What Is So Special About Balzac’s Thousands of Characters?
Peter Brooks on the Extraordinary Fictional Lives of the French Master
Honoré de Balzac’s life has often been told, but it’s less compelling than Balzac’s lives, the extraordinary, extravagant, profligate creation of the well over 2,000 fictional beings who people his novels. That’s where we find the truth of his time and of his imaginative life.
Oscar Wilde noted in one of his truest paradoxes that the 19th century as we know it is largely Balzac’s invention. The invention takes the form of a remarkable set of life stories that marshal the dynamic forces of a new era, its entrepreneurs, bankers, inventors, industrialists, poets, artists, bohemians of both sexes, journalists, aristocrats, politicians, doctors, musicians, detectives, actors and actresses, moneylenders, peasants, professors, prostitutes—the list extends to cover all social spheres and all careers in a world where the assigned identities of the Ancien régime have given way to an uncertain new order where everything seems to be up for grabs, if you can find some way to get the money you need to acquire things, name, reputation, fortune.
There are group portraits in Balzac: the Princesse de Cadignan leafing through the album of her past lovers, for instance, or the party following the large soiree given by the novelist Félicité des Touches when an elite of his characters gathers to exchange worldly wisdom in the form of stories. At such moments the reader has an almost vertiginous sense of the richness and completeness of Balzac’s fictional world. There has really never been anything quite like it before or since. The Index of Fictional Characters in The Human Comedy, the who’s who of his world, lists some 2,472 beings invented by the novelist.
It’s notable that nearly every time one of these characters enters one of the many tales that make up The Human Comedy, he or she is given a biography, sometimes a few lines, in the case of the minor figures, but often several paragraphs or even pages. Balzac needs to situate his people; showing how their personal histories are related to the history of the nation at a given moment is crucial. At times, it is astonishing to find the movement of the narrative arrested for the backstory of a new character; we may even be annoyed at the delay, until we come to realize that the new character’s story is indispensable to the narrative as a whole. As in collections of interconnected tales such as The Decameron and The Arabian Nights (the latter being one of Balzac’s touchstones) each new person is defined as the bearer of a story—they are people-narratives. Balzac can’t conceive of representing the world other than through these people-narratives: to understand contemporary France is to tell the story of all its inhabitants, to rival, as he put it, the “civil registry.” The Human Comedy resembles the office of the census. But much more fun.
Balzac proclaimed himself a political conservative in reaction to an era of unregulated change, in which the individual ego seemed to have become the sole measure of things. His nostalgia for a past organic society where people knew their place and social rank was evident in dress and manner is matched by his fascination with the new possibilities for each individual to forge a unique destiny. The growing city of Paris, the increase in social mobility, and the ambitions unleashed by capitalism and nascent democracy all called for a new semiotics of modern life, new ways to read who people are, what their clothes and accessories and ways of walking and speaking say about where they come from and where they are going. The sum of those invented destinies is The Human Comedy.
He was born in 1799—the year Napoleon Bonaparte seized power to put an end to the French Revolution—as Honoré Balzac to a family only one generation removed from peasant farmers named Balssa. The pseudo-aristocratic “de” was added later. His father rose to a middling rank in the post-revolutionary bureaucracy, and that took the family from its native Tours to Paris in 1814. Honoré studied law but yearned for literature. He wheedled his family to grant him two years to succeed as a writer. His first efforts were failures. During the 1820s, though, he managed to publish a number of Gothic and adventure novels, signed with pseudonyms since he knew they were not what he wanted to be known for (he later called them literary slop, yet also republished them to make money).
The first novel signed with his name came in 1829. Then during the 1830s he became the Balzac that we know; he published a series of powerful novels and then conceived of making them the building blocks of a larger ensemble not yet known as The Human Comedy. The July Revolution of 1830, which sent the last Bourbon monarch, Charles X, into exile and enthroned the “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe (from the younger branch of the royal family), confirmed Balzac in the view that he was living in at a moment of social chaos, with authority and traditional social roles in deplorable decline. Most of his work was composed during the 1830s and 1840s but is set during the 1820s, during the Restoration following the fall of Napoleon. In other words, he is writing about a period that has already ended—in the July Revolution that brought the bourgeois monarchy to power.
This retrospective view of society allowed him to become the first writer truly to seize the meaning of the emergent modern world, its nascent capitalism, its valuation of money above all else, its competition for social and political prominence, promoting the individual above social cohesion. He saw also the new importance of the city as provincials streamed to it, either to work in bottom-level jobs and become the urban proletariat or, like his ambitious young men (and some women also), to seek to conquer and to dominate the social order. Balzac became a successful writer, read throughout Europe, though the more he wrote and published, and lived the Parisian existence he dreamt of, the more he went into debt. He traveled, had a number of liaisons (and at least one child we can be sure of), and eventually married Evelina Hanska, the Polish countess who nearly twenty years earlier had sent him a fan letter. He died in 1850, just after he returned with her to his new house in Paris. His uncompleted literary monument contained some ninety novels and tales.
Henry James called Balzac the “father of us all,” the writer one must study if the novel is to recover “its wasted heritage.” When after his many years of exile James toured the United States in 1904 and 1905, he delivered his lecture “The Lesson of Balzac” not only in Boston and New York but also in Cincinnati and St. Louis and San Francisco. The choice of subject might seem odd—but the cultivated American family most likely had Balzac on the bookshelf, possibly a complete edition of The Human Comedy as translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, who lived in Newport, Rhode Island, and spent summers not far from William James in Jackson, New Hampshire, and worked her way through all of Balzac’s novels and tales, published in forty volumes from 1883 to 1897. By the start of the 20th century, Balzac was a global author, translated and read in all the dominant languages, a commanding figure in the history of the novel.
In France, he still holds this eminence, his work available in a number of complete editions and many paperbacks, popular with readers of all sorts, studied in school and at university, a reference for historians—who claim him as the best of all witnesses to his time. Marcel Proust, as well as James, recognized Balzac as his master, the novelist he had to know in order to forge his own style and create his novelistic world. With postmodernism, Balzac seems even to have gained a new ascendancy: if high modernism, in literature as in architecture, preferred a certain pared-down formalism, the reaction against such austerity brought a new appreciation for the excessive and melodramatic dimensions of Balzac’s mode of representation.
Outside of France, however—maybe especially in the English-speaking world—Balzac has lost his primacy, perhaps because it’s hard to come by much of his work in decent contemporary translations. Publishers may suspect that contemporary life doesn’t provide the leisure needed for The Human Comedy. And yet: the television serial is nothing if not Balzacian. It is a medium he would have loved to master given the chance. And indeed, adaptations of Balzac for both film and television are myriad.
I have chosen to approach my initial question—why Balzac?— by way of the lives of his characters. A traditional form of literary biography attempted to present “the man and his works.” This usually meant a chronological presentation of the life interspersed with commentary on the writings. That format seems to me to draw a misleading connection between life and work. In contrast, starting with fictional lives and moving outward to their implications for authorship opens up richer and subtler contexts for reading the work. To talk about fictional characters as if they were “real” is of course delusional—and yet when we read we do give them a provisional substantiality. And Balzac himself confounded life and storytelling. A famous anecdote describes a terminally ill Balzac calling for the care of Dr. Horace Bianchon—his own fictional creation. The story may be apocryphal, but it suggests the deep truth that Balzac lived in the world he invented. To understand the dimensions and applications of this invented world is what matters. That may be the way into Balzac’s inner world, which often seems to escape traditional biographies.I intend, then, to look over the novelist’s shoulder as he creates his fictional beings, to revel in them and to talk about what he does with them.
There are already a number of fine biographies of Balzac, and in any case his life, though spectacular in its financial speculations, bankruptcies, flights from creditors, as well as get-rich-quick schemes, was in large part what James called “the long prison of his labor,” the nights of writing dressed in a monk’s robe, fueled by endless cups of coffee, in order to meet the next deadline. Those ninety-odd novels and tales were mainly produced in a span of twenty years, in an extravagant act of creation (Shakespeare may be the only parallel). Patient scholars later compiled the stories of the fictional lives that interweave in his novels into dictionaries that re-create a normalized chronology for this novelistic world more densely and fully peopled than any other. Those people demand our attention.
I intend, then, to look over the novelist’s shoulder as he creates his fictional beings, to revel in them and to talk about what he does with them—who they are and what they are for: what he creates with the plots he weaves them into, often over several different novels. The use of characters who reappear from one novel to the next as well as the fragmented form in which the works were published indicate that the point of reference is not the single novel but rather the entire Human Comedy, which individual readers reconstruct anew, to the best of their ability, usually with a sense of wonder at its crisscrossing paths and ever receding horizons. I can only present a small selection of the 2,472 figures who enter this imagined world, of course, but chosen carefully they open onto the whole Balzacian universe. They serve as optics on the world: they offer what Proust called the only true adventure—to see the world through another’s eyes.
From Balzac’s Lives by Peter Brooks. Used with the permission of New York Review of Books. Copyright © 2020 by Peter Brooks.