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November 22, 2017

Balzac - Life as Fiction

On this day in 1850 Honore de Balzac died, at the age of fifty-one. Balzac's last months were as tumultuous as all the others, and as brimming with life as anything in his seventeen-volume Human Comedy. The Polish Countess with whom he had been corresponding for sixteen years had pledged to marry him, contingent upon her husband's death, and she was now, technically, available. But wary of Balzac's debts, family, deceptions and appetites -- and lied to, said Balzac, by her sister, a "two-legged bottle of vinegar" who made up stories about his liaisons -- Countess Hanska had cooled. Balzac was on his last legs by the time she had warmed again, but he rushed to her estate (this may not be the correct term: 21,000 acres, 3000 serfs (counting just males), 300 servants, its own orchestra and hospital) with a hope for more than marriage: "If I don't achieve greatness by La Comédie Humaine," he wrote his sister, "I shall at least achieve it in this if it comes off."

Balzac took with him four-dozen pairs of gloves for Countess Hanska's beautiful hands. Eugene de Rastignac, one of Balzac's most famous and recurring characters -- like Balzac at one time, Rastignac was a law student, and a provincial come to Paris with big dreams -- had learned such life-lessons in Père Goriot: "I know two pairs of his trousers," Rastignac liked to say of his tailor, "that have each made matches worth twenty thousand francs a year." "All Paris is his," writes Balzac, or is any young man's, so equipped:
    Oh, age when everything shines and flames and glitters! Age of joyful strength that no one makes the most of, neither man nor woman! No man unfamiliar with the left bank of the Seine, between the Rue Saint-Jacques and the Rue des Saints-Pères, knows a thing about human life!
Balzac had spent, says one biographer, "most of his adult life teetering between extremes of wealth and poverty." Whether by personality or need -- one of his wild, bankrupting schemes was to turn the land around his house in Paris into a pineapple farm -- he wrote incessantly. His doctor attributed his death to a weak heart done in by a lifetime of all-night writing and coffee-drinking; Balzac himself believed that everyone has a finite store of vital fluid, which diminished with each action or desire, and so a man of his appetites was doomed to die early. In any case, he had just five months of marriage to Countess Hanska -- in post-Revolution Paris, which was not particularly welcoming to yet more nobility.

He was buried on a hillside in Père Lachaise cemetery, at a spot near that upon which young Rastignac stood at the end of Père Goriot, shedding "the last tear of his youth" at old Goriot's burial:
    He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently:

    "Henceforth there is war between us."

    And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen.
Balzac liked to walk at night through Paris -- as Dickens did through London, during some of the same years. Like Dickens, he would travel both mean and middle class streets, looking for the 2000 characters that people his "social history" novels. He would have known that, under Parisian law at the time, the arrest of debtors between sunset and sunrise was prohibited.

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