Honoré de Balzac: The Optical Gastronomer

Marais Paris

In his story 'Facino Cane', Honoré de Balzac describes his self-directed writing apprenticeship he underwent while living in a garret in Paris when he was twenty-one.

‘Love of knowledge stranded me in a garret; my nights I spent in work, my days in reading at the Biblioteque d’Orleans, close by. I lived frugally, I had accepted the conditions of the monastic life, necessary conditions for every worker, scarcely permitting myself a walk along the Boulevard Bourdon when the weather was fine. One passion only had power to draw me from my studies; and yet, what was that passion but a study of another kind. I used to watch the manners and customs of the Faubourg, its inhabitants, and their characteristics.

Everything about Honoré de Balzac was exuberant, uncouth and larger than life. One of the greatest European writers and the founder of the modern novel, he was also a flaneur, treasure hunter, gourmet, political campaigner, businessman, self-publicist, inventor, interior decorator and con man. He participated in his age like a whirling dervish. Coming of age in Paris in the 1820s, when class distinctions were becoming less rigid, he continued his father’s ascendency from peasant origins. His mother had come from a family of ambitious Parisian haberdashers, leading one of Balzac’s many mistresses to declare that he was ‘an eagle hatched by geese.’

The Marais

Balzac’s family arrived in Paris from the provinces in 1814 and took an apartment at 7 rue du Temple in the Marais, in the 3rd arrondissement. Little had changed since the execution of Louis XIV fifteen years before. Paris was still very much a medieval city, a collection of little villages linked by narrow streets with poor drainage. As Balzac later described it in his novella, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, ‘Half of Paris sleeps amidst the putrid exhalations of courts and streets and sewers.’ The villages of Montmartre, Auteuil and Passy were outside the city and the avenue leading to the Champs-Élysées was just a country road amongst grazing cattle.

Owing to the encroaching noise and smells of commerce, the nobility had fled the Marais in the seventeenth century, leaving their mansions to the artisans and middle classes. It was a diverse neighbourhood. Ruined grand families mingled with lawyers, wealthy traders, labourers, shopkeepers and criminals. In the mix were also the actors playing at the local theatres, the Ambigu-Comique, and the Gaieté. The apartments were arranged according to class: the wealthiest people were on the lowest floors, the poorest in the attics. Streets overflowed with filth and planks were laid down to allow pedestrians to cross. It was a place for hard workers who rose at five and toiled in dark and reeking little shops and offices where outbreaks of cholera were quite common.

An Education

Balzac was fourteen when he arrived in Paris, full of vigour and merriment with a flair for human fellowship. An excessive tease, he could also be painfully smug and narcissistic. An acquaintance passing by his house in the rue du Temple one evening caught sight of him through a window fixing his tie by candlelight: ‘I can still see the self-satisfied smile on his face; and if I wanted to paint an allegory of Confidence, and Alacrity, I should seek no other model.’

At school he was regarded as an undistinguished student but once he began attending lectures at the Sorbonne he came alive with interest. At last he felt there were people who looked on the world as he did and the Sorbonne sparked in him a zest for learning.

During a six-year stint of misery at a boarding school it had been books that saved him. Indiscriminately he had devoured works on history, literature, philosophy, science, even dictionaries. He was drawn to scientific works with a mystical bent, including those by the physiologist and spiritual visionary, Swedenborg. And he was a passionate reader of The Arabian Nights. At university he was introduced to foreign writers: Goethe, Byron, Walter Scott and Shakespeare. After lectures he would run off to the public library to follow up an idea, or comb through the Latin Quarter looking out for rare or precious books. Or he would return home with his ‘head on fire’ with the day’s learning, eager to share everything with his sisters.

A Wider World

At this time Balzac was motivated by the two ‘immense and sole desires – to be famous and to be loved’ which would haunt him all his life. But as a young man he was timid and awkward around women. In his boarding schools he had lived among boys only and he had yet to learn how to move in good society. He was physically unattractive and, owing to his mother’s stinginess, poorly dressed; yet he began to wander on the fringes of a wider world, his imaginative life feeding off the teeming city.

The family lived near the temptations of the Galeries de Bois du Palais Royal, an early version of the Parisian covered shopping passages. Inspired by Arabian souks, they were a series of wooden shops linking the ends of the Palais Royal. By day this was the place to be seen in Paris, with restaurants, cafes and shops stuffed with luxuries that attracted the beau monde. Dandies paraded in their finery, others flocked to Molière’s plays at the theatre Comédie Française on the corner of the square. And the glorious antique shops ignited Balzac’s life-long love of trinkets, that he describes in Cousin Pons.

But what was most intriguing to Balzac about the Galeries de Bois was the way that by night the place was transformed into a gambling den where prostitutes plied their trade, attracting a new crowd of charlatans, soldiers and pimps. ‘The poetry of this amazing bazaar shatters at night fall. It is horrible and cheerful at the same time,’ he wrote. Although it fired his imagination, and the seamier side of this life would feature in many of his works, Balzac was kept on a short leash by his mother. He found himself as he later wrote, ‘standing between boyhood, prolonged study and a manhood late in showing its green shoots.’

Work

In 1816 Balzac’s parents considered he should begin regular paid work in addition to attending lectures at the Sorbonne. His mother in particular wished to ensure that not a single hour should be wasted in his preparations for a career. So, while studying at university, he drudged as a clerk in a lawyer’s office for M. de Guillonnet-Merville, a kind man who offered him genuine interest and friendship. Balzac later immortalised him as Derville in the novels Une ténébreuse affair (A Murky Business) and Le Père Goriot. Two years later Balzac was passed on to the notary Passez, a friend of the family, and his future seemed assured. He was on a ‘normal path’ to become a partner in the law firm, to marry into a family of wealth and good standing, and to honour his long suffering, self-pitying mother.

Rebellion

But Balzac was convinced of his own genius and harboured a secret desire to become a writer, telling a family friend he wished to become a playwright like Molière or Beaumarchais. One spring day in 1819 he leapt from his chair in the notary’s office and abandoned the files that lay open on his desk, unable to tolerate the type of existence that would deprive him of freedom and happiness. Defying the will of his family for the first time, he declared he would become a writer, a career he was certain would secure him independence, wealth and fame.

A dispute ensued. What would he write about? How would he survive? Where was the evidence of his talent? His ambitious mother was horrified, but she was surprised by the unshakeable willpower she encountered in her son. Once Balzac made a decision, he could turn it into the only possible option. He was implacable, resistant to all tears, entreaties or bouts of hysteria. In the struggle that lasted for days Laure, his beloved and loyal sister, was secretly on his side. At length it was Balzac’s father, the old adventurer and gambler who had always fancied that he too had literary leanings, who softened. It was agreed that Balzac would receive financial support from his parents for two years while he put to the test his ability to write. If he had not become a great writer by the end of this period, he would be required to return to his desk at the notary’s office.

The Garret

Balzac embarked on his writing life in 1819 at the age of twenty-one, at 9 rue Lesdiguières, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. He had chosen the room on the third floor for its proximity to the Biblioteque de l’Arsenal, now the only public library of which the contents were unknown to him. It was a poor house in a working class street on the far side of the alluring Palace Royale, three blocks from the Bastille and a short distance from the Marais. Here he spent his time largely in self-imposed seclusion, determined to become a great writer

The room was cramped and miserable yet he was blissfully free. Here was his desk covered with brown leather, his ink and pens, four chairs, a few plates, a cupboard for his clothes and a monastic bed. If he was thrifty his allowance would just cover his needs and he might even be able afford to hire a little help occasionally. In the golden afternoons of spring, up amongst the rooftops, the sounds of Paris rose faintly to his dormer window making everything seem possible. He wrote to Laure:

I feel to-day that riches do not make happiness, and that the time I shall pass here will be to me a source of pleasant memories. To live according to my fancy; to work as I wish and in my own way; to do nothing if I wish it; to dream of a beautiful future; to think of you and to know you are happy; to have as ladylove the Julie of Rousseau; to have La Fontaine and Molière as friends, Racine for a master, and Père-Lachaise to walk to,—oh! if it would only last always.

When the weather turned cold he sheltered himself as best he could from the draughts and donned layers of warm clothing. Then, ‘nothing could be more horrid than that garret with its dirty yellow walls, smelling of poverty.’ But his imagination was more powerful than the reality of his surroundings. In this room he discovered a ‘kind of magic’. ‘The flimsy desk at which I wrote…the queer designs on the wallpaper, my furniture, everything came to life, every object became my humble friend – silent accomplices in the moulding of my future.’

In this extract from his novel La Peau de Chagrin Balzac describes the view he saw each day as he began to write.

As I sat at my window, breathing in the air, I allowed my eyes to wander over a landscape of brown, grey or red roofs with slates or tiles covered with green or yellow mosses. The view seemed to me at first monotonous, but I soon discovered peculiar beauties in it… Sometimes the pale glow of the street-lamps cast yellowish reflections up through the fog, showing the roofs in faint outline along the streets, packed together like the waves of a great motionless sea. The fleeting, poetic effects of daylight, the mournful mists, the sudden shimmering of the sun, the silence and magic of night, the mysteries of dawn, the smoke rising from every chimney, each detail of that strange world became familiar to me and entertained me. I loved my prison, for I had chosen it myself.’

Balzac claimed to have survived on a near-starvation diet of bread, fruit and nuts, and mostly water, lugged up from the local fountain, which kept him ‘in a state of singular lucidity’. But his plight was somewhat exaggerated. The starving artist in a garret was a fashionable concept at the time and even at such a young age, Balzac recognised that his image could be as indispensable as his quill and ink. As his biographer Graham Robb says, the occupant of the room at 9 rue Lèsdiguieres was to a certain extent ‘a product of his own imagination.’

Street Wanderings

Balzac became fascinated by the secret, sordid side of the city, often emerging in the evenings to indulge in what he called ‘optical gastronomy’. This was a habit of roaming the insalubrious streets of Paris, intently observing its people and their habits. Walking the streets for pleasure was quite a radical activity at this time. It was almost unheard of, especially in the parts of Paris where Balzac ventured, out towards its unlit, seamy peripheries. The streets were uniformly filthy, and mud and faeces splattered on Balzac’s clothing as he passed. During these walks, Balzac remained furtive and incognito. Out walking the streets he was like a private eye, gathering the clues while remaining anonymous. In his story ‘Facino Cane’ Balzac later reminisced about this time:

I was living then in a little street which you probably do not know: the Rue de Lèsdiguieres…Only one passion could ever drag me from my studious routine; and even that was a form of study. I used to go out in order to observe life in the faubourg, its people and their character. Being as poorly dressed as the workers and paying no heed to decorum, I aroused no suspicions. I was able to mingle with them as they stood in groups, haggling and quarrelling with one another as they left their work. Observation had already become for me an intuitive activity; it allowed me to penetrate the soul without disregarding the body; or rather, it comprehended outward detail so well that in the same instant it passed beyond. It imbued me with the power to live the life of the individual I was observing, to substitute myself for him, like the dervish in the Arabian Nights who takes over the body and soul of those over whom he utters certain words.

When, between eleven o’clock and midnight, I came across a worker and his wife returning together from the Ambigu-Comique, I would amuse myself by following them from the Boulevard du Pont-aux-Choux as far as the Boulevard Beaumarchais…In listening to these people I could espouse their lives. I felt their rags upon my back; I walked with my feet in their tattered shoes; their desires, their wants – everything passed into my soul, or my soul passed into theirs. It was the dream of a waking man.’

Along the way the worker and his wife talked about the show they had seen, the pay that was due to them the next day and how it would be spent; what they owed the baker, the long winter:

I was with them against the managers of their factory and with them when they were tricked out of their pay. I left myself to become them. Was it second sight? Anyway I found this power in myself. I saw the value of this district with its heroes, inventors, practical sages, pressed down with misery and necessity, drowned in wine and spirits. How many dramas in this city of pain?

This powerful intuitive ability of Balzac’s to inhabit the lives of others is a little known and underrated aspect of his life. It surpassed the ordinary gifts of observation; he seemed to abandon all sense of himself and feed on an almost hallucinatory vision of others. Balzac’s biographer Graham Robb suggests this was a state he could summon at will, and it explains why his subjective history of France in the nineteenth century seems real and infallible; why he could later portray thousands of characters in his La Comédie humaine that were so consistent, authentic and alive. He suggests further that Balzac’s street wanderings represent one of the great moments of literature, and it is this aspect of his life that Henry James wrote in 1875 ‘has been little commemorated’.

Balzac himself regarded his imaginings and this ‘open-air’ part of himself as somewhat reprehensible and even dangerous: ‘Is it second sight, or one of those gifts which, if abused, would lead to madness?’ But he would turn to these willed hallucinations not only for material, but also to escape his anxiety about the progress of his work.

Writing

The writing did not come easily. Balzac was well aware of the force within him but was uncertain which shape it should take. The pieces of writing and scattered verses he had brought along with him seemed unpromising. Where to begin?

With great zest he delved into countless books with the dual aim of finding a theme and learning the writer’s craft. ‘I did nothing but study and develop my style, until I thought I should lose my reason’, he wrote to Laure. He abandoned the idea of a philosophical work as  involving too much labour; he felt he lacked the skills to tackle a novel. A drama seemed the only viable option, something historical which was then the fashion, and suitable for the Comédie Français. After ploughing through innumerable books from the circulating library for a theme, he settled on Cromwell, which, he confided to Laure,

…provides the finest material in modern history. Since setting to work on this theme and turning it over in my mind, I have become immersed in it to the verge of losing consciousness of all else. Ideas are accumulating in my brain, but I am continually held up by my lack of talent for writing verse…

Balzac went to the Père Lachaise cemetery to work on the research for his play. The new cemetery had opened its gates in 1804, becoming a fashionable place for an evening’s stroll. He told Laure: ‘Of all the emotions of the soul, Grief is the most difficult to depict’, owing, he believed, to its simplicity. He felt at home among the dead and found it comforting to see his reflection in the tombs. The cemetery was like a ‘microcosmic’ Paris, or a library, containing the first and the last lines of a multitude of books. At Pére Lachaise, Balzac indulged in willed hallucinations about his ‘beautiful future’. He mused that a writer must become like the dead for years before emerging from his ‘aerial tomb’, to return to the living world, his masterpiece in hand.

Fired up by such thoughts he would return to his small room and throw himself into his work with an obsessive energy that later even his enemies admired. Often he sat at his table for stretches of three or four days at a time in a feverish zeal: revising, condensing, expanding, or erasing. Fuelled by coffee, his indispensable stimulant, he was determined to finish ‘before Mamma comes and demands from me an account of the way I have spent my time.’ He struggled to find words to express the many ideas teeming in his brain, ‘to use material terms to express the mysteries of the soul’ and ‘capture the awful and uncertain voice of inspiration’, as he later described it in La Peau de Chagrin. He alternated between enthusiasm and despair. Plagued by doubts about his abilities he would often ask ‘Have I enough talent?’ In a letter to Laure he begged for her honesty:

By the sisterly love you bear me I conjure you never to say “That is good!” when you write to me about one of my works. You must only point out my defects, and keep your praise to yourself.

For two months he stayed in his bed, neglecting all but his work and writing at speed. Infested with vermin from the filth of his room, he would creep out at night to buy a candle.

The Verdict

On completion of his first draft Balzac, full of eager anticipation, travelled to Villeparisis, sixteen miles from Paris, where his family had recently moved. His parents waited, impatient and curious. The favourable reports from a family friend about Balzac’s frugal ways had assuaged some of their doubts and they grudgingly admired the way he had survived impoverishment without racking up a single sou in debt. Perhaps there was something in the boy’s stubbornness after all. And it would certainly reflect well on the family if he were to produce a brilliant premiere at the Comédie Française. Without having read the work but encouraged by their son’s fortitude, they mustered a small group of influential friends to hear him read the entire play to them out loud and judge whether or not he was possessed of genius. For the first time in Balzac’s life, his family was taking him seriously.

He began his delivery with panache, adapting his sonorous voice to fit the characters in the play, but as the boredom of his audience gradually communicated itself to him, his confidence ebbed. When he finished, some three hours later, he was chilled to see that all their faces, even Laure’s, were downcast.

With no experienced teacher to guide him, he had set out in the wrong direction. He had limited experience of the world, no knowledge of stage techniques and little gift for rhyme and his chosen form hampered his rich imagination and glorious, soaring mind. The play was full of loyalist sentiment, turgid and dull. But although they had been deathly bored, his audience felt too embarrassed and unqualified to pass judgement.

Laure’s fiancé tactfully suggested that a Professor from the École Polytechnique, the author of some comedies in verse, might be asked to pronounce the final word. Balzac accepted the offer and promised to abide by his judgement, hoping against hope that such a learned man would see the true value of the work. The manuscript was duly submitted to the professor, who felt flattered to be asked. But he thought it lacked all prospects of success and he suggested to Balzac’s mother that her son might study belles-lettres as a hobby instead.

Her son baulked. Although disheartened, he refused to be beaten. ‘Tragedies are not my line’, he said. Despite the failure of Cromwell, he knew instinctively that he must not let the work to which he felt summoned be reduced a side issue:

If I take a job I am lost. I should become a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I shall be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again.

Refusing to compromise, he insisted that there had been an agreement: only fifteen months of his two-year trial period had elapsed, and he intended to use what was left. Balzac returned to his cell in rue Lesdiguierres to begin again.

Those months of toil and wandering might have come to nothing, but Balzac, in his irrepressible style, was able to build on the apprenticeship he had partially completed. While roaming the streets of Paris he had honed his powers of observation and empathy, cultivating a capacity to imagine the lives of others. Well before he wrote the first novels of La Comédie humaine he had concluded that while focusing on society’s leaders, history had neglected the stories of the common people. Drawing on the genius he had always recognised in himself and applying the skills he had acquired, Balzac would later rectify this omission in his sprawling masterpiece encompassing a whole national life: La Comédie humaine. Along the way he would experience the fame and the love, if not the great wealth, that he had longed for in his youth.

Music

Gaël Liardon/ Pierre-Jean de Béranger, ‘Maudit printemps’ (Cursed spring)

‘I miss music’ Balzac wrote to Laure from his little room. He considered music spoke directly to the soul and was the greatest art form. His musical taste developed later in life, his interest aroused by the great composers he met including Chopin, Liszt and Rossini, a fellow gourmet. At the age of twenty-one Balzac had little exposure to music other than the music of the church (which he loved), the quadrilles played by friends or the odd rendition of ‘Le Songe de Rousseau’ which he had himself learned to play on the piano as a boy. He wrote to Laure:

I beg to inform you mademoiselle that I am economising in order to have a piano here; when mother and you will come to see me, you will find one. I have taken the measurements. It will fit by pushing back the walls, and if my landlord doesn’t want to hear of this little expense I shall add the money to the acquisition of the piano, and Le Songe de Rousseau will resound in my garret, where a need for dreams is generally felt.

As with a number of his grand plans, nothing came of this.

I’ve chosen a piece of music based on the poem of a contemporary of Balzac’s, Pierre-Jean de Beranger. Like Balzac he was impoverished and working intensively in Paris at the time. He was a literary hack who loved to write songs of the people which by the early 1820s became hugely successful. In 1822 Berenger was arrested and imprisoned for three months, an experience he compared favourably to his garret. The lyrics are based on one of his poems:

I saw her through my window-pane

       All Winter smiling at her own;

Unknown I loved, was loved again,

       And kisses crossed that both had thrown.

Through the old lime-trees’ branches grey,

       Our sole delight, fond looks to turn;

But now between us leaves will play.

       Why, hateful Spring, wilt thou return?

The music is from the contemporary composer Gaël Liardon. Like all chansonniers, Beranger only wrote the lyrics, and would put his words to the popular folk music of the time. I chose this piece because it is a song of the French people and despite his ebullience, Balzac suffered bouts of intense sadness during his youth and in fact for the rest of his life.

Connection

Balzac influenced generations of writers: Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, the brothers Goncourt, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, even the film maker Francois Truffaut.

As a young man Gustave Flaubert, his successor in modern realism, had once followed Balzac in the street but was too shy to talk to him. American writer James Baldwin said: ‘I’m sure that my life in France would have been very different had I not met Balzac. [He taught me] the way that country and its society works.’ And novelist Doris Lessing claimed that she learned her first lesson about the clitoris from Balzac; in the sense that it was ‘part of the lexicon of love’.

In the summer of 1902, over fifty years after his death, American writer Willa Cather visited Balzac’s tomb. He is buried in Pére Lachaise cemetery, where he walked and dreamed of posterity as a 21 year-old aspiring writer. She found his tomb ‘ugly and deserted’ but Balzac himself:

seems more a living fact than a dead man of letters. He lives in every street and quarter; one sees his people everywhere. The city of grey stone and stucco, interlaced by its clear green river and planted with sycamores and poplars, dominated by Nôtre Dame and the Invalides and the columns of victory, is no more real a thing than the great city of thought which Honoré de Balzac piled and heaped together and left, a ruin of chaotic magnificence, beside the Seine.

Notes

Take those two words, gold and pleasure, for a lantern, and explore the great cage of Paris.

There is probably no better writer to provide an introduction to Paris than through Balzac. Like Dickens, he was a great walker and knew every inch of his city. But so much of what was familiar to him is gone. The house where he lived for those two years at 9 rue Lesdiguieres has been demolished, as has the Theatre de ‘l’Amgiu-Comique that once stood on the boulevard de Temple. Most of the filthy, mysterious parts of Paris that Balzac used to explore were destroyed in the huge urban renewal commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III and carried out in 1853 by Baron Haussmann, a public administrator with no training in architecture or urban planning.

Much of the city we see today was built during this modernisation: its broad, linear streets with uniform facades; roundabouts with radiating tree lined avenues; its parks (inspired by London’s Hyde Park), a modern sewerage system and public transportation. Along the way many Parisians believed (some still do) that Haussmann ripped out the city’s soul. Victoria Sardou mourns the loss of the old Paris in her 1866 play Maison neuve:

Dear child! It is the old Paris that is lost, the real Paris! A city which was narrow, unhealthy, insufficient, but picturesque, varied, charming, full of memories. We had our favourite walks a step or two away, and our favourite sights, all happily grouped together! We had our little outings with our own folk: how nice it was!…Going for a stroll was not something that tired you out, it was a delight. It gave birth to that eminently Parisian compromise between laziness and activity known as flanerie! Nowadays, for the least excursions, there are miles to go! …An eternal sidewalk going on and on forever! A tree, a bench, a kiosk!…A tree, a bench…This is not Athens any longer, it is Babylon! It is not the capital of France, but of Europe!

But not all was lost. Although the Marais stank to high heaven in 1853 and was one of the areas earmarked for demolition, rebuilding efforts were concentrated in the wealthier parts of the city first. By the time it was the turn of the Marais the money had run out. So this area where Balzac’s family lived, with its narrow, medieval streets and historic buildings, provides the best place for a taste of pre-Haussmann Paris. It is where I walked one balmy summer’s evening, with Balzac very much in mind.

Other photographs are of buildings or places Balzac knew that survived destruction: the Palais-Royal, the Place des Vosges and its elegant arcades, Nôtre Dame and the Pére Lachaise cemetery. Many of these photographs have been taken over a number of incredibly pleasurable visits to the city.

Weblinks

Balzac’s work can be read online. The novels that draw heavily on his youth are as follows:

La Peau de Chagrin (The Magic Skin) about his experience as the poor man of rue Lésdiguieres.

The trailer for the film adaptation of La Peau de Chagrin.

Facino Cane, a very short story that touches on Balzac’s life in the garret and his preoccupation with people watching.

Louis Lambert evoking his school years when he discovered books.

Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions) traces the adventures of a writer from the provinces, who having written an historical drama, is introduced to Parisian high society. A high budget film adaptation starring Gerard Depardieu is due for release in 2020.

La Comedie Humaine by Balzac blog was created by the Balzac Yahoo group. It offers a comprehensive guide to La Comédie humaine, with a suggested reading order, a list of characters, discussions, summaries and information about this masterpiece.

Nicholas Lezard reviews a new translation of an introductory collection of novellas and stories  from Balzac’s La Comédie humaine.

The Comédie Française founded in 1680, is the oldest active theatre company in the world. Since 1799 it has been housed at 2 rue de Richelieu, where Balzac knew it, but it was rebuilt in 1900 following a severe fire.

Eugene Atgèt made a comprehensive visual catalogue of Paris between 1898-1924. You can see some of his photographs here.

Further details about the Marais area.

 

Sources:

Balzac, Honoré. Facino Cane/Sarrasine, Hofenberg 2016

Balzac, Honoré. La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Asss Skin), Penguin Classic, 1977

Baricelli, Jean-Pierre. Balzac and Music: Its Place and Meaning in His Life and Work, Routledge, 2017

Burke, David. Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light, Paris Writers Press, 2016

Pritchett, V.S. Balzac, Hogarth Press, 1992.

Robb, Andrew. Balzac: A Biography, Picador, 1994

Sandars, Mary, F. Honoré de Balzac, his life and writings, S. Paul, 1914

White, Edmund. The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, 2015

Wilsher, Kim. ‘Paris’s Galeries des Bois, prototype of the modern shopping centre’, The Guardian, 20 March, 2015

Zweig, Stefan. Balzac, Viking Press, 1946

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  1. Tina on

    I should probably be embarrassed to have known so little of de Balzac till today.. and yet, I’m not. Oh, whats fun this was! Huge servings of marvellousness! Imagine, early 19thC Paris, destiny having provided me with the time and freedom to … “comb through the Latin Quarter looking out for rare or precious books.” … Images too delightful. Once again the musical accompaniment to my wanderings made possible by your indisputable skill as a photographer is perfectly married.

    Reply
  2. Jo Wing on

    He was a complete revelation to me too, Tina. What man! Thanks for your lovely comments. So glad you enjoyed that wander with me.

    Reply
  3. paula tebbs on

    Our library has been closed due to the Covid virus. As soon as it opens I shall order a copy of La Peau de Chagrin (English translation!). Up till reading your blog Balzac had been a name only, accompanied by a vague awareness that he was held in high literary esteem – not only in France – and I knew nought about his connection with my much loved Marais… Your blog is life-enhancing and has already had a strong positive impact on the start of Tuesday, 30th June 2020 in Hoxne!

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      I feel for you not having access to the library. Ours reopened a month ago and I was one of the first through the doors. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about Balzac. He can be a little convoluted but his writing is sublime. And I was delighted to discover his connection with the Marais, much loved by me too. We’re so lucky this place was saved owing to the lack of demolition funds! Learning about these attachment to places has deepened my enjoyment of them and I’m thrilled that comes across. Thank you Paula.

      Reply