This essay channeling Balzac in Paris is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Balzac: the Human Comedy Personified
Many a talented creative has been taken over by excess once celebrity is within reach. Honoré de Balzac is a rather desperate case whose extreme reversals of fortune were brought on by a terrible head for business and an absurd mania for the aristocracy. Once he had his first blush of fame, he went headlong into a campaign to become a member of elite society, a gigantic stretch given his reputation before this initial big break was that of a literary hack who was up to his eyeballs in debt.
Balzac’s biographer Stefan Zweig chronicled a serious about-face when journals and reviews suddenly clamored for Balzac’s contributions—at the snap of a finger, he was courted by publishers and snowed under with letters from adoring readers. He saw each of these as a sign that he had achieved the lasting celebrity of which he had been dreaming since childhood. But literary fame and social climbing were not the same, and Balzac was obsessed with the latter. Being far from sober-minded, he was seriously intoxicated by such success—a phenomenon Zweig believed resulted from too many years in obscurity.
He described Balzac as “poor and hungry, filled with impatient despair, observing in fleeting moments of envy that it was always the others, never himself, but always the others, who were acquiring riches, women, success, the luxuries and lavish windfalls of life.” Had Balzac not gone full-tilt into his aristocratic fixation, he would certainly have had an easier go of it, but it wasn’t his nature to hold back and his headlong rush into transforming himself into nobility reads like a hilarious novella he could have written. “A letter from a duchess of the Faubourg St. Germain meant more to him than Goethe’s praise,” Zweig wrote. He added that Balzac would rather have become a Rothschild living in a palace with servants, carriages, and a gallery of masterpieces than to have acquired immortality; and for a genuine patent of nobility signed by Louis Philippe, Balzac would have sold his soul.
Setting up his new persona, the author decided to establish himself as a descendent of the Marquis d’Entragues. To make the blatant fabrication seem more credible, he had the arms of the d’Entragues family engraved on his cutlery and painted on his carriage. Zweig tells us his reasoning was as follows: if Monsieur de Chateaubriand could own a château, Girardin was able to keep two riding horses, and Jules Janin or Eugène Sue were able to maintain a carriage, he certainly merited a tilbury with a liveried footman. Turning to his living quarters, he rented the second floor of a house on Rue Cassini near the Luxembourg Gardens and set about decorating it.
He hired fellow writer Henri de Latouche, who had helped Balzac move into his new digs, to hang his wallpaper, a skill for which de Latouche apparently had great talent. This came in handy given Balzac was intent on creating an apartment fit for a literary king. In a rather snarky moment, Balzac biographer Graham Robb wrote, “In choosing the paper, cutting it to size and fitting it to all the difficult angles, Latouche’s genius blossomed as it rarely did in his work.” Ouch!
Once the shell of Balzac’s new home was ready, he bought opulent furniture, had chased gold buttons made for his blue dress coat, and ordered silk and brocade waistcoats on credit. Unfortunately, the accoutrements had the reverse effect of what he had hoped: they made him look ridiculous. What the mirror reflected just before he pranced out into the world was a man with a heavy, thickly pomaded mane holding a small lorgnon coquettishly. The now-successful author believed his new look would gain him entry into the salons of Paris, and it did, though not the drawing rooms of the Faubourg St. Germain but those of the wannabees of the time.
“Even in these less exalted circles, the effect of Balzac’s ostentatious elegance was catastrophic,” Zweig wrote, calling his attempt to turn himself into a dandy a complete failure. “His very physical appearance destroyed any hope he might have entertained of cutting an aristocratic figure.” No matter how grand his gold buttons and lace cravats, or how much sumptuous fabric he folded around his figure, he was still “a stout, red-cheeked plebeian” who spoke loudly and ran on and on to the point that others couldn’t get a word in edgeways. He was known for bursting into a room like a cannon shell.
By this point in the drama, I’m having a good laugh at Balzac’s expense until it occurs to me there is a double standard going on. It’s not quite fair of me to applaud the author’s determination when it resulted in a literary opus that is celebrated to this day for its length and breadth while making fun of his fierce desire to enter high society, a series of blunders that pushed him, careening, toward defeat. The faulty reasoning that hastened his downfall ran along these lines: If he could not cut a good figure, he would at least provide a sensation; if he could not produce a pleasing and striking effect by an air of unobtrusive distinction, at least his extravagances should become as celebrated as the writings by which he acquired fame.
The tragedy of the story is that Balzac felt all of this nonsense would finally make everyone believe he was a great writer, whereas if he’d simply continued to write excellent fiction, he could have accomplished this without bankrupting himself. But that’s how the cards fell in the end, and with all of society deriding him, he was forced to withdraw from his ruse because the grandiosity with which he had tried to live had put him in so much debt he had to hide from his many creditors. He rented the top floor of a small house under the name of his housekeeper to avoid the outraged merchants to whom he owed money, and abruptly disappeared.
Though it’s tough to see a writer sabotaging his life to this extent, there is a silver lining to the cloud that loomed over this phase of his life: the isolation that his flirtations with the glitterati forced upon him gave him the headspace to craft his brilliant La Comédie humaine. In a small room in his hideout between 1840 and 1847, he created this vast exploration of contemporary society that unfolded in 90 fictive pieces. Now a museum called La Maison de Balzac, the modest house preserves the legend of this man who produced a mind-numbing amount of work at a petite writing table while seated in a hard-surfaced upholstered chair. When I walked into the room for the first time, I was truly moved by the austere beauty of these two pieces, placed as they were in the center of the small study just as he had arranged them when he was a slave to his writing.
Slave is not an exaggeration. Describing his habits in a letter to his future wife Madame Hanska, he wrote on February 15, 1845, “Working means getting up at midnight every evening, writing until eight o’clock, having lunch in a quarter of an hour, working till five o’clock, having dinner, going to bed, and starting all over again the next day.” About the desk that sits in the dimly lit room, he told her, “I have had it these ten years; it has seen all my miseries, wiped away all my tears, known all my projects, heard all my thoughts; my arm has nearly worn it out by dint of rubbing it as I write.” It is this last point that makes this piece of furniture so remarkable to see in person: just as he said, the tabletop has an indention in it, wear that corresponds to the spot where he repeatedly ran his arms over the wood, drawing wildly flailing lines to the margins of the pages where he scribbled in edited text.
Hanging on a wall near the desk, the framed examples of these edited pages sent a tingle up my spine—it looked as if a war had been unleashed on the sheets of paper. Later, I would read in the preface to The Human Comedy that he had a similar take on the effort, as he called the book a chimera and a tyranny that must be obeyed. As time ran along and he grew more determined to craft an extraordinary legacy, Balzac’s work-habits proved even more extreme. He wrote to his mother in response to her concern that he was nowhere to be seen, “Do not be vexed at my silence: I am working enormously. I have lately begun to work twenty-four hours at a stretch, and then go to bed for five hours; this gives me twenty-one hours and a half of working time every day.”
Balzac died before he could completely shape The Human Comedy into his end-game vision. According to a list he prepared in 1845, he calculated that between the novels he had published up to that date and those he still intended to write, he would eventually showcase three- to four-thousand characters. The final tally comes in at a whopping two thousand. Proving that we don’t always know what is best for our lives, Balzac wanted more than anything to live as an aristocrat, a lifestyle that is now extinct, which could have relegated him to obscurity if the social swirl had stopped him from writing. But even a bigger take-away for me as a writer is that it often does feel it’s the others who are luxuriating in the windfalls of life. I think Balzac’s story illustrates that we don’t know how we will be remembered, often even at the moment we pass into the other realm.
Balzac as a Human Comedy © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.by