Saturday, January 27, 2018

La Maison de Balzac - Paris

One of my favourite places in Paris, is set in what was once, in fact, a distinct commune on the Western outskirts of the capital itself ; Passy. Until the Ancien Régime, this area was initiallly inhabited by monks who cultivated their vines on the rich lands alongside other farmers, and stocked their produce in the underground cellars created by the quarry extraction of lutetian limestone. After the Revolution, it attracted the more affluent and ostentatious members of Parisian society who benefitted from the greenery of the area, the thermal springs and spa facilities and sweeping views towards Paris.

In 1860, the hamlet was annexed to Paris, in accordance with the grandiose urbanisation project of Emperor Napoléon III to create Le Grand Paris, at the hand of Baron Haussmann. However, in the 1840s, Passy was still a relatively buccolic haven of peace, with its narrow, winding antiquated streets, fleets of stairs and slopes that were matched by the underground galeries that appealed to one of its most famous residents; Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850).

Why should the great writer, of gargantuan proportion and ambition have sought refuge in such a manner ? Having debts that equalled his artist talent and literary legacy, Balzac spent most of his adult life playing cat-and-mouse or perhaps Trivial Pursuit with debt collectors and creditors. And so it was that he spent many of his last years, hiding out in lodgings built on the lands of the former vineyards. La Maison de Balzac, as it is known today, was an odd dwelling, curiously spread over three floors into which one entered "un peu comme le vin entre dans les bouteilles". (Théophile Gautier 1859), passing down the top levels to reach the first. Under the pseudonym of Mr de Breugnol, Balzac installed himself therein remained there from 1840 to 1847, devoting himself wholeheartedly to the correction of his vast literary entreprise -  La Comédie Humaine. 

Here he found the peace required, "C’est le nid, la coque, l’enveloppe certaine de ma vie !" The house was saved from property developers in 1908 by Louis Baudier de Royaumont by the creation of a museum dedicated to the great writer. This is the only one of Balzac’s homes to have been conserved, situated between Rue Raynouard and Rue Berton, in what is today the 16th arrondissement of Paris. As a dramatic backdrop to La Maison de Balzac, we have what has been the ultimate symbol of France for well over one hundred years; the Eiffel Tower. And yet this was erected in 1889, some forty years after the writer’s death. What Gustave Eiffel achieved in technical mastery and architectural innovation, with a vast monument that dominated the capital, Honoré de Balzac had accomplished in literature via his magnus opus, La Comédie Humaine, with its vision of society in the city and beyond.

Born after the Revolution, at the turn of the century, Balzac’s life was punctuated by great political and social change – the years of Empire, Restoration and the July Monarchy. His lifetime witnessed the upheaval in the structure and fabric of society, with the emergence of the bourgeoisie sweeping away the values of the aristocracy with an ever-growing emphasis on material acquisition and social gain. The morals and ambitions of this naissant social climate intrigued Balzac, as he watched on with a mixture of dismay and disdain, as money became the driving force in a milieu where everything, and everyone, would ultimately have a purchasing price. However much he may have been shocked by the mercantile, ambitious nature of the parvenu society around him, Balzac’s life was likewise governed by financial concerns, professional drive and social aspirations.

For all his regret of certain values afforded by the noblesse and the Church, and his vast admiration for Napoleon, Balzac sought ascension too, not so unlike many of his characters. He was in awe of the rampant cult of the individual ; horrified and admiring and yet he too was ready to ‘go it alone’. Rastignac’s cry "A nous deux, Paris " in Le Père Goriot could indeed have been a reiteration of the writer’s own words as an impoverished, failed lawyer, printer,  pot-boiler producer and publisher in 1828, before the publication of his first successful novel, Les Chouans in 1829. His undertaking of La Comédie Humaine was largely down to an attempt to pay off the crippling debts that he had incurred from his various business endeavours. Balzac was the first French novelist to serialize his fiction in installments in the daily newspapers. Perhaps this drive enabled him to have a greater insight into the mindset of many of his contemporaries and heightened his desire to produce a vast panorama of society to encapsulate the world around him.

 As an author, he sought to be as omnscient and omnipotent as the figure he so admired; Napoleon. Indeed, he claimed that what the emperor had achieved by the sword, he would do by his pen ; order and absolutism being the key words. For Balzac, kings may well command nations for a certain time, but "the artist commands for whole centuries, changing the face of things". Certainly, his vision of the growing capitalism of the 19th century and the urban proletariat as product of the system, led to a portrait that was so incisive that Karl Marx himself professed great admiration for the writer, whilst Friedrich Engels recognized the accuracy of the economic depiction of the period.

Balzac was at once reactionary and revolutionary in his portrayal of the greed and corruption around him, whilst equally amazed at the possibilities open to the shrewdist members of this new world order. Just as the characters he created, Balzac was alsovery much a creature of his times, ready to respond to the cry of the prime minister of 1843, ''Enrichissez-vous.'' 

Born into a modest family and deprived from an early age of material comfort and maternal warmth, Balzac was drawn to the upper echelons of society occupied by the fairer sex. Romance with wealthy, titled women, far older than himself offered him the means to advance and perhaps fill the void that the inadequate mother-figure had left in his life. Just as his father before him had changed the family name to improve his fortune, Balzac too left his mark. Thus, from a mutual desire to enhance their social standing, father and son aligned themselves with an old family of French nobles, complete with their own coats of arms! Balssa assumed the more noble form Balzac - more fitting to the father’s administrative post in the King’s Council in the pre-Revolutionary years – and Honoré Balzac added the nobiliary particle de to his name decades later. Although this offered Balzac fils a certain mobility, he never freed himself from the strained relationship with his mother, which generally resumed itself in her fears and frustrations over his floundering financial status and lack of professional success. As the issue of money plagued his existence– mother and son were forever shackled together in a dialogue punctuated by her reprimands and his attempts to prove his worth.

Everything about Balzac was grandiose, excessive and ambitious. Charles Baudelaire probably resumed his true nature when declaring that this was "l'homme aux faillites mythologiques, aux entreprises hyperboliques et fantasmagoriques […] ce gros enfant bouffi de génie et de vanité, qui a tant de qualités et tant de travers que l'on hésite à retrancher les uns de peur de perdre les autres…". Other writers would label him as Promethean, shining a light on the urban underclass, cutting trails in the Parisian jungle, observing the epic voyages undertaken by anti-heroes, as a 19th century Homer. Emile Zola wrote that his predecessor had created a literary Tower of Babel that remained unfinished on the demise of its architect, adding that only Shakespeare had created such a large, vivid humanity in his work. It was, naturally, La Comédie Humaine that inspired Zola’s study of the Rougon-Macquart -Histoire naturelle d'une famille sous le Second Empire.

Balzac set upon the task of studying and representing the history that was overlooked by the majority of writers ; that of human mores – les mœurs  – the values, standards, customs and habits that encompass, form and resume a society. Following the contemporary desire to classify the natural world through scientific analysis, Balzac wished to carry out a similar procedure on the microcosm of modern life ; Paris and the provinces. This study would span the whole of society around him, in a proclaimed attempt to rival the état civil with some two thousand characters – frequently inter-related. The vast diversity of material would be brought together in this unified series of books; La Comédie Humaine.

Initially, Balzac planned to write 137 books, but died before the completion of the task -  leaving behind a mere 97 !There were to be three general categories of novel ; Etudes analytiques, Etudes philosophiques and the Etudes de mœurs. These would respectively deal with the principles that ordered society and human life therein, the causes that determined human action and finally the effects of those causes on six different settings – scènes – Parisian, provincial, the country, private, political and miltiary. Of epic proportion, the work was partly inspired by the literary masterpiece of Dante Alighieri - The Divine Comedy. Whilst Balzac is often referred to as the ‘father or realism’ in literature, it would be more exact to say that he was an "impassioned visionary", as Baudelaire stated. Balzac himself said that  "la mission de l’art n’est pas de copier la nature mais de l’exprimer", and this he did through rich, hyperbolic description of all that formed the basis of this modern-day, material existence.

What separated man from beast was precisely this all-devouring need for material acquistion as a form of self-validation and expression and the 19th century offered unprecedented, limitless means to do so, to so many people. Influenced by the zoological principles of Saint-Hilaire, with the concept of organic composition and unity of species, Balzac conceived man to be a social animal. This was a being animated by fluide vitale which could give rise to a surge of will and determination that would steer him away form his banal destin animale, yet could easily lead to his human destruction too. The energy and quasi- supernatural forces within the individual spark off passions and obsessions that assume an identity of their own, to incredible effect. Just as man can be classified according to type through "pastoral consistency" - milieu, career, and status, so too the transgressing individual is identified by his particular obsession.

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Balzac’s work is scattered with recurrent superhuman characters ; the most notable of whom are anarchic, tyrannical, monomaniac figures who flout social and moral laws in order to impose their own, to lesser or greater success. The atmosphere is ever fraught by a tension of potential devastation that lies just below the rich, busy surface of Balzac’s world.

Meticulous descriptive passages devoted to the clutter of contemporary life take on a hard, glittering significance. Personal effects assume a life of their own. They are a veneer, painstakingly applied to every layer in society, yet they reflect as much as they conceal. They reflect the vital energy that animates each individual in his or her personal quest and as such betray the person beneath.

In the amassed detail of these interminable passages, Balzac reveals much of himself, with a burning desire to surround himself with collections of beautiful objects, running alongside a will to create order out of chaos. Balzac, the man living by his pen and thus from the effort of his ink-stained hand, was consumed by the need to satisfy these simultaneous drives. He surrounded himself with busts of Napoleon, the emperor whom he so admired, and decorated his persona with the trappings of success, whether he had the ability to finance these or not. It is no wonder that creditors hounded him throughout his life nor that on death, he still had outstanding bills for an order of fifty-eight pairs of gloves, amongst many others for the extravagant foibles and friperies, for which he would readily fall into debt.

 Alexandre Dumas, a contemporary writer remarked that they both shared a taste for appearance – le paraître -and could be classified as "lion dandies". Balzac was perhaps most well-known for his magnificent turquoise-incrusted walking cane, which sealed his reputation as a literary and literal dandy.

Balzac’s life-long penchant for the luxurious and opulent in tailored clothes, jewellery and furnishings was but just one of the manifestations of Balzac’s voracious appetite and obsessive drives. Not only did he frequently live life ‘large’ – in great excess and quantity, he was also capable of subjecting himself to incredible discipline and a restrictive lifestyle that ultimately led to his rather premature death at 51. He would impose upon himself a timeframe of between 16-18 hours a day in which to work on his literary pieces, prepared to rework the same page up to 20 times – driving the printers to distraction in the process ! His strict work ethic and mammoth work load required him to live like a monk, frequently in solitary confinement, shut up in his creative cell that was both a haven and a hell hole,"driven by the horrible demon of work seeking words out of the silence, ideas out of the night".

It is very moving to visit La Maison Balzac today, and see these same spaces "mon trou de Passy", in which he had been holed up "comme un rat" over a period that had pushed his creative genius to its limits. Even his clothing reflected this religious devotion to art ; long white robes and Morocan slippers. Whether we enjoy the literature of Balzac or not, the simple fact remains that the man was indeed a genius, with a mind of such intellectual capacity and creative imagination that it is truly humbling. How was it possible for Balzac to follow the intricate trails of this multitude of characters that thread their way through his novels, in such a way as to create a coherent whole – La Comédie Humaine ?

Compared to what we have at hand today for any creative endeavour, artists of all types in earlier centuries were tested on every level by their reliance on comparatively rudimentary tools of trade and the expense of these. I cannot help wondering how the talent and creative output of such great individuals would have benefitted from the means that we have today -  computor, photocopier, scanner and so on. Not to mention a simple biro and Tippex ! Even the basic material requirements for his craft must have made the task complicated – writing with a quill pen without any means to copy work in the draught stage must have led to hours of extra work, and huge volumes of paper. How was he able to keep track of his creations, trace their evolution and observe their influence on those around them, over the years? Some of these characters almost seem to take on form in flesh and blood, not the least for Balzac himself, who is even said to have called for his fictive doctor when lying on his death bed "Il me faudrait Bianchon !… ". What would the literary greats have been, had they been equipped with a smartphone, for example ? Would that have led to even more masterpieces ; or would it have stifled the need to create such work, as social media would have mapped out movement in society in an instantaneous fashion ?

Balzac’s capacity for hard graft was legendary and his working habits made excessive demands on his health and constitution. He would rely on vast quantities of coffee to give him energy, even resorting to eating coffee powder itself when mere drinking was insufficient. In the museum today, Balzac’s elegant coffee pot is on display, alongside other personal effects that enable us to read aspects of the character of this great writer. These objects afford a glimpse of the complex, contradictory nature of Balzac but never offer a complete picture. Aspects of his nature were reflected in that of his personages, like them he possessed as many virtues as vices.

Here was a novelist who would write meticulouly about the meanderings of his fictive characters, but would reveal very little of his own life, when it suited him. He could be a public figure, strutting around like a proud dindon in his finery, yet was capable of withdrawing from the public eye for months. Passages of his life remain mysterious today, and his discretion in all affairs of the heart served him well. Able to win people over, he was appreciated by many - "un grand conquérant d’âmes" – remarked the writer Octave Mirbeau(1848 – 1917). Somewhat short and barrel-shaped, with a rather unattractive face, Balzac was by no means blessed by a handsome physique. On first sight, Balzac could effectively turn off a conquest, yet he soon gained ground to remarkable effect. His charm and wit, willingness to please, seductive words, marked discretion and manifest intelligence afforded him a way with the women that his appearance alone denied him. Furthermore, he possessed a notable skill at attracting those with sizeable personal fortunes ! Of his lovers, many were already married, most were affluent, but few marked his existence as much as the Polish countess, Madame Ewelinade Hanska.

In the musem display cabinet lies his turquoise stick - designed to enable Balzac to show off in public, yet also fashioned to prove his private devotion – decorated with the necklace of his paramour. In this he was rather like the chivalric knights, bearing their ladies’ honour during their long quests, relishing the hardship that heightened their belief in their cause. He declared his love for her would be complete "comme on aimait au Moyen Âge, avec la plus entière des fidélités". This was certainly a unique relationship, most of which was conducted via secret correspondance over many years. It was also to prove to be the ultimate waiting game, in which Balzac lost as he simply ran out of time, health and money.

It started in the 1830s, when Madame Hanska made an anonymous comment to Balzac, concerning his portrayal of women. Signing herself as l’Étrangère, she incited Balzac’s curiosity and a desire to track her down. This he did, and in so doing sparked a particular, even peculiar liaison, largely punctuated by long periods of separation, and fed by hundreds of letters. The last seventeen years of his life were thus dominated by his love for her, his eternal wait for Madame Hanska to become a widow, the need to bide his time while she hesistated, the necessity put all on hold in order to settle financial concerns… Despairing of being kept at a distance, rebuffed or rejected, Balzac destroyed most of the letters from his lover in a fit of pique. It is difficult to measure the true nature of this relationship, although I did find it curious to learn that he wrote La Cousine Bette when Mme Hanska is said to have lost their love-child. I remember this novel being a very dark portrayal of female cunning, especially regarding pregnancy and paternity. Finally, the couple were together, as man and wife, but the lavish marital home Balzac had prepared for them in Paris, no expense or extravagence spared, was to be their ruin in every sense. After a mere five months of marriage, Balzac died, leaving his wife his substantial debts, and apparently in the arms of another man.

Perhaps of all Balzac’s characters, he was his greatest creation. It makes me sad that his work is largely overlooked today or rather is set as part of the language curriculum, so that for most young people his name is systematically synonymous with « boring ».While many profess that they couldn’t care less what he writes about because it is totally irrelevant today, the irony is that Balzac, art and artist, are probably more relevant than ever. I really enjoyed the television adaptation of this great man’s life, with Gérard Depardieu in the key role – almost as if he were born to play Balzac.With Fanny Ardant and Jeanne Moreau as the two women who so dominated Balzac's life, this was great viewing.

The steps leading down to the Maison de Balzac
The Maison de Balzac is closed for renovation work until the end of 2018 - but you can see
the objects that my camera just could not do justice to on the official site - namely that beautiful turquoise cane!

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