Theatre & Literature

Published on June 18th, 2017 | by Christopher Cipollini


Honoré de Balzac : the passionate observer

Honoré de Balzac was a landmark figure in the canon of French Literature. A novelist and playwright- He is known as many things. One of the founders of realism in written word, his multifaceted take on the human condition, a dedicated writer who would work around the clock, and an obsessive lover of coffee. In seeing the breadth and detail in his work, we see the many precarious facets of the human animal.

Honoré was born on the 20th of May 1799 to Bernard François Balssa , a once penniless social climber who would go on to become the Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason, and Anne Charlotte Laure Sallambier, who came from a Parisian family of haberdashers. It was by all accounts, a marriage of convenience. 

Honoré spent the first years of his life in the care of a wet nurse and was shortly joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. Balzac was sent at the age of 10 to the Oratorian Grammer school, where his father intentionally gave him very little pocket money and this made him the subject of ridicule and isolation among his schoolmates. As a boy he was a precocious reader who read every book that came his way. However, he was not in stride with many of his other classmates and was often sent to “The alcove” a confined area for misbehaved students.

Balzac, even at at an early age was a keen observer, as his senses of observation were heightened when he began to study Law in the office of Victor Passez, a family acquaintance. Balzac developed a deep disdain for the practice, and described himself as ” a clerk, a machine, a riding school hack, eating and drinking at fixed hours. I am hungry, and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” It was a turning point for Balzac and in that time, he decided to become a writer. This was a watershed moment – deciding to cast off the shackles of the expectations of his parentage and follow the passion for words that moved within him.

Balzac’s first work was a comic opera loosely based on a work by Lord Byron, yet lack of funds forced him to move in another direction. He soon met one of his greatest champions, Auguste Le Poitevin, who convinced Honore to start writing short stories. Balzac was a prolific writer and by 1826 , he had penned nine novels, using such pen names as “Horace de Saint Aubin”. After penning several short stories and a few unsuccessful turns as a business owner, including a venture producing inexpensive one volumes classics of French Literature, Honoré commenced what would be known as his greatest literary effort and what would mark him as the “father of realism.” His magnum opus. “La Comédie Humaine.”

Scenes from a private life by Honore de Balzac.

It is an intricately written collection of volumes outlining several themes. Money and power, France in the days following the revolution, social hierarchy, paternity, women and society. This then leads to story structures based on observation such as “Scenes from Parisian Life,” “Parisians in the country,” “The Celibates,” and the largest work of the collection, “Scenes from a private life.”

Balzac plays with thematic elements such as recurring characters. Chaps such as Raoul Nathan, a politician who appears in 19 works, and Eugène de Rastignac, a dandy, financer and politician who appears in 28 works in the series. One thing prevalent throughout the works is Balzac’s highly detailed almost oratorical treatment of his characters. One can only gather it was from a lifetime of observation.

The most intriguing aspects of Balzac I find is the intensity and eccentricity of his work habits. Maintaining a strict work ethic. He wrote from 1am to 8 am every night and often longer, and was known for drinking upto 40 cups of coffee a day to fuel himself through his work. He scrawled rapidly, often with a quill. He wrote at 15 hours or more at a stretch and once boasted of having worked 48 hours with nary 3 hours of rest in the middle.

A recurring theme is Balzac’s work is a tendency to observe the darker aspects of human behavior. His was a sardonic, often critical take on the superfluous influence of high societies, which both he was both taken and repelled by. His work “Le Peau De Chagrin” is a prime example of this, with its smacks of destruction and scandal. To research his subjects, Balzac would often wander the streets of Paris incognito, making notes and jotting ideas along the way as he traipsed the seedy brothels and lowley boarding houses.

La peau de chagrin by Honore de Balzac.

Though he married in later life, Balzac still engaged in an illicit affair, although his health was in decline. A frenetic lifestyle, and too much excess where slowly exacting their toll. 5 months after his arrival back in Paris, with only his mother by his side, Honore de Balazac died. His friend and fellow writer Victor Hugo would serve as his eulogist and pallbearer. A statue was subsequently erected in his honor in in final resting place, Père Lachaise Cemetery.

To myself and many other writers, balzac is worthy of every laurel that literature bestows on him. A keen observer and a critic of the decadence that surrounded him, he both magnified society and mocked it as he left an imprint in his wake, casting a net to future writers that ripples even now.

In discovering his work, we discover the objectivity of writers and their craft. To quote Balzac himself: “I declare, on my soul and conscience, that the attainment of power, or of a great name in literature, seemed to me an easier victory than a success with some young, witty, and gracious lady of high degree.”


This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.

About the Author

was born in the United States but his heart belongs in the culture of Paris. His passion was born through self taught study of artists from Degas to Lautrec and writers as Genet and Rimbaud. His great love of French culture are symbolism poetry and, French cinema and history. He is a two time author and has written for several American publication as "The Desert Observer," Downtown Zen" and published two prose books: "The Musings" and "A Secret Kingdom". He lives in Las Vegas.

2 Responses to Honoré de Balzac : the passionate observer

  1. Christopher Perkins says:

    La peau de chagrin struck me when I was first exposed to it as an undergrad. Couldn’t have come at a better time!

    1. Merci Christopher pour votre commentaire! La peau de chagrin est un de mes livres préférés d’Honoré de Balzac…

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