Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Honoré de Balzac: His Life and Writings by Mary Frances Sandars

The comic, tragic life of an extravagant genius
Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac: His Life and Writings, first published in 1904, is a biography by Mary Frances Sandars, an English author who penned several books on French history and literature. Here she traces the life story of the great writer who captured French society with such vivid imagination and exquisite detail in his series of over 90 novels and short stories known as the Comédie Humaine. Although I’m a fan of Balzac and wanted to learn more about his life, I was a little reluctant to start Sandars’s biography because of its length and the antiquity of its publication date. Immediately after I began reading it, however, I found the text to be surprisingly lively and engaging. Balzac lived a fascinating life, and Sandars does an admirable job of relating the exploits and personality of this complex genius in a thoroughly entertaining manner.

The inclusion of “and Writings” in the subtitle also had me worried that the book would contain a lot of literary criticism in addition to factual biography. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I didn’t want Sandars to give away the plots of all the Balzac books I haven’t read. Luckily, those fears were unfounded. Sandars only provides the barest general synopses of works in the Comédie Humaine, without dropping any spoilers. The fact is, she doesn’t have room for a lot of lit-crit in this book because Balzac’s life itself was every bit as interesting as one of his elaborate novels.

Balzac’s prolific literary career was a study in self-imposed Herculean labor, but his personal life was marked by continual emotional histrionics and extravagant spending. One could easily write him off as an overgrown child if he wasn’t such a workaholic. Despite his copious productivity, Balzac was constantly in debt and never managed to break even financially up until the day he died. To supplement his income as an author, he comes up with a number of get-rich-quick schemes to achieve financial security, from printing shops to silver mines to pineapple plantations. He initiates several literary journals, which fold after a couple issues; he runs for political office, but never wins; he lobbies for admittance to the Académie Française, but all for nought. Nevertheless, he approaches each new disaster with the comically boundless optimism of a lovable loser. The reader can’t help rooting for the guy through each financial setback and wishing him the best in his turbulent love life. His one true love was Madame Hanska, a married Russian countess, whom he pursued for most of his life even though she was above his station. Though much of Balzac’s life inspires mirth, Sandars’s account does turn tragic in the closing chapters as his brilliant life of creativity and vivacity comes to a pitiful end.

Researchers have no doubt turned up a lot of new information on Balzac over the past century. Graham Robb’s 1994 book Balzac: A Biography, the most recent comprehensive retelling of the author’s life, probably looks under at least a few stones that Sandars left unturned. There is something to be said, however, for the style of biographical writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Biographers in those days approached their writing with the goal of crafting an informative and inspirational narrative of the subject in question, without digging for too much dirt or getting bogged down in a morass of detail. Even though Sandars does her due diligence, her research methods might not stand up to the exhaustive scrutiny of today’s academic literary scholars, but so what? Her book is fun to read, and you do learn a lot about the man and his art. Even if you’re just mildly curious about Balzac’s life, there is much to enjoy in this engaging biography.
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