About the Author

Portrait of Honore de Balzac

French journalist and writer, one of the creators of realism in literature. Balzac's huge production of novels and short stories are collected under the name La Comédie humaine, which originated from Dante's The Divine Comedy. Before his breakthrough as an author, Balzac wrote without success several plays and novels under different pseudonyms.

Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours. His father, Bernard François Balzac, had risen to the middle class, and married the daughter of his Parisian superior, Anna-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier; she was 31 years his junior. Bernard François Balzac had worked as a state prosecutor in Paris but was transferred to Tours because of his royalistic opinions during the French Revolution. In 1814 the family moved back to Paris.

Balzac spent the first four years of life in foster care, not so uncommon practice in France even in the 20th century. During his school years Balzac was an ordinary pupil. He studied at the Collège de Vendôme and the Sorbonne, and then worked in law offices. In 1819, when his family moved for financial reasons to the small town of Villeparisis, Balzac announced that he wanted to be a writer. He returned to Paris and was installed in a shabby room at 9 rue Lediguiéres, near the Bibliothéque de l'Arsenal. A few years later he described the place in La Peau de Chargin (1931), a fantastic tale owing much to E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). Balzac's first work was Cromwell. The tragedy on verse made the whole family dispirited.

By 1822 Balzac had produced several novels under pseudonyms, but he was ignored as a writer. Against his family's hopes, Balzac continued his career in literature, believing that the simplest road to success was writing. Unfortunately, he also tried his skills in business. Balzac ran a publishing company and the bought a printing house, which did not have much to print. When these commercial activities failed, Balzac was left with a heavy burden of debt. It plagued him to the end of his career.

After the period of failures, Balzac was 29 years old, and his efforts had been fruitless. Accepting the hospitality of General de Pommereul, he moved for a short time to Brittany in search of a local color for his new novel. In 1829 appeared La Dernier Chouan (later called Les Chouans), a historical work in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, which he published under his own name. Gradually Balzac began to gain notice as an author. Between the years 1830 and 1832 he published six novelettes titled Scènes de la Vie Privée.

In 1833 Balzac conceived the idea of linking together his old novels so that they would comprehend the whole society in a series of books. Eventually This plan led to 90 novels and novellas, which included eventually more than 2,000 characters. Balzac's huge and ambitious plan drew a picture of the customs, atmosphere, and habits of the bourgeois France. Balzac got down to the work with great energy, writing through the night, from fourteen to eighteen hours a day, and also finding time to pile up huge debts and fail in hopeless financial operations."I am not deep," the author once said, "but very wide."

Among the masterpieces of The Human Comedy are Le Pére Goriot, Les Illusions Perdues, Les Paysans, La Femme de Trente Ans, and Eugénie Grandet. In these books Balzac covered a world from Paris to Provinces. The primarly landscape is Paris, with its old aristocracy, new financial wealth, middle-class trade, demi-monde, professionals, servants, young intellectuals, clerks, criminals... In this social mosaic Balzac had recurrent characters, such as Eugène Rastignac, who came from an impoverished provincial family to Paris, mixed with the nobility, pursued wealth, had many mistresses, gambled, and was a successful politician. Henry de Marsay appeared in twenty-five different novels. There are many anecdotes about Balzac's relationship to his characters, who also lived in the author's imagination outside the novels. Once Balzac interrupted one of his friends, who was telling about his sister's illness, by saying: "That's all very well, but let's get back to reality: to whom are we going to marry Eugénie Grandet?"

Balzac worked often in the château at Le Saché, near Tours, although a great part of his work was done in Paris. From 1828-36 he lived at 1 rue Cassini, near the Observatory, on the edge of the city. In 1847 he moved to the Rue Fortunée. Energetically Balzac used to write 14 to 16 hours daily.

Balzac lived mostly in his villa in Sèvres during his later years. Among his friends was Eveline Hanska, a rich Polish lady, with whom he had corresponded for more than 15 years, and who had posed as a model for some of his feminine portraits (Mme Hulot in La Cousine Bette, 1847). In September 1848 Balzac travelled to Poland to meet her. His health had broken down, but they were married in 1850. Balzac died three months later in Paris, on August 18, 1850.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.