tournoiement dominated by “a chance encounter, fast transaction, frenetic circulation of money, goods and bodies”(Balzac, Illusions perdues, vol. 4, p. 62). Balzac also refers to Paris as the « the capital of the world…sans égal dans l’univers” (.Balzac, Paris en 1831 Oeuvres diverses, vol.3, p.610). However, this balzacien universe is more imagined than observed. Balzac reproduced in his work the sites, the objects and the men which were fixed in his memory: the physical, the professional, the domestic and the custom: “L’homme…tend à representer ses moeurs, sa pensée et sa vie dans tout ce qu’il approprie à ses besoins” (Lagarde & Michard, 306).
One aspect of Balzac’s stories that I love is his ability to construct a visual canvas of nineteenth century Paris for his characters in La Comedie Humaine to play out la vie quotidienne. He has a unique way of creating a physical image of each character, the flaneurs, who endlessly search for poetic delights, through long, intricate descriptions as one paragraph is often composed of a single sentence. In Le Pere Goriot, the main characters live in a vine-covered boarding house on rue Saint-Genevieve in the Latin Quarter near Val de Grace. His daughters live in the aristocratic area around the Boulevard Saint-Germain des Pres, the newly upscale quarter near the rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin. During my Graduate Internship in Paris, 2012, I walked by this apartment everyday and the surrounding neighborhood is just as Balzac describes:
“The house is of three storeys, with attic chambers.It is built of rough blocks of stone, plastered with the yellow wash that gives so contemptible a character to half the houses of Paris. The five windows of each storey of the facade have small panes and are provided with green blinds, none of which correspond in height, giving to the outside of the house an aspect of uncomfortable irregularity. At the narrow or street end, the house has two windows on each storey; those on the ground-floor have no blinds, and are protected by iron gratings.” (1835, Père Goriot, p.2)
Keep in mind that Balzac’s Paris was experiencing economic and class struggles as a direct result of the Revolution as well as a new political and ideological order. More than one third of the city’s inhabitants lived in an area not twice the size of Central Park (Pinkney, 46). This pre-Haussmannian Paris in Balzac’s novels can still be experienced today, however, in the Latin Quarter from the Pantheon on rue Sufflot down rue Saint Jacque to Val de Grace.
Balzac died in 1850, two years after Napoleon III took office, and never saw the newly built Paris where the mixing of classes was part of the new social context. Napoleon III and his architect Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris over the next two decades with wide boulevards, mansards, iron-balustrades and all of the iconic images that come to mind when we think of Paris.
A second reason I am drawn to Balzac’s novels is the way he portrays his heroes, specifically the protagonists in Le Colonel Chabert and Le Pere Goriot. In Le Pere Goriot, Balzac describes the final days of a retired vermicelli maker, Jean-Hoachim Goriot the title character, and his steadfast, unconditional love for self-absorbed daughters Delphine and Anastasie who care more about his funding their lavish lifestyles than for their father’s ailing, meager existence. In spite of their selfish machinations, which actually lead to Père Goriot suffering a debilitating stroke, he spends each day wishing just to catch a glimpse of his daughters as they leave their apartments. His love remains unwavering, leading him to sell everything he owns, even the clothes off his back, to provide a lavish lifestyle for them. In the end, they are not even present at his funeral in Père La Chaise cemetery (where ironically Balzac is buried years later).
This post is not meant to be a literary criticism of Le Père Goriot with its main themes of Machiavellian marriages, the obligations of the older generation to the young, or social Darwinism; it is more about how this story of paternal love touched me as a daughter. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Balzac in Le Père Goriot (my translation from the French):
“A father knows his children as God knows us: he can see into their hearts and know what’s really there…When I became a father, I understood God”.
“Some day you will find out that there is far more happiness in another’s happiness than in your own.”
“A letter is a soul, so faithful an echo of the speaking voice that to the sensitive it is among the richest treasures of love.”
“If the human heart sometimes finds moments of pause as it ascends the slopes of affection, it rarely halts on the way down.”
“You are my whole life. My father gave me a heart, but you made it beat”.
“God must surely be on the side of a father who loves his children”.
Finally, La Comedie Humaine contains 91 finished works (stories, novels or analytical essays) and 46 unfinished works by Balzac. The following is a list of my favorites by volume:
1) Scenes de la Vie Privee : La Bourse, Une Double Famille, Etude de femme, **Colonel Chabert 2) Etudes de mœurs : Le Père Goriot, Le Lys dans la valee, La Cousine Bette , Le Cousin Pons 3) Scenes de la Vie de Campagne : Le Cure de Village ; Le Medecin de Campagne 4) Des Romans mystiques : Seraphita 5)Scenes de la vie Militaire: Une Passion dans le desert ***6) Etudes Philosophiques : Catherine de Medicis ; Jesus-Christ en Flandre (see my post : https://frenchquest.com/2012/08/29/the-legend-of-jesus-christ-en-flandre-by-honore-de-balzac/ )
Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
(see more about Honoré de Balzac in these posts:
Pinkney, David. Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris. Princeton University Press. 1958
Lagarde & Michard. XIXe Siecle. Les Grands Auteurs Français du Programme. Bordas : France, 1969
Pendergast, Christopher. Paris and the Nineteenth Century. Blackwell Press: Oxford, 1995