Back to Balzac

by P.B. LeCron

Most sightseers who venture into Paris’ chic, residential Passy neighborhood go there to admire the quarter’s lavish Art Nouveau buildings that have risen up in between the typical bourgeois Haussmannian constructions of the latter half of the 19th century. If they make their way to Rue Raynouard, however, they will come upon an unexpected and picturesque anomaly: a modest, late 18th-century country house and garden–one of the last traces of the old village of Passy. They may be puzzled that such an unpretentious house has survived more than a century of real estate speculation, especially considering the high property values, until they read the inscription “Maison de Balzac” discreetly marked on a masonry wall near the entrance to the property.

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), the prolific 19th century writer and founder of French realism, lived and wrote here from 1840 through 1847, in a five-room garden apartment rented under an assumed name, Monsieur de Breugnol. Deeply in debt and pursued by creditors after a string of entrepreneurial failures, Balzac went into hiding, seeking “temporary” refuge here, having his young Alsatian housekeeper, Louise Breugniot, sign the lease in his stead. The dodgy circumstances of his seclusion undoubtedly stimulated, if not enabled, Balzac’s overwhelming literary output for that period; for it was here in the peace and quiet of Passy, often working relentlessly through the nights and drinking inordinate amounts of coffee, that Balzac endeavored to write himself out of financial straits. Balzac described his regimen: “To work means to wake up each evening at midnight, to write until eight o’clock, take a quarter of an hour for breakfast, work until five o’clock, have dinner, go to sleep and start again the next day.”

From his small writing table in the south-facing study overlooking the garden, he produced some of his greatest works–Cousin Betty, Cousin Pons, Ursula Mirouet, La Rabouilleuse, The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans–and assembled and corrected the entirety of his colossal 94-volume masterpiece and social inventory of human passions, The Human Comedy. In it the keenly observant Balzac painted a vibrant panorama of 19th century French society, in which he himself had participated fully, through highly detailed, omniscient narratives of more than 2,500 characters–characters living in a changing world driven by desire, market forces and the unending appetite for acquiring money through any means. In their constant quests– be it for money, power, sex, love, vengeance or respectability, some would find splendor, others only misery. Not surprisingly, with his own accumulating debt looming over him, money became an eternal theme. Balzac, who was attached to the idea that everything affects everything else, had a stroke of genius which formed the basis for The Human Comedy: to use throughout the novels recurrent characters who were interconnected by family, money, business or love and set in the bustling social and political saga of the times. The effect not only gave characters more depth and a “path in life,” it reinforced the reader’s impression that they existed.

When Balzac lived in his Passy apartment, the house and garden were completely hidden from view by a larger building, which since has been demolished. Passy in the 1840’s had not yet been annexed to Paris and was still a country village on the city’s outskirts. Besides being sheltered, private and not far from Balzac’s editors and printers in Paris, the property had another capital advantage: it had two exits, each onto a different street, making it easy to slip out the back when pressed. Fellow author Gerard de Nerval wrote after visiting Balzac in his “Passy cabin”: “There was no house to be seen, just a wall, a green door and a bell.” Anecdotes abound about how Balzac’s friends had to use passwords to get past the concierge and be allowed in by the housekeeper. According to one report, the tragicomic Balzac would ‘play dead’ if at home alone when anyone rang the bell for fear that the visitor be a creditor. “. . . I’m living in my hole in Passy like a rat, I see no one. . .” Balzac wrote in a letter to the rich and married Polish countess, Madame Hanska, whom he courted for sixteen years in a passionate correspondence.

Saved from being leveled in 1910, the house today is a literary museum, library and research center devoted to Balzac. Nestled on an upper slope of the banks of the Seine, the three-story house is situated on a terrace, well below street level, so there is a commanding view from the stretch of sidewalk that runs along the property on Rue Raynouard. Access to this pleasant patch of paradise is through a large, wooden blue door that’s left open during museum hours, then down 32 steps. Admission is free (except when there are special exhibitions), so visitors can go and come as they please, either entering the house through a tiny wrought-iron and glass vestibule, or heading toward an intriguing bust of Balzac, to which they will be invariably drawn like a magnet, in the southwest corner of the yard. Loosely embraced by the branches of spotted laurel shrubs, the bust sculpted in the 1920’s by Rene Carvillani, is a hauntingly strong image of a sensitive and stirring Balzac in his prime.

Whether intentional or not, the framing of the bust by laurel shrubs is a nomenclatural reminder of some of the influential women in Balzac’s life: his very “unmaternal” mother, Laure Sallambier Balzac, who hours after his birth sent the newborn Honore to live with a wet nurse for four years before sending him off to boarding school at six (Balzac later wrote the biting words, “I never had a mother.”); his younger and overweight sister Laurence, whom his mother cruelly banned from the family after Laurence and her new husband had sought financial aid from Balzac’s father during her absence (Laurence died four years later at the age of 23– her trauma of alienation of affection was a source of inspiration for the roman noir, Pierrette); his other sister, Laure, life-long and intimate confidante, whose own husband according to Balzac was jealous of their complicity; and his surrogate mother, Madame Laure de Berny, who at 45 and mother of nine children became the twenty-two-year old Balzac’s first and “forever” lover, who encouraged and financed his projects during their long liaison.

It was in the tranquil Passy garden that Balzac once picked violets and lilacs for his ideal, the well-read and far-away Madame Hanska. Balzac’s letters to her read like a diary, and chronicle his writing of The Human Comedy. The couple’s missives and tragic love story began after Eveline Hanska first wrote Balzac an anonymous fan letter, signing herself mysteriously as “the Foreigner.” The couple met on only eight occasions throughout the years, but managed to finally marry just five months before Balzac’s death.

From the garden one steps into the house which once upon a time was livened with the odor of 1,500 pears that Balzac, passionate about fruit, had stockpiled in his pantry. The house is the only one of his residences that subsists in Paris, and despite that precious few of Balzac’s original furnishings are there, high-impact personal objects give glimpses of the writers life and legend. Visitors’ favorite is Balzac’s fetishized and oversized gold and turquoise-studded cane; a flashy accessory and phallic symbol that in 1834 set all of Paris abuzz and launched the fashion of fancy walking sticks for gentlemen and dandies of the nouveau riche. Balzac, who by then had considerable international fame and a cult following, paid the equivalent of a year’s rent to a gold worker to make the cane. Its gold knob is ornamented with “an ebullition of turquoises” and chains from a necklace that Madame Hanska wore as a young woman. Caricaturists were quick to draw the cane that inspired a novel, Mr. Balzac’s Cane, by Delphine de Girardin.

In another room that displays edited proofs of An Old Maid, is the famous white Limoges porcelain coffee pot bearing the insignia “HB” that Balzac used to keep his “torrent of black water” warm. Valued friend and member of Balzac’s extended family, Zulma Carraud, offered the pretty cafetiere to the notorious workaholic. Thick, Turkish coffee was Balzac’s elixir and addiction; his caffeine abuse was so great that his long-time physician, Dr. Nacquart, attributed Balzac’s premature death at age 51 to excessive coffee drinking (at times up to 30 to 40 cups a day) which he relied on to fuel his late-night habit of working 16 to 18 hours straight, conditions that could only aggravate his heart complaint, cardiac hypertrophy. French journalist, Anthony Palou, recently wrote in the Figaro Magazine, “Whenever Balzac had coffee, it wasn’t to take a break, but to send his imagination into a gallop and to accelerate the cadence of his infernal hand.” Balzac’s graphic description of caffeine addiction and withdrawal in his “Treatise on Modern Stimulants” inspired a series of coffee-colored linoengravings by Pierre Alechinsky, permanently displayed in a downstairs gallery of the museum.

Of all the rooms in the house, Balzac’s study is the best preserved and where one feels his presence the most. A low ceiling and small, leaded window panes create an intimate setting for his bookcases, writing table, upholstered chair and a marble bust of Balzac sculpted from life by his friend, Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, in 1844. The tabletop has a noticeably broad indentation caused by wear. Balzac wrote to Madame Hanska that this little table was a “witness to my worries, my miseries, my distress, my joys, everything . . . my arm almost wore out its surface from taking the same path over and over again as I wrote.” In another room, as testament to the immensity of his work, an intricate 30-foot genealogical chart of characters of The Human Comedy wraps under glass cases displaying hundreds of wood block matrices of the characters that were originally used to illustrate the work.

Reading Balzac can be both daunting and a pleasure, for the scope of his work is so broad and society of the day so often depicted as depraved that almost any reader could find text that would cause him to lose some illusion he might hold about life. In Cousin Betty, a tale of latent and persistent treachery in a family setting, Balzac wrote: “The joys of gratified hatred are the fiercest and strongest the heart can know. Love is the gold, hatred the iron of the mine of feeling that lies buried in us.” Who wouldn’t shiver reading those lines, admitting that there is truth in them, then read later on, “Life cannot go on without much forgiving!” and feel somewhat reconciled?

Writing at an average of about 33 words a minute permitted Balzac to indulge his mania for detail, and to make elaborate digressions that some find tedious. In so doing, however, he left behind invaluable documentation of both the period and parts of the old Parisian landscape destined to disappear in the 1860’s Haussmannian urbanization projects. Balzac, who is generally accepted as the father of the modern French novel, has had an influence that goes beyond the print medium; 1950’s French New Wave filmmakers were undeniably marked by his works. Anne-Marie Baron, doctor in letters and French literary expert fascinated by Balzac, advances that through his “very particular management of space and time,” he invented cinematographic writing.

The Balzacian story-telling method is to frame and define first the character by his own environment, then “paint” a detailed portrait of the physical person. Clothes, face, comportment all reveal character, vice and passion. A meticulous plethora of details make the scene and the characters seem real; then the characters act, react, love and destroy one another through pointed dialogue. In an International Herald Tribune interview, Jacques Rivette, 75-year-old New Wave film veteran, who recently released “Don’t Touch the Axe” a film adaptation of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, says he became an avid reader of Balzac years ago after being told by fellow filmmaker, Eric Rohmer, “If you are interested in cinema and in dialogue, you must read Balzac and Dostoevkey.”

Never out of print, Balzac’s encyclopedic observations of society, morals and human nature continue to have wide appeal in both printed form and the three-dimensional Seventh Art; nearly 200 films have been produced from Balzac’s works in at least 15 countries (with even more theatrical representations). From Los Angeles to New Dehli, “read more Balzac” should be the mantra recited by aspiring screenwriters. Dai Sijie, author of the book and film, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, in which three Chinese youths find solace during the Cultural Revolution reading banned translations of Balzac in secret, would most likely agree.

Maison de Balzac, 47 rue Raynouard, 75012 Paris, Tel. 01-55-74-41-80; Open Tuesday thru Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except public holidays.

For further reading: Balzac by Graham Robb, “an enjoyable and well-researched biography in which the author proffers highly plausible interpretations of ironizing anecdotes from Balzac’s life that have often been misunderstood. A must read for the literary traveler, before or after a visit to the Maison de Balzac.”

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