Balzac and the Genre of the Historical Novel - Honore de Balzac

Essays on literary works - 2023

Balzac and the Genre of the Historical Novel
Honore de Balzac

The walls of the attic let the winter cold through. It blows from all cracks. The young man wraps himself in an old shawl that his sister sent him, tucks his cold feet under him, warms his reddened fingers with his breath and writes, writes ... At work, he even forgets that he is hungry, and he is constantly hungry this winter. His parents send him very little money. It was free for him to take up the dubious craft of a writer, abandoning the respectable career of a lawyer!

His father, Bernard François Balzac, a provincial official who got out of the peasantry, laid the foundation of his wealth with commercial scams and, above all, valued the ability to make a career in people. And suddenly his son, twenty-year-old Honore, the first-born and hope of the family, left the bourgeois path. In 1819, after graduating from the School of Law, he unexpectedly told his parents that he did not agree to be either a notary or a lawyer. He will be a writer - and no one else! A scandal erupted in the family. bills, relentless creditors, treacherous competitors. Constant tension of nerves, physical and mental forces. And all to no avail. For two years he tried to survive, to break out and finally suffered a complete collapse. The printing house had to be sold, the unfortunate merchant was left with a debt of several tens of thousands of francs. Balzac is twenty-eight years old. Behind so far are some failures.

Although he suffered a disaster, Balzac is not one of those who hangs his head and gives up the dream of his life. He will start all over again and still become a writer and win "a beautiful woman named Slava!" Taking up the pen again, Balzac decided to try his hand at the genre of the historical novel. But he didn't go back to the distant past. He thought about the events of the last decades in the life of France. The Great Revolution of the late 18th century swept away the centuries-old monarchy and opened a new era. All the forces of the past then took up arms against the young French Republic. Old Europe went to war against it, while inside the country the reactionary Vendée raised its head. Aristocratic emigrants stole back to France, crawled across the frontier, instigated and fanned the peasant uprising in Brittany. Armed people, detachments of people in blue uniforms defended the republic. Balzac chose one of the episodes of the civil war in Brittany as the theme of the novel. The past, about which he was going to write, has not yet cooled down. It smoked, oozed blood, made one think about the future fate of the country.

What did France really come to in the late 20s of the 19th century? The Republic suffocated. The military dictatorship of Napoleon at the beginning of the century led to an empire. A series of wars, a frenzy of victories, the glory of French weapons and then a grandiose catastrophe: the defeat of Napoleon's army in Russia. On the ruins of the empire, with the help of foreign weapons, the Bourbon monarchy was restored. restoration mode. The king is back on the throne. Again the marquises and earls settled in their mansions and estates. But did prosperity settle with them in the country? II Is this restored monarchy bursting at the seams? Marquises and counts bow their titled heads before tax-farmers, usurers. The pursuit of pleasure, the frantic passion for money, are replacing the ancient notions of honor. Debauchery, venality, bribery reign in the ruling spheres and gradually infect the entire country. The rulers of France are stifling free thought. King Charles X, who succeeded in 1827 on the throne his brother, fat, quiet Louis XVIII, hobnobs with the Jesuits. Church agents, spies, scammers dart everywhere.

How unlike this unattractive picture is the realm of Reason and Justice, which the great philosophers of the Enlightenment of the 18th century once dreamed of, for which the soldiers of the revolution fought and died! Discontent and disappointment are growing in the country. The French pick up the bold satirical songs of the poet Beranger. Young noble heads are inflamed by the preaching of Saint-Simon and Fourier. These thinkers denounced in their books a system based on inequality and oppression, they called for the redistribution of wealth, they believed that capitalists could voluntarily give away their surpluses and turn from owners into organizers of production striving for the common good. The atmosphere of discontent and protest, the trends on the eve of the revolution capture Balzac, awaken his thoughts. He is no longer the former lone novice, he has many acquaintances among writers, artists, journalists. He reads all the news, participates in disputes, absorbs new ideas that are in the air.

In the French art of the late 20s, a revolution is also growing. In 1827 the poet Victor Hugo published a preface to the drama Cromwell. It became the manifesto of the progressive literary movement. And Balzac is ready to go into battle with the innovators against the literary conservatives. Now he will no longer languish in the captivity of ready-made schemes. He must speak in his own way, convey the colors of the time he is going to write about, penetrate into the spirit of historical events and give them his own assessment.

He learns from the "Scottish magician" Walter Scott the mastery of historical color. And in order to make this color lively and authentic in the novel, Balzac travels to Brittany, studies the places where the civil war was going on, gets acquainted with the participants and witnesses of the events.