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Honoré de Balzac

On May 20, 1799, author Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours, France.  He studied at the Collège de Vendôme and the Sorbonne.  Despite being called the Charles Dickens of France, his early life was haunted by failure.  He worked feverishly, often writing 14 hours a day, taking a short nap, and then writing the rest of the night with the help of strong Parisian coffee. 

From 1819 to 1830, Balzac led a life of frequent privation and constant  industry, receiving for his reward the heavy burden of debt that resulted from several bad business ventures.  His financial woes would plague him throughout his career. 

His first success as a writer came with the publication of Les Chouans (1829, The Chouans).  Between 1830 and 1832, he published Scenes from Private Life, a series of novelettes that brought him even more literary attention. 

Balzac next had the idea of presenting in La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a complete picture of modern civilization.  Among the masterpieces which form part of his vast scheme are Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot), Les Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), Les Paysans (The Peasants), La Femme de trente ans (The Thirty-Year-Old Woman), and Eugénie Grandet, in which detailed observation and imagination are the main features.

Balzac's The Human Comedy was a sprawling literary accomplishment.  It included 85 novels encompassing over 2,000 named characters written over a period of 20 years, but the author's work still failed to bring him financial security.  Although the action of most of his books takes place in Paris, he also wrote about life in small towns and in the country.  He wrote at a time when the Industrial Revolution was creating a sprawling middle class, and he was taken most with people who were caught up in their newfound wealth.  He wrote about banks, offices, factories, the stock market, the media, and the first commercial advertisements.  One of his characters says, "I am of my time; I honor money."

Although financial success remained aloof, Balzac had a huge influence on later nineteenth-century French novelists such as Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola.  Henry James thought he was the best novelist of all time, and Willa Cather once said, "If one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live."  Today, Balzac is rarely studied in American schools.  Even in France, his novels are outsold by writers such as Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and Collette.

Balzac once said, "All happiness depends on courage and work.  I have had many periods of wretchedness, but with energy and above all with illusions, I pulled through them all."

During his later years, while living mostly in his villa at Sèvres, he said, "I am not deep, but I am very wide."  In 1849, in failing health, Balzac traveled to Poland to visit Eveline Hanska, a wealthy lady of Polish society, with whom he had corresponded for more than 15 years.  In 1850, she became his wife, and three months later, he died.

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