31 July 2022

Honoré de Balzac - A Guest Post by Jack Seney

Balzac was a self-proclaimed reactionary, a monarchist who wanted to restore all the hereditary rights of the aristocracy and a Roman Catholic.

By Jack Seney

Honore de Balzac was a prolific French novelist circa the 1830-1850 period, coming to this in his 30s after attempting careers in journalism and publishing. He found novels to be a way to make money while also serving the arts. Balzac had served TIME in jail for non-payment of debts, so his success was no small matter to him.
Balzac's books were popular in France and came to represent an ongoing series of loosely related stories called "The Human Comedy" (a hundred years later Kerouac and others, fully aware of Balzac, apparently tried to steal this idea as if it was originally theirs).
"Lost Illusions" is one of the most respected volumes of Balzac, a big novel with the air of an epic even though it focuses on not too many key people.
Lucien and David are the two longtime provincial pals here, who take different paths in pursuing youthful success. The more egoistic Lucien heads off to Paris to woo a rich and fickle older woman into being his permanent sponsor, as he intends to become a great poet. There was nothing necessarily immoral about such sponsorship at the time, as many new writers were supported in this way. However, Lucien finds himself romantically in love with his benefactress.
At first living among impoverished fellow writers in Paris, Lucien ends up becoming a journalist-critic and getting involved in the risky politics of the newspaper business, even as he falls in love again with a financially borderline actress.
Meanwhile, the generous nice guy David stays home, marries and energetically takes over the printing press that runs in his family. He is always there for Lucien whenever a call for help goes out.
This is an absorbing classic novel whose considerable length is not even noticeable, so engrossing is the story. The English translation by Katharine Wormaley flows beautifully, and with Balzac's elan the wordy descriptive passages go down as smooth as ice cream.
Book Tubers on You Tube have somehow never heard of this masterpiece or any other Balzac work, as one after another they continue to limit their classical knowledge to boring writers like Tolstoy or Dickens, the Brontes or Austin, many of whom were writing solely for syndication and were thus motivated to drag their stories out into soap operas which later made for fat and dull books.
Most of Balzac's novels were leanly edited by himself and came out directly one after another, with the 1800s public eating them up like pancakes but getting literary lessons as they did.
Some put their nose in the air and sniff that Balzac's writing quality "fell" when, needing a secure income, he entered a regular publication contract in the last decade of his life. But I have seen no evidence of this, and isn't it easy for the sniffers to talk
if they themselves are financially secure?
To this day many still rank Balzac as history's most prolific single author, and that he produced so many works of literary quality means that he is already far beyond a potboiler like Stephen King who might challenge him for the technical title.
Indeed, Balzac would have surely flooded out any challengers had he not died at age 51. Some insist that this was because of eating a poisonous coffee bean, as Balzac was known to not only guzzle coffee, but actually chew coffee beans for energy for his writing sessions which sometimes extended to 16 or 18 hours in length. He was also said to have made sure a chapel was available to attend Mass without having to stray far from his desk.
But Balzac had other health problems and it is more likely that these killed him not long after his marriage to a Polish countess.
May God bless Balzac's memory and may more people continue to discover his books. I own "Lost Illusions," but get his others from my big Brooklyn central library. I also see them on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, so Balzac has survived into modernity.

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