Balzac, Honoré de (bălˈzăk, bôl–, Fr. ōnôrāˈ də bälzäkˈ) [key], 1799–1850, French novelist, b. Tours. Balzac ranks among the great masters of the novel. Of a bourgeois family, he himself later added the "de" to his name. Neglected in childhood, he was sent to a grammar school at Tours and later to a boarding school at Vendôme, where he was a dull student but a voracious reader. In 1816 he began studying law at the Sorbonne, but after receiving his license in 1819 he decided to abandon law for literature. Half starving in a Paris garret, Balzac began writing sensational novels to order, publishing them under a pseudonym. Throughout his life he worked with feverish activity, sleeping a few hours in the evening and writing from midnight until noon or afternoon of the next day. He was ridden with debts, which were increased rather than relieved by his business ventures. Balzac's first success, Les Chouans (1829, first published as Le Dernier Chouan ), was followed by La Peau de chagrin (1831). In the next 20 years he produced the vast collection of novels and short stories called "La Comédie humaine." This, his greatest work, is a reproduction of the French society of his time, picturing in precise detail more than 2,000 characters from every class and every profession. The chief novels in "La Comédie humaine" are Louis Lambert (1832), Eugénie Grandet (1833), La Recherche de l'absolu (1834), Le Père Goriot (1835), Les Illusions perdues (1837), César Birotteau (1837), La Cousine Bette (1847), and Le Cousin Pons (1847). Outweighing Balzac's faults—his lack of literary style, his moralizing, his tendency toward melodrama—are his originality, his great powers of observation, and his vivid imagination. His short stories include some of the best in the language, but his attempts at drama failed. Though an unattractive, awkward man, Balzac formed several famous liaisons. Only a few months before his death he married the Polish Countess Evelina Hanska, with whom he had conducted a romantic correspondence for 18 years.
See The Human Comedy (with introductions by G. Saintsbury, 40 vol., 1895–98); Balzac's Letters to His Family, 1809–1850 (ed. by W. S. Hastings, 1934); biographies by H. J. Hunt (1957, repr. 1969), A. Maurois (1966, repr. 1983), and G. Robb (1994); studies by C. Prendergast (1979) and R. Butler (1983); bibliography and index comp. by W. H. Royce (1929, repr. 1969).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.