If you are interested in French life after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815, you should read Balzac’s magnum opus – almost 100 novels and plays that together make up “La Comédiene Humaine”. Honoré de Balzac was a 19th century novelist and playwright very well known for his detailed observations and keen sense of uncensored reality. In fact, Balzac is considered one of the founding fathers of European realism.
Balzac’s work is said to have influenced several other writers, like Proust, Zola, Flaubert, Dickens or James. But it was perhaps in the theatre that he himself learned the significance of character, that so many after him admired and allowed to influence their work. In fact, Balzac is very well known for his multifaceted characters – even smaller, supporting characters seem to be fully fleshed out, and therefore also very human. His characters are often morally very ambiguous and complex – much like people in real life.
Balzac is also known for taking places or objects and turning these into important characters in his work. One example of this would be Paris that often features not only as a backdrop but also as a character in its own right.
Balzac was born into a family who had worked very hard at achieving respectability, and his parents’ marriage was more of a business affair than love. As a newborn, Balzac was immediately sent away to a nurse and wasn’t reunited with his parents for 4 years. And then, when finally reunited, him and his sister were kept at a cold distance from their parents. Perhaps it could have been this time that shaped his independent mind?
While growing up, Balzac is said to have suffered for his independent thoughts. He could never really adapt to his stricter grammar school and his strong will is supposed to have caused him several occasions of grief. His willful nature is also supposed to have continued to cause him troubles throughout his life.
Balzac tried very hard to have a career. But he had a hard time to adjust to life in business, or in the legal field. He did take a position as a legal clerk right after leaving school – but left this position shortly afterwards since he considered the law banal and heartless. While he was a writer, he managed to try ¬– and fail– at being a businessman, a politician, a publisher, a printer and even a critic before and during his writing career. If you study La Comédiene Humaine, you will find reflections of Balzac’s struggle throughout.
It is often said that Balzac kept a brutal writing schedule. This could have been the cause of the numerous health problems he suffered throughout his entire life. Outside of his work, his personal life was lined with drama – both financial and otherwise. He did succeed in marrying his longtime love Ewelina Hanska, but died only 5 months afterwards, in 1850.
His greatest works include La Comédiene Humaine, Les Chouans, La Peau de Chagrin and Le Père Goriot.
Selected Balzac books and works from La Comedie Humaine
Les Chouans (1829)
La Peau de chagrin (1830)
Le Colonel Chabert (1832)
La Fille aux yeux d'or (1833)
Eugénie Grandet (1833)
Le Contrat de mariage (1835)
Le Père Goriot (1835)
Le Lys dans la vallée (1835)
Illusions perdues (I, 1837; II, 1839; III, 1843)
La Cousine Bette (1846)
Le Cousin Pons (1847)
Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1847)