BALZAC by Graham Robb


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Illuminating Balzac more successfully through examining his work than his era, Robb attempts to unravel the novelist's prolific, debt-driven career, his disorderly pursuit of fame and love, and his instinct for financial trouble. Born to an eccentric, self-made peasant father and a much younger petty bourgeoise mother, HonorÉ de Balzac is credited with developing Realism in the French novel, epitomized in La ComÉdie humaine, which is comprised of over 100 works and some 2,000 characters. Robb, a scholar of 19th-century French literature, lucidly addresses Balzac's less impressive early literary attempts at classical tragedy and gothic and sentimental novels. His first successes, after failed ventures in publishing and printing, were a historical novel and a smartly cynical marital guide derived from his gutter journalism. His notoriety was secured (but never his loans), and La ComÉdie humaine later materialized as the unfinishable project of his life: an enormous fresco of his epoch's every aspect, from Paris to the provinces, through the spheres of finance, politics, journalism, and law. Less interested in the post-Napoleonic age, which the novelist both embodied and scandalized, Robb shadows Balzac's obsessions with all the current fads, such as mesmerism, Orientalism, railway speculation, and the cult of the mad genius (e.g., he wrote wearing a monk's robe). By a combination of literary success and social climbing, the novelist also worked his way through an increasingly aristocratic set of older mistresses. (Robb suggests homosexual liaisons with literary secretaries-collaborators, a contested point among both the 19th-century press and later biographers.) Ironically, his great love was a married Ukrainian countess, Eveline Hanska, who stayed loyal to the unreliable Balzac, maintaining an almost 20-year relationship (mainly epistolary), and married him at the end of his life. Robb's Balzac, however manic and obsessive, could separate himself from the fictional world of La ComÉdie while creating a character for his fame to inhabit and a genuine melodrama for his life.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1994
Page count: 500pp
Publisher: Norton