Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac (French pronunciation: [ɔnɔʁe də balzak]; 20 May 1799 – 18 August 1850) was a French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus was a sequence of short stories and novels collectively entitled La Comédie humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon.

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 multi-faceted characters, who are complex, morally ambiguous and fully human. His writing influenced many subsequent novelists such as Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe,Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Marie Corelli, Henry James, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Italo Calvino, and philosophers such as Friedrich Engels. Many of Balzac's works have been made into or have inspired films, and they are a continuing source of inspiration for writers, filmmakers and critics.

An enthusiastic reader and independent thinker as a child, Balzac had trouble adapting to the teaching style of his grammar school. His willful nature caused trouble throughout his life and frustrated his ambitions to succeed in the world of business. When he finished school, Balzac was an apprentice in a Law office, but he turned his back on the study of Law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine. Before and during his career as a writer, he attempted to be a publisher, printer, businessman, critic, and politician; he failed in all of these efforts. La Comédie Humaine reflects his real-life difficulties, and includes scenes from his own experience.

Balzac suffered from health problems throughout his life, possibly due to his intense writing schedule. His relationship with his family was often strained by financial and personal drama, and he ended several friendships over critical reviews. In 1850 he married Ewelina Hańska, his longtime love; he died five months later.

Now you might be wondering, SO WHAT?  Well, I bring up Honoré de Balzac because I am currently reading two books: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough and An Evil Eye: A Novel (Yashim the Eunuch) by Jason Goodwin.  Balzac is mentioned numerous times in each book. At first I just thought of some sophomoric comment about what a great name Honoré de Balzac is, i.e. “honor the ball sack” which I still think is funny in a juvenile sort of way, but you get the picture and that’s about all I am going to say about Balzac.  But I did want to talk about the two books that I am reading.  I have not finished either one, but both are equally interesting for different reasons.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough looks at Americans abroad in Paris from 1830 to 1900.  McCullough features several prominent Americans, such as James Fennimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Charles Sumner, among others.  His central thesis is that Americans who traveled to Paris were greatly influential to the development of America, owing much of that to their time in Paris.  I tend to disagree largely with McCullough because whereas most of these men and women stayed in Paris for a few months, they also traveled to Italy and usually spend much longer time periods there.  Paris was not the center of European culture and history in the 19th century: the Italian peninsula was.  One might be able to copy some of the masterpieces of art and study medicine and history among other disciplines in Paris, but nowhere compared to the medical school or University of Padua and to the rich history of the Ancient Roman Empire, which at its heart was the city of Rome.  The great artists were not form Paris, though Impressionism was beginning in France.  The greatest artists and sculptors were form Italy and that is where most of their art remained.  The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Academia in Venice, and the museum of all museums, the Vatican Museums in Rome.  Though Napoleon had plundered Italy and much of Europe for great pieces of art for the Louvre in Paris,t he Vatican had been collected works of art for centuries, not to mention that the Medicis of Florence had been some of the world’s greatest patrons of the arts.  It is not to Paris that the Americans flocked, though of course it was essential to any European tour, but to Italy and the rich legacy of art, architecture, and history that they went.

The other book I am reading,  An Evil Eye: A Novel (Yashim the Eunuch) by Jason Goodwin, I had mentioned before in a post about a year ago, Author Spotlight: Jason Goodwin.  At that time, the book was still in the works, but it has since been published and as all of Goodwin’s books, it is an absolute joy to read.  Goodwin brings alive the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century, the food, the smells, the harems, etc.  If you have never had an interest in the Ottoman Empire, I would suggest you pick up the Yashim the Eunuch books and your interest will come alive.  I love to read mysteries; mystery novels are some of my favorite books.  For me history is always a mystery, because we want to find out how and why something happened.  Therefore, an author adds together a historical novel with a mystery, I'm in love.  Goodwin does that very well with Yashim the Eunuch; we are presented with the rich history of the once great Ottoman Empire along with a subtle mystery of political intrigue and endearing characters.


Loki's Log said...


Love this post. I have The Janissary Tree on my shelf and am now anxious to read it. Your blog is awesome.

JoeBlow said...

Thanks, Loki. I loved The Janissary Tree, I think you will too. Once you read The Janissary Tree, you will want to read the other three books in the series.

fan of casey said...

Joe: I'm not a reader like you, I like to read news and current events but Balzac does ring a bell because it was the pun on Will & Grace joke -- confusion over the name and ball sack.

JoeBlow said...

LOL, FOC. I always loved Will & Grace.