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The 19th-century author Honoré de Balzac chronicled Parisian life in extraordinary detail, bringing a vast array of characters from every section of society to life through his elegant prose. He also fascinated the public because of his eccentric working habits, his tendency to get into debt despite being a best-selling author and – not unconnected! – his legendary flamboyance. The house where he lived between 1840 and 1847, La Maison de Balzac, is a recently renovated museum at 46, Rue Raynouard in Passy, a chic district in the 16th arrondissement, across the river and a little southwest of the Eiffel Tower.
The highlight of the visit is the study where he spent his most prolific years. The dark red wallpaper, the bookcase containing some of his collection of 5000 books and, especially, his writing desk all contribute to the writerly feel. Imagine him settling down at one o’clock in the morning, preparing to spend all night writing and revising one of the 90 novels which make up the all-encompassing view of 19th-century Parisian society known as La Comédie Humaine. In this context, Comédie translates best as “drama” and the 2,400 characters he created seemed to represent everyone: the rich and the struggling, lovers, scoundrels, lawyers, young provincials trying to make their way in the capital, controlling parents and ungrateful offspring. It was here, in the room the guidebook describes as “le refuge de Balzac,” that he teased them all into life and described the dramas between them.
His writing desk, bought when he was dreaming of becoming a well-known author, was his most precious possession. Imagine it, advises the museum’s website description, “with its inkwell, sheets of paper, candlestick and coffee pot” and picture Balzac settling down for a night of writing with his goose-quill pen. His cafetière was very important, sitting on his desk atop a little warming stove and in constant use. He is said to have drunk up to 50 cups a day, and wrote frequently about how it stimulated his brain: “Coffee descends into the stomach ….. ideas begin to move, things remembered arrive at full gallop …. similes arise, the paper is covered with ink.” Balzac exchanged a whole series of letters with the manufacturer of this elegant little porcelain pot, and he agreed to pay extra for the three firings which would be needed to get the exact color he desired!
Balzac’s eccentricity and spendthrift ways are well illustrated in one of the museum’s best-known exhibits, his luxurious gold-topped walking cane, embellished with tassels and inlaid with turquoise. Bought – on credit! – in 1834, it was such a talking point that a novelist friend of his, Delphine de Girardin, published a story about it called La Canne de Monsieur Balzac. It’s a fantasy story, imagining that the stick renders its owner invisible and thus able to observe others secretly, seeming to explain how the author was able to write so convincingly about other people and their motives. Balzac’s embroidered braces are another memorable exhibit in the museum and he is on record as saying that one of his aims in life was to possess 365 different waistcoats, one for each day of the year. In one of his novels, Eugénie Grandet, when the foppish Charles Grandet arrives from Paris at his miserly uncle’s country home, the family is astounded by his collection of waistcoats: “some were shot with gold, some spangled, …. some were double-breasted and crossed like a shawl, …. some had turned-over collars, some buttoned up to the top with gilt buttons.” Surely the author was describing some of his own favorite garments and giving us an insight into his tastes.
Balzac cut quite a dash around Paris, frequenting literary salons and touring the restaurants and bookshops around the Palais Royal. He was extremely conscious of social rank and, born Honoré Balzac, he added the “de” to his name to make it sound more aristocratic. He also adopted the coat of arms of an ancient noble family with which he had no connection! Like some of the characters in his books, he conducted a series of love affairs with fashionable or aristocratic women, but these ways led to trouble and he began to amass huge debts, despite his high income. In 1828 he was narrowly saved from bankruptcy, but this did not slow his chronic spending. He wrote of the long hours he spent working that “I will have to live like this for some months in order not to be snowed under by my debts.” In fact, he never did write his way out of debt, and he used the little-known back door of this house to leave hurriedly when creditors called. Nonetheless, he was still held in high esteem because of his talent and almost every writer in Paris attended his funeral, at which the pall-bearers included Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.
Inside – entry is free – you can visit several rooms and enjoy a whole range of exhibits which illustrate the author’s life and works: manuscripts, engravings, portraits, several busts, including one by Rodin, a bronze cast of his hand, and displays about his novels, which introduce some of the huge range of characters he invented. There is a library and the museum also arranges a program of lectures and concerts, recordings of which are available for you to watch.
The museum’s stated aim is to create “a peaceful haven,” where visitors will get to know Balzac better and, above all, discover the wonderful literary universe which he created. Standing at his desk, inspecting some of his scribbled-over manuscripts, studying displays about his characters and reading the quotations painted on the walls all help you glimpse the talent which created some of French literature’s best-known works.
The novels of Honoré de Balzac, Dickensian in scope, bring us the whole gamut of human experience and an excursion to the house where he wrote them is a worthy addition to any Paris itinerary.
Balzac by Graham Robb
Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
(This is one of the best-known novels from the Comédie Humaine series, available in English as Old Goriot.)
Listen to the 19th episode of the City Breaks Paris Podcast.
(This episode, called “Two Literary Houses,” features the Paris museums dedicated to Balzac and to Victor Hugo.)
Lead photo credit : Maison de Balzac, rue Raynouard (Paris, 16e). (C) Polymagou, CC BY-SA 4.0