Balzac was born in Tours, 20 May, 1799, but the family moved to the Marais area in Paris in 1814. Intended for a legal career, but determined to write and be an author, he rented a garret room in the Rue Lesdiguières (1819) on the left bank, which is loosely described in La Peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin) as the attic where Raphael lives for 3 years while struggling to become a writer; here the walls are yellowing, and “the roof sloped steadily down and you could see the sky through the dislodged tiles” (Balzac 2012: 76). La Peau de chagrin speaks of this abode as being in Saint-Quentin and says it still has red and black lettering as in Rousseau’s day (32). Rousseau (1712–1778), who writes energetically about his hatred for Paris, had come there in 1741 from Lyons and in his Confessions wrote that on coming to Paris, “I took lodgings at the Hôtel Saint-Quentin in the Rue des Cordiers near the Sorbonne, a wretched street, a wretched building, a wretched room; where, however, a number of men of distinction had lodged …” (Rousseau 2000: 274). And returning to Paris, Rousseau goes there again, since they “were in a secluded part of the city close to the Luxembourg” (320). Raphael, then, styles himself as another Rousseau.
Balzac endured 10 years of disappointment in terms of success, during which he resolved to become a printer and publisher and virtually bankrupted himself (1825–1828) before he published in 1829 a historical novel, influenced by Scott, under his own name, though this now had “de added in its middle.” It was revised in 1833–1834 as Les Chouans, ou La Bretagne en 1799. At that stage, Paris had a population of about 750,000: France’s population was 30,000,000. It was still, apart from some modernizations, a medieval city, and three-quarters of Parisians lived in poverty.
The same year saw Balzac’s study of marriage, Physiologie du mariage, and six short fictions, Scènes de la vie privée, and then his first great success, La Peau de chagrin, which led to his romantic liaison with the Polish countess Eveline Hanska, who was not widowed until 1841. She had estates at Wierzchownia, in present day Ukraine. In what was clearly a difficult relationship, with much correspondence, equivalent to the novels in length, and with a stillborn child in late 1846, marriage took place at Berdichev on 14 March, 1850, at a time when it was obvious he was dying: it was indeed followed by his death in Paris (18 August), in the rue Fortunée (now Rue Balzac) near the Champs-Elysées, to where he had moved in 1847. His fame was huge, but he was dogged by multiple sicknesses and debt and a feeling that he was being overtaken by other novelists of the 1840s, and his late marriage indicates something dysfunctional for him: he had other relationships, for instance, with Louise Breugnot who kept house for him when he lived at Passy (1840), 19 Rue Base (now 47 Rue Raynouard), and he seems, too, to have had relationships with men (Robb 1994: 154–159, 258–261).
By 1840, he had resolved to collect his writings, up till then not unified either in a series, or necessarily as parts comprising a complete novel, as La Comédie humaine. The first three volumes of this edition – whose title looked back to Dante’s Divina Commedia – but which also suggest stage comedy, and the drama, appeared in 1842 with an “Avant-propos” explaining the principles behind the collection, i.e., saying that he was exploring humanity and animality as being of one substance with each other, but that since humanity, having between three to four thousand different types of characters, whereas animals had one type each, a huge categorization of the whole society was needed. Here, Balzac’s intersection with city living is most obvious. As said, one of his models for writing was Walter Scott (1771–1832) and another was James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851); both of these apprehend the importance of history in writing the novel, and here the modernity of Balzac appears, for his every character type has a historical, or perhaps sociological, basis (Auguste Comte’s word “sociology” first appeared in 1831). Hence a miser in Balzac is not just an allegorical type of avarice, as he would be in Molière, a key writer for Balzac, but someone with social and economic causes behind him, to which his character and behavior respond. And as if fired up by the chances of random characters meeting that the city offers, he writes: “Chance is the greatest novelist in the world … one only has to study it in order to be fertile. French society was to be the historian, I had only to be the secretary” (Kettle 1981: 137). He continues arguing that he is giving the history of contemporary manners and morals and that his work stands for “Catholicism and Monarchy” (139). The novelist is a teacher and moralist, and he separates his representation of women from the treatment that the Protestant Scott would give, on the grounds that a woman in a Protestant novel has nowhere to go if she has fallen, whereas a Catholic woman has hope of pardon and may rise again (142). And a difference between Balzac and Dickens, also, of course, part of a Protestant ethos, is certainly suggested here; and it shows in their treatments of the sexual.
Introductory: On Reading Balzac
Balzac’s Paris unfolds itself as a unity which he explores and comments on at length. His themes are money and the power of the bankers and sex and the cult of pleasure which is also a shortcut to power and sometimes a force for total destruction. The two most obvious with which to start are Le Père Goriot and La Cousine Bette, one early, one late. They both show Paris being mastered by a sexual drive which is a power drive: in the first case by the young man Rastignac and in the second by a disappointed older man, Baron Hulot, who loses out, even though he survives, and the contrast between them is sharp.
The issues which fascinate Balzac can be best illustrated from a short story, Colonel Chabert (1835), a thoroughly urban text, opening as it does in a lawyer’s office. It is set in 1818–1819, as with Père Goriot, and Chabert bears comparison with Baron Hulot.
Napoleon’s empire, based on his rise to power in 1799, thus ending the French Revolution, had astonished Europe with the energy of the battles fought, (for example, Eylau (1806), in present day Kaliningrad, remembered in Colonel Chambert), and he had rewarded officers many of whom he had taken from the non-officer class. After Waterloo (1815) the Restoration of the Monarchy – Louis XVIII, Charles X – saw new figures coming into power, lawyers and professionals who hated what had happened since 1789, and figures coming back from exile, such as Count Ferraud in Colonel Chabert, who soon gained ascendancy. The clash between these groups – one disaffected, one reactionary but triumphant – is dramatized in the shift of power to the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin (IXe.), a center for finance, as Chabert discovers, thought dead at Elyau but returning destitute to Paris (Balzac 1958: 223). Chabert, surviving Eylau, cannot survive the Paris where Rosine, his remarried wife, does everything she can to conspire against his making any claim on her money (conspiracy, it may be said, is a frequent Balzacian motif), and Chabert walks away from the situation and at the end is found confined as a madman at Bicêtre, the madhouse in the southern suburbs of Paris, and not a name anymore, not even the name he had assumed on his return, but a number, 164, Room 7. He has come back from the dead, where he had been buried alive, to be buried alive again.
The contrast between Groslay, 15 kilometers north of Paris, in which village Chabert’s wife has an estate (Balzac 1958: 254) and the conditions where he lives unrecognized in Paris in the home of a dairyman, Vergniaud, who had fought in the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, is striking. It is in the Rue du Petit-Banquier, since 1867 Rue Watteau (XIIIe.), near the Salpêtrière, which, as is specified at the end of the nouvelle, indigent women are housed (the description is euphemistic). The area is described as so muddy and unmade up that the cabriolet’s wheels would get stuck there and the cab driver refuses to take the lawyer Derville any further and the house is “one of those shanties of the Paris suburbs which are like no other habitation, not even the sorriest of country cottages, whose wretchedness they share without possessing their romantic appearance” (Balzac 1958: 228). This, of course, is pre-Haussmann.
Paris comprises, then, areas of squalor which map onto its history – what it can acknowledge of the past and what it cannot and to read the city is to invite consideration of what it has buried. The symmetry between Chabert out of Paris, and then returning only to find that there is no place for him, and Count Ferraud, from the Faubourg Saint-Germain who had gone out of Paris during the Terror but who returned to serve Louis XIII is exact and indicates that though Paris may be perceptible as a unity, it is split and cannot be held together; further, its geography is also its politics.
The Comédie Humaine
Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes of Private Life), which included Père Goriot (1834–1835).
Scènes de la vie de province (Scenes of Provincial Life).
Les Célibataires (The Celibates).
Les Parisiens en province,
Illusions perdues – which in three volumes became the novel of that name (1837–1843), Scènes de la vie parisienne (Scenes of Parisian Life). This included Histoire des Treize (1834–1835), César Birotteau (1837), La Maison Nucingen (1838), Spendeurs et miséres des courtisanes (1844–1847, whose English translation is A Harlot High and Low), and Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan, which included Sarrasine (1830), the nouvelle which Barthes analyzed in his post-structuralist study S/Z; Les Parents pauvres, which included the two masterpieces La Cousine Bette (1846–1847) and Le Cousin Pons (1847–1848); and two last titles, Un homme d’affaires and L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine (The Seamy Side of Contemporary History) recently translated as The Wrong Side of Paris (1842–1848).
This listing of specific Paris texts, as we have already seen, is not complete, while in addition, titles shifted the categories in which they were placed. It will be seen, too, that this arrangement illustrates the apparently haphazard way in which incidents and narratives were put together to form larger units.
Scènes de la vie politique
Scènes de la vie militaire
Scènes de la vie de campagne.
In the definitive Pleiade (1977) edition of Balzac, the Comédie Humaine comprises 12 volumes. Of the texts discussed in this entry, Le Père Goriot and Colonel Chabert are in vol. 3 (1–290, 291–373), Illusions Perdues and Histoire des Treize vol. 5 (1–732, 733–1109), and César Birotteau and Spendeurs et Miséres des courtisanes and Sarrasine vol. 6 (1–312, 393–935, 1033–1076). La Cousine Bette and Cousin Pons are in vol. 7 (1–451, 453–765), L’Envers de l’histoire Contemporaine vol. 8 (185–413), and La Peau de Chagrin vol. 10 (1–294). Vol. 12 gives indexes of Balzac’s characters as they recur from novel to novel.
Reading the Comédie Humaine
The labyrinthine structure of the Comédie Humaine makes it like a rambling city itself. Certainly the collection of novels and short stories forms, like the city, a total environment, and the perception of this comparison, even if it is not consciously articulated, is a source of Balzac’s newness in his realism and in his absorption in following through on the lives of characters. Père Goriot introduces Vautrin, who reappears at the end of Illusions perdues: at the end of three separately written sections – meaning that the book was not unified into one whole until the devising of the Comédie Humaine, which unites the parts. This novel introduced in its turn the character Lucien Chardon (or de Rubempré – name of his aristocratic mother). Both characters are at the heart of a third novel, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, but a glance at the list above will show how these appeared far apart in time and circumstances of production: the unity comes at the end, not as something planned.
Lucien is one of the most typical of character types in fiction: the provincial boy who comes up to the capital, in the days when travel was dangerous and slow (the fastest journey from Lyons to Paris took 48 h), like Pip in Great Expectations. Lucien is also like Balzac in making the journey, or, earlier than him, Henri Beyle, i.e., Stendhal (1783–1842), who came from Grenoble and moved to Paris in 1799 and whose Le Rouge et le Noir (Scarlet and Black, 1830) writes about Julien Sorel who moves from the Franche-Comté to Paris, which he thinks of as “the centre of intrigue and hypocrisy” (Stendhal 1991; 244). And another real-life example is Berlioz (1803–1869), from near Grenoble (La Côte-Saint-André), who came to Paris to study medicine and taught himself music. Rastignac was said by some to be based on Louis Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877), who came up poor from the south (Aix-en-Provence) and ended up President of the Third Republic (long after Balzac’s death).
In Paris, Lucien meets another Southerner, Eugène de Rastignac, who was introduced in Un Peau de chagrin which is precisely dated as belonging to 1830. But then, Père Goriot, though written later, shows the earlier Rastignac in 1819, when he has just arrived in Paris from the provinces, knowing that he must make a success of himself in financial and sexual terms. Rastignac continues his career in La Maison Nucingen (The Firm of Nucingen); and we have seen how he features in the Lucien novels, where, as a success story, he obviously contrasts with Lucien, save that both have their associations with Vautrin, whom Rastignac in Père Goriot was also too close for the good of his reputation. Lucien allows Vautrin to seduce him at the end of Illusions perdues. One of the differences between the two young men is that Rastignac studies women (a Balzacian theme in itself). And Vautrin survives into Cousine Bette so illustrating the point that there are several repeating characters in the novels, an idea which Balzac adopted consciously with the writing of Père Goriot: Thackeray and Trollope both continued the tradition in the English novel. Yet one of the markers of Balzac’s novels is the plenitude of characters: there are some 2500 throughout, some 167 in Illusions perdues. Equally significant is the different forms in which texts appeared – some in weekly, some in daily journals – before they came out in book form.
The critic Pierre Citron says that Balzac is not satisfied with two-dimensional views of Paris but with the place as mass, and he quotes from Lucien’s sense in Part Two Chapter 1 of Illusions perdues when first seeing the city: “In Paris, what first seizes our attention is mass: the luxury of the shops, the height of the buildings, the dense traffic of the carriages, above all the continual contrasts between extreme luxury and extreme poverty,” while in the provinces, he quotes from Eugenie Grandet, “there is neither contrast nor relief.” Paris, says Chion, has an additional dimension. Everything exists in relief, whereas the provinces are flat. The quotation from lllusions perdues brings out a double vision. That is, contrast and relief show themselves both density and mass, which includes the crowd (OED gives 1837 as a first citation for “the masses” in English, meaning “the populace”) but also the nonphysical distinction between the rich and the poor. “Luxury” shows itself both in profusion (i.e., in physical mass of goods) and in the sense of “finery,” which includes what is not physical but which is a matter of moral judgment (“luxury” is after all the same as the word “lust”). If the city is seen as mass, it cannot be stood away from: its thickness, its contrasts, and its density impress themselves all at once, as they do not in the provinces, and make moral and physical judgments come together. People and their contexts, their milieux, go together, and everything in Balzac works with that new perception. Paris was the setting for Balzac’s study of professions – for example, journalism in the second part of Illusions perdues or the shopkeeper’s world in César Birotteau or with banking, as with the Baron de Nucingen, or clerks.
The question is how Balzac views and presents Paris. In Madame de La Chanterie, the first volume of L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine, a dandyish man of 30 (Godefroid) stands, in 1836 by the Seine, looking, either way, from the Jardin des Plantes to the Louvre, on the Ile de la Cité, and the text immediately and deftly reminds the reader of medieval-to-modern Paris, and of Sainte Geneviève’s dome (i.e., the Pantheon) watching over the Latin Quarter; and continues with the Hôtel de Ville and the Hôtel-Dieu (the medieval hospital by Notre-Dame). It takes in the “splendors of the Louvre” and the “wretched huddle of houses between the Quai de la Tournelle and the Hôtel-Dieu.” The antithesis is Romantic and is based on what is well-known in the city and on buildings which are famous monuments and a publicly known monumental history. Balzac’s next paragraph speaks of religion (on the Ile de la Cité) as being situated between the “sorrows” of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine (XIe.) and the Faubourg Saint-Marceau (XIIIe.) – i.e., working-class districts, roughly parallel to each other, on the right and left banks. This as “the very heart of old Paris” continues the point: Balzac is interested with what is at the center. He hears a priest and a worker in brief conversation, the worker, refusing charity, crossing the bridge that leads to the Quai de la Tournelle on the left bank (Ve.). The text then gives a brief account of Godefroid’s previously weak and dandyish life – saying that he “showed the world a face … that has become the very emblem of the Parisian: … scarred by traces of failed or exhausted ambition, of inner poverty, of disgust kept in abeyance by the distractions of the city’s superficial daily spectacle, of satiety forever desperate for new sensations … a face scarred by the sting of disillusion …” (Balzac 2005: 11). Godefroid, the epitome of this disillusionment, has just tried to obtain lodgings in the Rue Chanoinesse near Notre-Dame and, disappointed, has returned from there to stand where the beginning of the novel finds him, and though “like most children of this century,” he is not religious, he follows the priest who goes back to the Rue Chanoinesse, and to the house of Mme de La Chanterie, a reclusive figure who has passed through trials in Revolutionary and Imperial France, and who now gives herself, with her ménage, to charity. Her organization, which is similar in essence to the Treize in being a secret society, is called Les Frères de la Consolation. The piety explains the implicit symbolism of the opening: the sense of a history, the sense of religion at the center, the awareness of poverty and misery, and the idea of a corner of Paris at the center, almost forgotten, which remains to offer consolation, the woman as the matriarch who also embodies a hidden or other side of Paris, and above all the sense of Paris as readable, as seen in the faces of Parisians.
The emphasis on the hidden amidst the public side of Paris is part of a sensationalizing of the city which is also apparent from L’histoire des Treize: the sense that people who know the city are unable to read its secrets. We thus have a city which is to be read, and unreadable at the same time, and a sense of Paris as the big city as mysterious as the forests of America as described by Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Especially with his writing about recent history, Cooper influences Balzac with the sense of Paris as wild nature and Parisians as like Mohicans, needing to be tracked down (see Benjamin, Arcades Project, M14, 2, among other references, where Benjamin sees the tracking of Mohicans to be analogous to what the detective does). The interest is in deciphering signs. Hence Vautrin is seen masked at the Paris opera at the beginning of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes: this being a typically Romantic and monumental space to start a novel and a reminder of the wealth and of the character of the society that success or failure depends on being able to read properly.
If characters reappear, so do sites and buildings and streets: there is a sense of a known environment which is gone round several times and which holds readers with the force of a shared familiarity, though of course Balzac relies, too, on showing sites normally unknown to a middle-class readership. It has been said that he shows buildings and streets but without regard to the different moods in which these are seen during the day or the night. The city is described relatively objectively, and that associates with the familiarity with which names are given.
La Peau de Chagrin
We may illustrate how Balzac uses sites from the opening of La Peau de chagrin.
This novel starts with one of Balzac’s most often used sites: at the Palais Royal, to the north of the Rue Saint-Honoré, a collection of thoroughfares and shopping centers which surrounded the palace belonging, in the 1780s, to the duc d’Orléans and which were filled with gambling dens and places for prostitution. It also contained the wooden galleries which are described in Chapter 11 of the second part of Illusions perdues and which were pulled down in 1828: a place for booksellers and journals and journalists and publishers’ shops and places for prostitution and which Balzac describes after they had gone, as if recording recent history, this showing Balzac as the reporter or historian. Benjamin notes the change from the Palais-Royal to the Arcades (Arcades Project A4, 3; A4, 4). Colonel Chabert says that he found his wife in the Palais-Royal (Balzac 1958: 25), which indicates the social distance she has traveled and how much she now has to lose.
Raphael de Valentin loses his last gold coin at the gambling table and leaves. Balzac gives his route, noting the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge of 1804, from the Louvre to the Institut de France, which is upstream of him, as the place for suicide. Suicide is an essential Balzacian and city theme, and the connection between bridges and suicide reappears in Dickens and Dostoevsky. He crosses, however, by the Pont Royal (1689), resolved to wait till night to destroy himself. He reaches the Quai Voltaire, a very precise space between two roads coming up from the south to the Seine – Rue de Bac – which leads to the Pont Royal and Rue des Saints-Pères. He walks into a curiosity shop, Un Magasin d’antiquités. There he makes a deal with the centenarian who runs the shop, taking the wild ass’s skin, which will grant him his wishes but shrink, ultimately to nothing, as it does so: he will die when it disappears. The wild ass’s skin will lead him on toward death, unless he bridles his desires; later Raphael will be said to have “castrated his imagination” (Balzac 2012: 252) as a response to the temptation that he has to live with.
Raphael asks first for a Bacchanalian orgy and walks out to be encountered by three friends, one Emile Blondet (a journalist – a recurring character), who wants Raphael to edit a newspaper which is to be financed by a banker, Taillefer. They have been looking for him; Rastignac had apparently spotted him at the Bouffons, i.e., the Théatre Favart, i.e., the Théatre des Italiens, where Rossini was customarily performed (since 1783, just south of the Blvd d’Italiens), and then they joke about him sleeping rough in the Champs-Elysées, or “spending the night on stretched ropes” in a flophouse or in prison, such as Sainte-Pélagie, a famous prison during the Revolution, in Ve., closed in 1899, or the Force, a former ducal hotel in the Rue de Roi de Sicile (IVe.), demolished in 1845. The first named was for debtors (another elsewhere mentioned is Clichy).
As they walk, they cross the Pont des Arts, which thus develops a symbolism of being the place of destiny, in whose roaring waters are mirrored the lights of Paris (32): death, the phantasmagoria, and the city all coexisting in the image. For, since the Revolution of 1830, the friends say, “political power has been transferred … from the Tuileries to the journalists, just as economic power has moved from the Faubourg Saint-Germain to the Chaussée d’Antin” (33). In this statement, which may be compared with the equivalent argument about the Chaussée d’Antin in Colonel Chabert, Balzac registers his sense of the power of the moneyed middle class who are replacing once for all aristocratic power; moving power away from the eighteenth century left bank seat of the aristocracy to the right bank street (IXe.) which runs northwest from the Blvd des Italiens and which had been upgraded in the early eighteenth century and was now bourgeois. This shift is both happening below the surface and is inscribed in the geography of Paris, so physically it becomes the basis of everything that Balzac writes about in relation to Paris.
The banker is throwing a party for the journalists, in the Rue Joubert (IXe.): this will be the orgy that Raphael had desired; the mansion is appropriately grand, with its entrance and stairs lined with vases of flowers and decorated salon. One of the political cartoonists present at the party, called Jean-Jacques Bixiou (a recurring character, going through to Cousine Bette), who does some caricatures which “do the nineteenth century” and which mimic La Revue des Deux Mondes, founded in 1829, is based on Henri Monnier (1799–1877), actor, writer, and caricaturist, who created the character Joseph Prudhomme in a play La Famille improvisée (1830) as a stock figure of the Philistine bourgeoisie, master of clichés and of prudence/prudery (pruderie). Despite the success of this character (who, e.g., gives something to César Birotteau, the shopkeeper), it was felt that Monnier’s realism was too close to Prudhomme: Théophile Gautier commented that “his bourgeois – and nobody has painted them justly, not even Balzac – bore you just as real bourgeois do, by unstoppable waves of commonplaces and solemn stupidities. It’s no longer comedy, it’s stenography” (Wechsler 1982: 120). But the familiarity with which Bixiou is introduced indicates how characters are based on public figures, and that shows Balzac’s engagement with the city, which is also its people.
Balzac the Realist
In the twentieth century, some of the most interesting readings of Balzac, as with Peter Brooks and Christopher Prendergast, have stressed the melodrama in his writing, seeing this as his way of making marginal and distant voices be heard, especially in an age when all Enlightenment certainties were being set aside by the Revolution: melodrama flourished in the theaters of the Blvd des Italiens. And melodrama, as a heightened form, corresponded to the very strangeness of the city. Lukács’ estimate of him, though interesting, was challenged by Roland Barthes, whose S/Z (1970), an analysis of the short novel Sarrasine (1830), partly set in Rome, showed how much Balzac’s appearance of objective reporting of the real conditions of Paris in the Restoration and the July Monarchy (i.e., 1815–1848) was a matter of the use of culturally coded references which gave the effect of the real – constructed it – for his readership. These references appealed to values that the bourgeois reader shared without thinking about it, and so they seemed natural and inevitable when encountered in fiction.
In dismantling Balzac’s apparent objectivity and scrupulousness showing how the text was based on an enigma it created but then pretended to solve (the hermeneutic code), and based on actions (the proairetic code) which it set up as though these were inevitable choices, Barthes undid the central assumption of classic realism: that the novelist works impartially and fairly and establishes his own voice as authoritative. In showing that the other three codes, the cultural, symbolic, and connotative, all working by setting up binary antitheses (you must think either in this way or in that way, these are the alternatives), Barthes performed a great service to Balzac: he showed that the text was plural, not single and unified in its direction, and showed it as not “readerly,” which would give the reader the opportunity only to accept or reject the terms of the text but “writerly”, i.e., one where the reader is a producer of the text. “We call any readerly text a classic text,” says Barthes (1974: 4), thus shifting Balzac away from being the encrusted writer of tradition to being one whose terms of reference reveal their constructed nature and allow for a much more interesting text to appear between the cracks.
The perverse structures of reading which Barthes found, focusing on anxieties about sexual difference, and the fear that there may be none, certainly none which fit the binary distinctions which maintain realism, correspond absolutely to the multifariousness and lack of coding present in the city. Narrative becomes a way of staving off anxieties about sex and its relation to an economy based on money, and it can at any moment be cut short, with castrative power and the sense of the unknowability of the other, despite narrative being set up apparently to establish knowledge.
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