On a warm morning in June of 1828, a young man of 29 years of age, 5 feet 3 inches in height, fat, poorly dressed, with greasy hair and sagging stockings, stood on the Place Vendome in Paris. He had recently incurred fifty thousand francs of debt attempting to run a failed printing company, and had two mistresses (one a duchess), both old enough to be his mother. With dozens of potboilers of no literary merit whatsoever, all published under various pseudonyms, to his credit, he stood staring up at Napoleon’s column. After a few moments contemplating his hero, he remarked to a man who was probably the only friend he had, “Some day soon, I, too, will conquer the world.” The young man was Honore de Balzac.
Balzac may or may not be the greatest novelist of them all. I’ll have no definitive answer on that point, though I will present evidence in support of that contention. However, he was one of the most important writers in the history of literature and of the novel, as you will see. Balzac was also one of the most interesting characters of the 19th century and lived, in the 50 years allotted to him, three or four life spans crammed into one. He was a lover of women (mostly rich and many of them with titles), a man of business (who never once had an unqualified success either in investments or management), and a public figure (who was followed, harassed, and ridiculed in a way comparable to how Michael Jackson is today). As a novelist, he wrote 30 failed and virtually forgotten novels before even beginning the work for which he is famous, the uncompleted cycle of 100 fictional works that intended to depict comprehensively all aspects of French society, rural and urban. The work we know as The Human Comedy.
French biographer Andre Maurois titled his work on Balzac, “Prometheus, The Life of Balzac.” Prometheus, the mortal who fooled Zeus, then stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, is an archetype of the bringer of new things, and Balzac certainly deserves that description as well.
There are a number of “firsts” to his credit. Balzac was the original “starving artist in his garret,” whose parents, hardly penniless, gave him a pauper’s pension for two years and set him up in Paris to write, not so secretly hoping for failure, which would force him to take up a real career in the legal profession. While Balzac was hardly the first male to demonstrate particular sensitivity to women, to earn the title of “feminist,” he was the first to write a sympathetic book on women and sexual relations in marriage, which would endear him to a generation of French and European women. He was the first writer to realize that women represented the largest potential audience for fiction, which is still true today, at least statistically. In the character of the criminal Vautrin, who is superhumanly strong, intelligent, and crafty, and who appears in several novels and a play, Balzac invented the super criminal, the pre-curser to Moriarty, Fu Manchu, and Hannibal Lecter. He was the originator of the “sequel,” and invented the modern book-of-the-month club. Finally, Balzac invented “realism,” perhaps the most enduring literary style in the history of the written word.
"In the name of the law, and the name of the King!" said an officer, but the words were almost lost in a murmur of astonishment. Silence fell on the room. The lodgers made way for three of the men, who had each a hand on a cocked pistol in a side pocket. Two policemen, who followed the detectives, barred the entrance to the sitting room, and two more appeared in the doorway that gave access to the staircase. All chance of salvation by flight was cut off for the criminal known as Trompe-la-Mort, to whom all eyes instinctively turned. The chief of police walked straight up to him, and dealt him a sharp blow on the head, so that his wig fell off, revealing the stark horror of his skull. There was a terrible suggestion of strength mingled with cunning in the short, brick-red crop of hair, the whole head was in harmony with his powerful frame, and at that moment the fires of hell seemed to gleam from his eyes. In that flash the real Vautrin shone forth, revealed at once before them all; they understood his past, his present, and future, his pitiless doctrines, his actions, the religion of his own good pleasure, the majesty with which his cynicism and contempt for mankind invested him. The blood flew to his face, and his eyes glared like the eyes of a wild cat. He started back with savage energy and a fierce growl that drew exclamations of alarm from the lodgers. His fierce, feral movement, and the general clamor he’d created, made the policemen draw their weapons. Vautrin saw the gleaming muzzles of their pistols, saw his danger, and instantly proved himself possessor of the highest of all human powers. There was something horrible and majestic in the spectacle of the sudden transformation in his face; he could only be compared to a cauldron full of the steam that can send mountains flying, a terrific force dispelled in a moment by a drop of cold water. The drop of water that cooled his wrathful fury was a reflection that flashed across his brain like lightning. He began to smile, and looked down at his wig.
"You are not in the politest of humors to-day," he remarked to the chief, and held out his hands to the policemen with a jerk of his head. "Gentlemen," he said, "put on the handcuffs. I call on those present to witness that I make no resistance."
This is just one of many memorable scenes from Pere Goriot, often cited as Balzac’s greatest novel.
Honore de Balzac was born in 1899, roughly mid-way between the years of the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. His father, Bernard Francois Balzac, was a sophisticated crackpot and raconteur, of dubious political conviction, who managed to avoid both the guillotine during the Revolution, and later the persecutions of the Bourbon monarchists. He had memorized much of Voltaire, Montaigne, Erasmus, and Descartes, and was so convinced by his homemade health regimen, which included the seduction of young women well into his 80’s, and would allow him to live until 100 years of age, that he bought a Tontine, a popular form of investment at the time, the corpus and interest of which would fall to the last investor living. Balzac’s mother Laure was 32 years younger than her husband and, having lost her first child trying in vain to breast feed him, sent the infant Balzac across town to a wet nurse and didn’t see her child until Balzac was four years old. When Balzac was 8, his mother had an affair with a man her own age, resulting in an illegitimate son, Henri, the new apple of her eye. She promptly sent Balzac to boarding school. In the next six years Balzac was visited only once by his mother and not at all by his father, who thought travel might threaten his longevity.
I don’t intend to provide a detailed biography of Balzac in this paper, but this bizarre beginning to the writer’s life, the eccentricities of his father and his abandonment by his mother, represent two of the most formative elements of his life, both as a man, and as a writer. The former provided Balzac with a predilection for what is most interesting and strange, though very real indeed, in human behavior. In short, a fascination for the raw materials of story telling, the underpinning of his life as a writer. The latter, his mother’s loveless-ness, spurred him not only to find the mother he never had, and eventually into a enormously profligate sex life, but also to become one of literature’s most sensitive writers on women and women’s issues. Noel Gerson, in his biography “The Prodigal Genius”, writes, “Balzac’s understanding of the mind, temperament and moods of the middle-class woman, and often of the aristocratic woman, proved to be uncanny. No other French author had demonstrated such insight, particularly into the world of the woman more than 30 years of age, whose marriage left her cold and who was slowly dying of lethargy and hostility. This woman, Balzac declared, had a right to live—and to love. He developed a huge, adoring feminine readership (and was deluged by countless letters from his admirers). It is small wonder that thousands of women virtually worshipped him, or that he encountered few problems when, after meeting a breathless reader (or letter writer, whom he occasionally agreed to meet in person), he suggested opportunities to become better acquainted.”
Balzac’s other great theme was money. Again, Gerson writes, “The love of money—which Balzac called ‘the modern god’—was the root of all modern evil. None of these views seem new a century and a half later, but Balzac’s approach was shockingly candid for his time. He was the literary clinician who first turned the harsh light of realism on the world in which he lived.”
But finally it is character that is Balzac’s greatest subject.
Oscar Wilde said, “A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades; who would care to go out to an evening party to meet the friends of one’s boyhood, when one can sit at home with Lucien de Rubempre. (Of the death of this character, in A Harlot High and Low, Wilde called it “One of the great tragedies of my life,” one that he never got over.)
Here’s the beginning of one of Balzac’s finest novellas, Colonel Chabert:
"HULLO! There is that old greatcoat again!"
This exclamation was made by a lawyer's clerk of the class called in French offices a gutter-jumper--a messenger in fact--who at this moment was eating a piece of dry bread with a hearty appetite. He pulled off a morsel of crumb to make into a bullet, and fired it gleefully through the open pane of the window against which he was leaning. The pellet, well aimed, rebounded almost as high as the window, after hitting the hat of a stranger who was crossing the courtyard of a house in the Rue Vivienne.
"Come, Simonnin, don't play tricks on people, or I will turn you out of doors. However poor a client may be, he is still a man, hang it all!" said the head clerk.
The lawyer's messenger is commonly, as was Simonnin, a lad of thirteen or fourteen, who, in every office, is under the special jurisdiction of the managing clerk, whose errands keep him employed carrying writs to the bailiffs and petitions to the Courts. He is akin to the street boy in his habits, and to the pettifogger by fate. The boy is almost always ruthless, unbroken, unmanageable, a ribald rhymester, impudent, greedy, and idle. And yet, almost all these clerklings have an old mother lodging on some fifth floor with whom they share their pittance of thirty or forty francs a month.
Balzac’s rise to literary stardom in France required him to write more than enough potboilers and melodramas, all under different noms de plume, to complete the careers of many an inferior writer. All written solely for the money, the works nevertheless taught him how to write well, and, most importantly, to write quickly. In the twenty years of his literary maturity, Balzac averaged 25 closely written new pages and an equal number of revised pages, every day, all devoted to his magnum opus, The Human Comedy. This does not include a correspondence with his devoted sister Laure and his many lovers, which was equally voluminous.
Balzac was gifted with enormous energy and never needed more than 4 hours of sleep per day. He also fueled his literary efforts with as many as 2 dozen cups of coffee every day--a drink that he never allowed anyone else to prepare for him, and which eventually weakened his system and shortened his life. (A physician warned him in his early 40’s that coffee would kill him and that he should stop. Aghast, he replied, “Without coffee I wouldn’t write another word!!”)
Two volumes, published under his own name, launched Balzac’s career as the most famous writer in France. Both were written to generate cash to pay off his debts, which were forever mounting in order to feed his insatiable appetite for food, luxurious clothing, and furniture, a pattern that would recur throughout his life. The Physiology of Marriage was a book-length treatment of current marital mores, a marriage manual. Its sympathetic treatment of women earned him a lifelong readership. Jules Janin, a critic and novelist, said in 1834, “Woman belongs to M. de Balzac, she belongs to him in all her finery, in her negligee, in the most minute detail of her private space; he dresses her and undresses her.”
The second work was the fantastical novel The Wild Ass’s Skin, a precursor to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. It was such a critical and financial success that for the first time in his life Balzac found magazine and book publishers competing with cash advances to commission his as-yet unwritten works.
Simultaneous with his publishing success, Balzac became a celebrated figure in Parisian society. His wit and intelligence astonished and intoxicated everyone who met him. It didn’t hurt that he pursued and eventually won the favors of the beautiful and most famous of Paris courtesans, Olympia Pellisier, the hostess of the most fashionable salon in the city.
The paparazzi of Balzac’s day, the caricaturists, made merciless fun of him over the last 20 years of his life. When he began to affect, in his own rooms, a white wool robe with tassels, of his own design, drawings of Balzac as a buffoonish monk soon appeared in the weeklies. Balzac relished the attention and found new ways of nurturing it. His most famous conversation piece was a walking cane, also of his own design, studded with turquoises and an enormous crimson faceted stone set as the knob in the top. He maintained in public that it possessed magical properties, and hinted that the knob contained a portrait of his secret mistress, painted in the nude, who was a member of the highest aristocracy.
Balzac was a man of enormous appetites and most of them were the subject of public comment, if not ridicule. Oddly enough, his love life remained largely out of the public eye. Balzac was nothing if not discrete, an important characteristic if you intend to sustain as many as four love affairs simultaneously. It’s never been determined with certainty the number of illegitimate children he bore, but there was certainly two and probably more. Many of his paramours were aristocratic women, most of them single. Only one, Duchess Claire de Castries, perhaps the woman of highest birth he ever pursued, is known to have rebuffed him. He had affairs with numerous Countesses, Marquise’s, and Baronesses. Madame De Berny, his first mistress, 20 years older than Balzac, was his lover well into his 40’s, and the love of his life, Countess Eveline Hanska, who finally agreed to marry him near the end of his life, was his mistress for more than 15 years.
The “de” in Honore de Balzac indicated that he was a member of the aristocracy. However, there was nothing in the family genealogy to warrant the title, and Balzac didn’t even begin to sign his name with it until he was 30 years of age. One has to wonder, though, having conquered two duchesses before reaching his 25th birthday, if Balzac didn’t believe he deserved the title more than some who’d come by it more honestly.
Much has been made of Balzac’s success with women, most of it perplexed. The man was short, fat, rude, clumsy, poorly, often ridiculously dressed, and doused himself with evil-smelling perfume rather than bathe. Auguste Rodin’s bronze statue of Balzac provides a hint, depicting him rising like some vital life force from living rock. “Apparently his secret lay in his eyes,” writes one biographer, “Although his portraits and crude daguerreotypes of his final years reveal nothing extraordinary. Even the many people who had good cause to dislike him commented on the way he came alive when his eyes flashed, and he appears to have exerted an almost hypnotic influence on women.”
It’s impossible to separate the great writer from the great womanizer in Balzac. He pursued both with equal energy and passion. And what he learned from women first hand, particularly older women, can be found throughout his novels in his insights into human character, both male and female.
Now let’s turn to the title of this paper. “The Best Novelist of them All?” Given the fact that I proposed this topic myself, I suppose I should attempt a definitive answer. Alas, I cannot. My real purpose was to stir your curiosity about Balzac so that you will attempt at least one of his novels, if you haven’t already. As entry points to the Human Comedy, I recommend either Pere Goriot or Cousin Bette.
But it’s worth wrestling with the “Best Novelist of Them All?” for a few moments at least.
The world doesn’t appear to have an obvious greatest novelist, as it has its greatest playwright in Shakespeare.
In various books, magazine articles and Internet best-of lists the candidates for “Best Novelist of All Time” appear to be:
To qualify, the authors either wrote a large number of great novels, or, in Tolstoy’s case, the longest great novel.
Not long ago, the Guardian Newspaper in London held a poll of 100 noted writers from 50 countries for the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. Don Quixote won 1st place. The rest of the list was not prioritized and included only Pere Goriot by Balzac. Only Dostoevsky had 4 books listed, The Idiot, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy had only three, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were the only authors with more than two works each, unless you count Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which is either one novel or six, depending on your view of it. Dickens had one, Great Expectations, and Henry James didn’t appear at all.
Certainly, Balzac was one of the most prolific of authors. But, the author who wrote the most novels ever is Dame Barbara Cartland, who completed a book every two weeks, publishing 723 novels, which sold more than 1 billion copies in 36 languages, making her the best-selling novelist of all time.
Scholarship might be an indicator, but, today, Balzac is rarely studied in American or British schools. Even in France, writers like Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and Collette outsell Balzac’s novels.
Another way to assess greatness is by what other great writers have said of Balzac:
Dostoyevsky: “Balzac’s characters are the creation of a universal mind. Such a development in a man’s mind was prepared not by the spirit of the times, but by thousands of years and all their turmoil.”
Victor Hugo: “Balzac was one of the first among the greatest, one of the highest among the best. All of his books form but one book—a book living, luminous, profound, where one sees coming and going and marching and moving, with I know not what of the formidable and terrible, mixed with the real, all of our contemporary civilization;—a marvelous book which the poet entitled "a comedy" and which he could have called history; which takes all forms and all styles.”
Henry James wrote, “This huge picture of the life of France in his time, a picture bristling with imagination and information, with fancies and facts and figures, a world of special and general insight, a rank tropical forest of detail and specification, but with the strong breath of genius forever circulating through it and shaking the treetops to a mighty murmur, got itself hung before us in the space of 20 short years. The achievement remains one of the most inscrutable, one of the unfathomable, final facts in the history of art.”
Willa Cather said, “If one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live.”
Artistic influence is a further means of measuring greatness. As mentioned earlier, Balzac was the most influential proponent and the first practitioner of literary realism. The term refers to the depiction of contemporary life and society “as they are,” including clear-eyed and unadorned depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of romanticized or stylized presentation. Balzac had a huge influence on later nineteenth-century French novelists like Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. It is not hard to find traces of Balzac in Hemingway or Dreiser, or in more recent writers as different as Mailer, Updike, Roth, Bellow, and Jonathan Franzen.
But perhaps Balzac’s true claim to greatness lies in his ambition, and the extent to which he achieved the goals he set for himself. I’m referring to The Human Comedy. With less than 20 years left to live, Balzac mapped out a literary achievement so vast that it might today appear to be no more than arrogance. The Human Comedy would be a complete history of French society, both urban and rural, for the 19th century. It would treat all facets of society, including wealth, poverty, politics, crime, war, business, social status, and sexual behavior, and would eventually require fully 100 volumes. Balzac would write about everyone and everything, about banks, commerce, factories, the stock market, the press, and the legal profession. In addition, he would trace the lives of a revolving cast of more than 2,000 characters through various stages of their lives as, in each work, they took center stage, or receded to supporting roles, depending on the book and the subject at hand.
Of those 100 volumes, Balzac completed an astonishing 81 novels, some short and some very long. Though the quality is hardly uniform, there is general critical consensus that roughly half of them are masterpieces. These include the works already mentioned, plus Lost Illusions, Cousin Pons, Eugenie Grandet, The History of the Thirteen, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, The Vicar of Tours, Gobseck, The Sign of the Cat and Racket, The Wrong Side of Paris, The Black Sheep, and many others.
Having read 33 of his works, most, but not every one of them a masterpiece, I can understand how that number may well be valid. (As an aside, let me warn you about one quirk in Balzac that you might find off-putting. He rarely begins a novel without a lengthy and often rather boring, I admit, essay on some aspect of French society, history, geography, or genealogy. I’ve learned to skim or skip these introductions in order to find the actual story, though, once engaged by the plot, I often go back to the essays and find they are in fact germane and important for a full appreciation of the book.)
Balzac wrote this in an introduction to the entire work:
The idea of The Human Comedy was at first as a dream to me, one of those impossible projects which we caress and then let fly; a chimera that gives us a glimpse of its smiling woman's face, and forthwith spreads its wings and returns to a heavenly realm of phantasy. But this chimera, like many another, has become a reality; has its behests, its tyranny, which must be obeyed.
The work to be written needed a threefold form--men, women, and things; that is to say, persons and the material expression of their minds; man, in short, and life.
The vastness of a plan, which includes both a history and a criticism of society, an analysis of its evils, and a discussion of its principles, authorizes me, I think, in giving to my work the title under which it now appears--The Human Comedy. Is this too ambitious? Is it not exact? That, when it is complete, the public must pronounce.
Of course, Balzac’s ambition allows him to choose a title to stand next to no less a work than The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.
Perhaps Balzac wrote too much. The same criticism has been made of contemporary authors Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. “If only they wrote fewer works,” so goes the criticism, “perhaps there’d be more masterpieces.” It’s like saying if Babe Ruth had only been at bat less often, he might have hit more homers. And it fails to recognize that every book Balzac wrote in his maturity he thoroughly revised 8 to 10 times before publication.
But even Balzac’s lesser works have moments of vividness, of great energy, or poignancy. The short story “Madame Firmiani” is an excellent example. Burdened by a long introductory third-hand description of the heroine by the Paris demi-monde, plus a rushed and sentimental ending, it boasts one truly memorable passage. We don’t actually see Madame Firmiani until halfway through the narrative, when her secret lover’s uncle sees her for the first time. He has learned that his nephew has perhaps squandered his fortune to make her his mistress.
The brightest memories of the old man faded at the sight of his nephew's so-called mistress. His anger died away at the gracious exclamation, which came from his lips as he looked at her. By one of those fortunate accidents, which happen only to pretty women, it was a moment when all her beauties shone with peculiar luster, due perhaps to the wax-lights, to the charming simplicity of her dress, to the ineffable atmosphere of elegance that surrounded her.
There comes a moment when, content with her toilet, pleased with her own wit, delighted to be admired, and feeling herself the queen of a salon full of remarkable men who smile to her, the Parisian woman reaches a full consciousness of her grace and charm; her beauty is enhanced by the looks she gathers in,--a mute homage which she transfers with subtle glances to everyone else in the room. At moments like these a woman is invested with supernatural power and becomes a magician, a witch, without herself knowing that she is one; involuntarily she inspires the love that fills her own bosom; her smiles and glances fascinate. If this condition, which comes from the soul, can give attraction even to a plain woman, with what radiance does it not invest a woman of natural elegance, distinguished bearing, fair, fresh, with sparkling eyes, and dressed in a taste that wrings approval from even her bitterest rivals.
Have you ever, for your happiness, met a woman whose harmonious voice gives to her speech the same charm that emanates from her manners? A woman who knows how to speak and to be silent, whose words are happily chosen, whose language is pure, and who concerns herself in your interests with delicacy? Her wit is caressing, her criticism never wounds; she neither discourses nor argues, but she likes to lead a discussion and stop it at the right moment. Her manner is affable and smiling, her politeness never forced, her readiness to serve others never servile; she reduces the respect she claims to a soft shadow; she never wearies you, and you leave her satisfied with her and with yourself. Everything about her pleases the eye; in her presence you breathe, as it were, your native air. This woman is all nature. There is no effort about her; she is aiming at no effect; her feelings are shown simply, because they are true. You love her so well that if this angel did wrong you would be ready to excuse her anything. If, for your happiness, you have met with such a woman, you know Madame Firmiani.
Who would not want to be described with such eloquence?
Without claiming Balzac, or any other, to be the greatest novelist of them all, I feel it’s safe to place him near the top, for the scope of his ambition, the extent to which he succeeded, the reach of his influence, and the energy and vividness of his characters.
I’ll leave the last word to two other critics. Simon Leys, in the New York Review of Books, writes: “To engage in a complete reading of The Human Comedy is akin to embarking on a raft and attempting the descent of a huge wild river: once you start, you cannot get off, you are powerless to stop, you are carried away into another world—more exciting, more intense, more real than the dull scene you left ashore. Everything is larger than life, and loaded with energy.
And Oscar Wilde:
Balzac’s characters have a kind of fervent, fiery colored existence. They dominate us and defy skepticism.... Balzac did not copy life, he created it.
Honore de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, 1879.
The Prodigal Genius, Noel B. Gerson, 1972.
The Lesson of Balzac, Henry James, 1905.
Critical Essays on Honore de Balzac, Martin Kanes, Ed., 1990.
Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, Andre Maurois, 1965.
Balzac, V.S. Pritchett, 1973.
Balzac: A Biography, Graham Robb, 1994.
Memoir of Balzac, Laure Surville, 1878.
Balzac, Stefan Zweig, 1946.
Works by Honore de Balzac
Child of Malediction
Commission in Lunacy
Girl with the Golden Eyes
A Harlot High and Low
History of the 13
Le Raboullouilleuse (The Black Sheep)
Passion in the Desert
The Princess’s Secrets
Selected Short Stories
Sign of the Cat and Racket
The Sceaux Ball
The Unknown Masterpiece
Vicar of Tours
Wrong Side of Paris