Imaginary Interviews #3: The Influential French Author Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) was a French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus was a sequence of short stories and novels collectively entitled La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. Due to his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature. He is renowned for his multifaceted characters, who are morally ambiguous. His writing influenced many subsequent novelists such as Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Eça de Queirós, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Benito Pérez Galdós, Marie Corelli, Henry James, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Italo Calvino, and philosophers such as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx as well as the artists Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso. What follows is an interview that took place between myself and Mr. Balzac at a salon in the Bohemian sector of Paris in late 1847. It is a work of fiction that strives to faithfully reflect the artist.
Ennyman: Tell us a little bit about your childhood.
Honoré de Balzac: I was an enthusiastic reader and a rather willful, independent thinker as a child. I had trouble adapting to the rote style of teaching in my school. As a result I was frequently punished by being sent to a place called “the alcove” which was essentially a form of solitary confinement. The good part is that I could read there and I read everything I could get my hands on.
Ennyman: Is it true that when you got out of school you failed in business?
HB: I failed in a lot of things. First I failed as an apprentice in a law office. Then I failed in a few businesses. I tried my hand as a publisher, but failed at that. Failed in the printing trade and also as a politician. Perhaps all my failures in these various endeavors helped give me a deeper understanding of human life through such a diverse set of experiences.
Ennyman: I hear that you have a rather unusual daily regimen as writer. Can you explain that a little bit?
HB: I’ve found that writing at night is the most fertile time for me. There are fewer distractions. So, usually I go to bed at 6:00 each evening and wake at one in the morning, with my pot of black coffee accompanying me through the night. At eight in the morning I take a little nap for an hour or two, then rise again to continue writing till maybe three or three-thirty.
Ennyman: When do you eat?
HB: I take a couple hours for dining after that, then off to bed.
Ennyman: Sounds like you don’t have much of a social life.
HB: I’ve broken off friendships over a remark like that. No, I had plenty of social experience growing up. I have too many stories to tell and am very conscious that we’re all mortals and only have a short time to accomplish whatever it is we’re setting out to do. Till I’ve said all I intend to say, writing is my life. Maybe because of all that time in the alcove, being alone so much just feels normal to me. And I’m really not alone. We have 300 domestic servants. I married into wealth.
Ennyman: Is it true you once tried suicide?
HB: I had pretty frigid relationships with my parents. My father was from a very poor family in the south of France and struggled for respectability, but it was a hard time. When I was 15 our family moved to Paris where I was sent to private tutors and schools. It was a very unhappy period in my life. I used to regularly cross this bridge over the Loire River and one day felt so low I decided to jump. It was a very foolish thing but I came through.
Ennyman: How did you get on track with your life after that?
HB: The following year I went off to the Sorbonne where I —
Ennyman: The Sorbonne?
HB: You must not be from around here. The University of Paris. It’s in the Latin Quarter. It was there that I encountered three supremely influential and somewhat important professors. The first, my Professor of Modern History François Guizot, later went on to become Prime Minister. The second was a recent arrival from the College Charlemagne, Abel-François Villemain, who lectured on French and classical literature. Philosophy prof Victor Cousins, however, proved most influential of all. He encouraged us to think independently and to not simply be parrots. I understood why the rote teaching of my childhood was so maddening. In this regard his ideas completely resonated with me.
Ennyman: How did you come to take up writing?
HB: I had always been influenced by the books I’d read, and knew the power of the written word. Having failed at everything else, it seemed natural to take up the pen. And actually my father did some writing, at one point writing a treatise on the means of preventing thefts and murders and of restoring the men who commit them to a useful role in society. My father had a deep disdain for prisons as a form of crime prevention. By my early twenties I had inwardly determined to write.
Ennyman: Who have been your biggest influences as a fiction writer?
HB: Who were yours?
Ennyman: You probably wouldn’t know them as they haven’t been born yet.
HB: (tapping my forearm) Don’t be so serious. I was kidding. My chief influences would include Walter Scott, Moliere, Jean Racine, Shakespeare — he’s influenced everyone — and Lord Byron, among others.
Ennyman: Your first book was about Cromwell, yes?
HB: Yes, and it was a failure. For the next several years I wrote gothic, humorous and historical novels under various pseudonyms. Some day they’ll probably call it pulp fiction. You know, fiction for the masses. Not great writing but a great experience. Over time I began to formulate a style, found my voice so to speak.
Ennyman: When did you begin writing under your own name?
HB: When I turned thirty I published Les Chouans under my own name. I felt fairly confident about it. It’s a historical novel about the Breton peasants who took part in a royalist insurrection in 1799. I followed this with a humorous and satirical story the subject of marital infidelity, which encompassed both its causes and cure. My third book was a set of six short stories about girls, psychological studies of girls in conflict with parental authority.
Ennyman: At this point you must have written near a hundred novellas, stories, novels.
HB: My publisher says more than eighty. When I reach 100 I may put down the pen and take up tennis. (He laughs.) I’ve also produced some plays. The secret, if you don’t mind me noting it, is to understand and paint the subtle interior life of the women characters correctly. If this doesn’t ring true, you’ve lost that verisimilitude that is essential in fiction.
Ennyman: The story I wanted to ask about is The Unknown Masterpiece. I’m especially interested in learning more about the three painters, Pussain, Porbus and Frenhofer, especially Frenhofer.
HB: I’m sorry, but I’ve given you all the time I am able for now. Maybe you can come back?
I promised I would call on him again, but as I became busy with my own writing projects I never got around to it until I learned he passed in August 1850. The funeral fell on my day off so I was able to attend. Victor Hugo, a pallbearer for the occasion, delivered the eulogy.
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On August 5, 2013, I gave a talk at the Tweed Museum of Art on Picasso, Storytelling and Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece. I learned much while preparing, and a portion of which became the occasion for this interview. Details were primarily extracted from Wikipedia and online Britannica.