After seven bombs published under fanciful pseudonyms, Honoré de Balzac finally hit it big with his novel Les Chouans in 1829. He was thirty years old. It was first time he signed his name to one of his works. But by this time he was already deeply in debt, due to the collapse of his printing company a year earlier. A race between two driven Balzacs was on. One was the brilliant, dynamic, prolific, phenomenally imaginative best-selling author, the other the quixotic business man. He plunged into such off-the-wall schemes as a pineapple plantation in the Paris suburb of Sèvres and an abandoned Roman Empire silver mine in Sardinia and poured his royalties into two newspapers he created, all total flops. Ironically, of all the novelists of his day Balzac was the one who wrote the most perceptively about the role of money in the lives of his characters, while his own finances were an unending disaster. By the end of the 1830s the demands of his creditors were insufferable. So he went into hiding.
In November 1840 Balzac rented what he called a “provisional shelter,” a discreet little house with a garden he enjoyed in the then-rural village of Passy outside Paris. He ended up staying for more than six years. He rented it under name of his housekeeper Mme Brugiol, deliberately misspelled as “M de Breugnol.” To get in, a caller had to provide two passwords: “I am bringing lace from Bruges” and “the plum season has arrived.” One feature of the house Balzac especially appreciated was that it opened onto on two different streets. It fronts on the Rue Raynouard and backs onto an alleyway, two levels down. He had an escape hatch cut into the floor of the parlor (unfortunately now covered over) so he could quickly escape creditors who came to the front door. He’d then be able to slip down to the basement, out the back door to the Rue Berton alley, and make his getaway.
Now a museum, the Maison de Balzac, is rich in evidence of his life and his work, most importantly his meticulously restored study, where he spent the better part of his nights and days. From his remarkably tiny writing table came staggering amounts of manuscript. Writing for a minimum of twelve hours a day, as was his habit, he corrected the whole of the Comédie Humaine for its collected edition and wrote more than twenty other books. The pace turned all the more feverish in 1842 when he opened a letter from his mistress the Countess Eveline Hanska in Russia and learned that her husband had died. Hoping all the more to pay down his debts to have a reasonably clean slate should they be able to marry, he went into overdrive, working up to sixteen hours a day. “My arm has almost worn itself out from moving it around as I write,” he wrote to her. Among Balzac’s most popular novels written here were the last volume of Lost Illusions, Cousin Bette, and the last one he would write, Cousin Pons.
On display is Balzac’s famous coffee pot, the source of the twenty or so cups he drank every day to keep up his furious pace of work -- undoubtedly a factor for his early death, at fifty-one, three years after leaving this house.
In the parlor we see oil portraits of Balzac’s father and mother and other key people in his life, most notably the Countess Hanska, his lover and eventual wife. And there are images galore of Balzac himself, from satiric cartoons of the day to all sorts of respectful sculptures, from David d’Angers’s marble bust, done from life in 1844, and Allesandro Puttini’s 1837 marble portrait of him in the famous monk’s cowl he wore when he wrote, to a number of later clay sculptures by such artists as Auguste Rodin, a huge fan of Balzac’s work.
To me, the most original display is of the marvelous woodblock printing plates illustrating characters and scenes from the Comédie Humaine, etched during Balzac’s lifetime and shortly after his death. They offer vivid portraits of a few hundred or so of the more than six thousand characters the dynamo of French fiction brought to life.
As Baudelaire put it:
“From the summit of the aristocracy to the lower depths of the plebian, all the actors of his Comédie are more greedy for life, more active and cunning in the struggle, more patient in misfortune, more gluttonous in pleasure, more angelic in devotion, than the comedy of the real word shows them. In short, in Balzac, even the door-keepers have genius. All his souls are loaded to the muzzle with will. Just like Balzac himself. "
Maison de Balzac
47 Rue Raynouard, 75016 Paris.
Metro: Passy or La Muette.
Open every day except Monday from 10am to 6pm.
David Burke is the author of Writers in Paris, Literary Lives in the City of Light, and the personal tour guide of David Burke’s Writers in Paris Walks. To learn about the book and the walks and the writer go to www.writersinparis.com. David is also a documentary filmmaker and former 60 MINUTES writer/producer who came to Paris for what he thought would be a year, but turned into more twenty. He now divides his time between Paris and New York.
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I am happy to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes. Come take an ethnic culinary journey with me and chef and caterer Charlotte Puckette, co-author of the bestseller The Ethnic Paris Cookbook (with Olivia Kiang-Snaije). First we will shop at a Paris green-market for the freshest ingredients and then return to Charlotteís professional kitchen near the Eiffel Tower to cook a three-course lunch. After, we will indulge in the delicious feast we prepared along with hand-selected wines.
Cost: 185 euros per person (about $240)
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