Happy Birthday Balzac! – That man really knew how to put in a shift!

Happy birthday Honore de Balzac!

I might have only read one of his novels so far, but I loved it enough to read it twice.

In ‘Old Goriot’, Balzac gives us entry to the disparate spheres of Parisian society. We see the shallow snobbery, exploitation and ingratitude of Pere Goriot’s social-climbing daughters, as well as the struggles and eccentricities of his fellow-boarders. A tragic but endearing figure, he is mocked by his neighbours, and abused by whose for whom he has given so much to.

I’ve now accrued a few more Balzac novels thanks to some dedicated secondhand bookshop trawling, but it was only after a bit of internet detective work that I discovered Balzac’s grand ambition and phenomenal work-rate.

It turns out that Balzac’s plan was to capture the entirety of Parisian society in fine detail. He embarked upon a major project to write a collection of novels, initially titled ‘Studies of Nineteenth Century Manners‘ , but later renamed ‘La Comedie Humaine‘. Like Nikolai Gogol‘s vastly ambitious undertaking to capture the whole of Russian society in ‘Dead Souls’, Balzac intended not only to represent thousands of characters drawn from every section of society, but to capture their motivations and drives in an attempt to understand the workings of society itself.

To this end, he worked obsessively, often for 18 hours a day – powered by rocket fuel strength black coffee…… for twenty two years! In that time, he wrote nearly ninety volumes. Ninety!

You’ve got to love a man with that kind of drive and ambition, but he must have been pretty intense company on all that caffeine. I bet he didn’t get invited to many parties – all that teeth-gnashing and fidgeting would scare the guests, although with his tireless work-rate, he probably never went out except to buy more coffee supplies. Still, I hope he’d at least have taken time for a slice of cake on his birthday – I’m guessing coffee and walnut!

Honore de Balzac birthday knitted figure

Honore de Balzac enjoying a birthday grande latte in the sunshine