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Balzac's Life and Literary Legacy

The latest biography of the novelist disentangles myth and reality

Unquestionably one of the greatest novelists of a century distinguished for great novelists, Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) created a vast, encyclopedic fictional edifice purporting to portray all aspects of French society: nearly 100 interlinked novels and stories grouped under the collective heading ``La Comedie Humaine.''

Nowadays, few English-speaking readers are likely to be familiar with more than a handful of the most famous titles: ``La Peau de Chagrin'' (1831), ``Eugenie Grandet'' (1833), ``Le Chef-d'Oeuvre Inconnu'' (1837), ``Illusions Perdues'' (1843), ``La Cousine Bette'' (1846). Nor is it easy to obtain the less well-known works in translation. But one positive side effect of Graham Robb's ``Balzac: A Biography,'' the first full-scale biography in English of the French master in more than half a century, could be the reissue of many more of his works.

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It was with good reason that Andre Maurois, whose biography of Balzac was translated into English in 1965, entitled his book ``Prometheus'' in tribute to his subject's heroic will-power and vibrant creativity. A chubby, amiable, but relentlessly driven man, Balzac had more than a touch of Napoleonic megalomania - and an uncanny ability to contain and create multitudes. Robb draws attention to a passage from an unpublished text in which Balzac describes this sense of multiplicity allied to egomania:

``Yesterday, when I returned home, I saw a countless number of copies of my own person, all jammed up against one another like herrings in a barrel. They sent my face reverberating off towards some magical horizon, just as the light of a lamp placed in the middle of a drawing-room is repeated to infinity between two facing mirrors.''

Balzac's genius won the admiration of writers as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, Henry James, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Oscar Wilde, who proclaimed the death of Balzac's character Lucien de Rubempre ``a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself.''

Beginning in the 19th century with such figures as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, and continuing with George Saintsbury, Lytton Strachey, and D.H. Lawrence, there has also been a considerable body of opinion that judges Balzac to fall just short of the highest artistic rank. Coarseness of sensibility, immaturity, unwholesomeness, and sentimentality are among the charges leveled against him, along with a tendency to oversimplify. Even Balzac's admirers might concede that his immense appetite for life and information was coupled with a certain lack of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic rigor.

But, as Robb reminds us, Balzac practically invented the ``modern'' novel, embracing a literary form that was disdained in his native France - not only for its supposed appeal to the ``vulgar'' reader, but also for its apparent lack of form - and turning it into a medium capable of illuminating every aspect of modern life.

Balzac's own life, in some ways, was almost too full of goings-on. From an early age, he was determined to leave his mark. ``If I'm not a genius, I'm done for,'' he wrote his sister Laure as he scribbled verse upon verse of distinctly bad poetry in hope of rhyming his way to the top. The young man worked as a legal clerk, familiarizing himself with the various lawsuits and bankruptcies that would form a large part of his fiction.

Over the years, he ventured into an amazing array of commercial enterprises, including railway investments, a plan to open a grocery store, a stint of silver-mining in Sardinia, and a scheme to sell life insurance to his readers. He ran up huge bills for clothing and home furnishings, moving from one residence to another to avoid paying creditors. Besides wanting to look the part of a successful author, Balzac seemingly needed to keep himself in debt in order to keep producing the novels and stories that provided his income, Robb suggests. This was a far cry from a later literary generation's motto of ``l'art pour l'art.''

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Balzac had actually written more than a dozen novels when he first got the idea that these - and others to come - could be formed into a grand overarching whole to be know as ``La Comedie Humaine,'' (an allusion to Dante's ``Divina Commedia''). Characters who appeared in one novel began recurring in others, giving the impression of an immense, self-contained world. Balzac's great experiment clearly served as the model for such enterprises as Proust's ``A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,'' Zola's ``Les Rougon-Macquart,'' and Anthony Powell's ``A Dance to the Music of Time.''

Robb, a British scholar specializing in French literature, proves a knowledgeable and judicious guide to Balzac's life and work. Whether he is sorting out the complications of his hero's finances or untangling the even greater complexities of Balzac's love life, Robb demonstrates an impressive ability to distinguish fact from rumor, myth from reality. Balzac's search for the ``ideal woman'' began when, at 23, he fell in love with the 45-year-old mother of some children he was tutoring. It ended with his marriage, only months before his death, to a Polish countess closer to his own age, whom he first ``met'' through a fan letter she wrote him many years before.

In one sense, perhaps, Robb might be said to know his material too well: Although he aims to introduce Balzac to relatively uninitiated readers, he tends to get ahead of himself in narrating his hero's story, referring to events that have not yet happened as though the reader were already acquainted with them. A more leisurely, expansive approach might not only have better suited the needs of readers unfamiliar with Balzac's life, but might also have given this intelligent and sound biography a little more of the storytelling appeal of an authentic Balzacian novel.

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