A visit to La Maison de Balzac in Paris

Today I was on my own in Paris for one of those rare moments when I have no societal identity. I’m not a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee… These stayed behind and let the woman be for once.

I decided to take a literary tour and start with La Maison de Balzac. It’s in the 16th Arrondissement, a wealthy and bourgeois district in the West of Paris. It’s a beautiful day, rather early in the morning, in a residential area in August: it’s deserted and quiet. When I exit the underground at the Métro Station La Muette, the view is typically Parisian with its Métro sign and its building in pale stones with black iron balconies. I walk a little from the Métro to the Maison de Balzac and on my way I come across a triangular building that is so typical from Paris I almost hear it shout “I’m Parisian” when I look at it.

 

 

 

 

Of course the area has much changed since Balzac’s times. The street names remind the wanderer that it was a village back then. For example, la Rue des Vignes indicates there was once a vineyard there. Perhaps the Rue Berton (picture) can help us imagine the old streets.  In Balzac’s street, you have now a stunning view on the Eiffel Tower. Balzac lived in this house from 1840 to 1847. (He died in 1850). It was the ex-Foly of a mansion located on the street. As it is build on a hill, the house where Balzac used to live is below. The mansion has been destroyed but the entrance remains.

 

The house is very modest and Balzac went underground there during seven years: he was bankrupt and he literally hid there from his creditors. The lease was in the name of his governess and the place had two exits to help him escape if needed. He lived there under the name of “M. de Breugnol” and Théophile Gautier was one of the rare persons to know his real address.  

This is where he reviewed La Comédie Humaine and wrote many masterpieces like La Cousine Bette, Splendeur et Misère des courtisanes or La Rabouilleuse. He wrote to Madame Hanska on February 2nd, 1845:“To work means to get up everynight at midnight, work until 8am, have a fifteen minutes breakfast, work again until 5pm, have diner, go to bed and start again on the morrow”. He worked 15 to 18 hours a day, drinking coffee to stay awake. His coffeepot is in the house.

The apartment is composed of five small rooms and today, they show to the public portraits and sculptures of Balzac, his friends and relatives. A room is dedicated to his long-term love with Madame Hanska. I suppose that many of the furniture and objects presented there were saved by Madame Hanska when Balzac died. They had been married for five months and she died in 1882. She was still living in their house and Balzac was already a master in literature.

 

One of the room is Balzac’s tiny office, I could only count six footsteps from one wall to the other. It’s really there that he used to work and his table and chair are under our eyes. It was really moving. It wasn’t just any table or any chair. He was attached to them and took them with him any time he moved in a new place. They’ve been with him all the time. The table is rather small and the edges bear the scars of his quill pen where he used to sharpen it impatiently or in the heat of the moment. He imagined most of La Comédie Humaine in that room. Would he have worked so intensely if he hadn’t been locked there? (1)

In another room are shown the ink pads of the characters from La Comédie Humaine.

The publishers inserted illustrations in their Balzac editions. Some dated back to the first edition by Furne but most of them dated back to the early 20th edition. This room also shows a genealogical tree of Balzacian characers. It’s so complex it’s almost impossible to understand. To think he had everything in his head is amazing.

After the visit, I spend some time in the garden. I sit on a bench in Balzac’s tiny garden to write this review on that pink notebook I carry with me all the time to write anywhere at any time. According to the letters he sent to Madame Hanska, Balzac loved flowers and he used to look at his garden through the window.

 

 

 

 

I wanted to capture the emotion of the moment. The visit was touching, I felt I was paying a tribute to this hard worker of literature. It’s not a cemetery but it was as solemn for me. His writing habits were unhealthy and perhaps led to his untimely death. We owe him that tribute. It was a lovely moment and I hoped I shared it with you.

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 (1) Same question for Proust and his illness that kept him in his room. Sachs says that at the end of his life Proust wasn’t even able to go to the cinema.

  1. August 20, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks for the photo tour! My mental image of Paris is always one of wide boulevards, so it was interesting to see the Rue Breton to get an idea of an older type of city. How wonderful that Balzac’s desk and chair are still there! Often with historic homes you get a reconstruction of how things would have looked, so to have the real thing is marvellous. I can understand why it was moving for you to stand there in the presence of Balzac. Thanks for sharing the experience!

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    • August 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting.
      I liked that this was the desk he cherished enough to move it from house to house.
      I’ve also been to La Maison de Victor Hugo that day and it was a reconstruction. It wasn’t as moving. Amateur Reader wrote a great post about it here

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  2. August 21, 2011 at 4:01 am

    Wonderful to see this. The room with the illustrations is especially amazing to me – what a collection.

    And that coffeepot! What we all owe to that coffeepot!

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    • August 21, 2011 at 8:27 pm

      I could have stayed a lot longer in that room.
      Yes, we owe a lot to this coffeepot …and to the law on bankrupties.

      Like

  3. August 21, 2011 at 6:31 am

    Emma, thank you so much for this: I have posted the link to the Yahoo group that’s reading its way through La Comedie Humaine because I am sure they will be fascinated to see our literary hero’s hideout and his tiny office. I’m sure that as he hid from his creditors he never imagined that in the 21st century we would still be reading and enjoying his work, and that he would be as influential as he is.
    I hope that on my next trip to Paris I will be able to retrace your footsteps, thanks for sharing your day:)

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    • August 21, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      Hello Lisa, thanks for linking my post to the Balzac Yahoo group.
      There were foreign tourists in the house as well when I was there. (Japanese and English.) Among all the things they could see in Paris and despite their probably limited time, they chose to pay a visit to Balzac’s house. It’s a real tribute in our world.

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  4. August 21, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Great post. I remember when I went there first I was suprised it wasn’t grand at all. The rooms are tiny. I liked the location, you really need to want to go there, it’s isn’t a place you would just find like that, it’s quite hidden.
    I agree with Amateur Reader about the coffee pot…I can’t remember having seen it.

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    • August 21, 2011 at 8:35 pm

      I enjoyed walking in the area as well. The Rue Proust isn’t far. I suppose he would have been pleased to have his street near Balzac’s burrow.
      Did you read his letters to Madame Hanska? There are 400 of them (which is less than the 22000 Juliette Drouet wrote to V. Hugo) I’m tempted but it’s two volumes in the collection Bouquin, which means thin paper and huge books.

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  5. August 21, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience, Emma. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Balzac (yet) but I do understand the frisson of walking in the footsteps of a literary great.

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    • August 21, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      He’s a writer you’d probably like. Le Père Goriot is probably one you could start with.

      Like

  6. August 21, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks for the great photos! i came over from the Yahoo Group that Lisa mentioned. What we all wouldn’t give to stand and study that genealogical tree of characters.

    My favorite photo is the one looking down on the entrance. The one of the desk and chair is my second favorite–and the best I’ve ever seen of them.

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    • August 21, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      I knew about your group, I think I saw your comments on Guy’s blog. Actually, I thought about all the people who want to read the entire Comédie Humaine when I saw the tree. Honestly, it must have taken an incredible amount of time to draw that tree.
      I wanted to take one or several picture(s), but it was impossible.

      Like

  7. August 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks Emma: A Balzac is up next so this is a timely and very much appreciated post. The ink pads must have been an amazing sight. Ever since I saw Depardieu in Balzac, I can’t seem to think of Balzac without the image of Depardieu cropping up, so I saw HIM (D) in the chair with quill in hand.

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    • August 21, 2011 at 9:30 pm

      I thought about you and your reading project when I was there. I knew how much you’d enjoy visiting this house. The genealogical tree was even more impressive than the ink pads.
      Did you know that Balzac’s father had the same kind of life than Balzac’s characters? He was of peasant origin and became a bourgeois serving as a sort of civil servant. (I lack the proper vocabulary there, sorry)

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      • August 22, 2011 at 8:20 pm

        No I didn’t know that. I have a couple of Balzac bios on the shelf waiting to be read.

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  8. scamperpb
    August 21, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks for the tour! I’m from the yahoo group, too, and we are nearing the end of a complete read of “The Human Comedy” that has lasted for almost six years. I would love to stand the study that geneological chart. And wouldn’t Balzac be proud (and amazed!) that his living quarters and furniture had been preserved as a memorial!!

    Like

    • August 21, 2011 at 9:36 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting. 6 years ! Wow ! Which one is your favourite? (Tricky question, I know, I know…)

      Like

    • August 22, 2011 at 9:40 am

      Hmm, I knew Balzac didn’t get on with his mother – but in La Comedia Humaine there are quite a few unflattering portraits of ‘the lower orders’ making good and not behaving well. I wonder if he modelled these characters on his father!

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  9. scamperpb
    August 21, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    …I forgot to tell you about the Balzac blog that our yahoo group has created on his works, you might want to check it out at http://balzacbooks.wordpress.com/. We have summaries on most of “The Human Comedy”, all the Saintsbury introductions, links to text, publication chronology, suggested reading order, etc.

    Like

    • August 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm

      Thanks for the link, I’ll have a look at it. What are the Saintsbury introductions?

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      • August 25, 2011 at 4:08 pm

        I think Pamela must have gotten busy, so I’ll answer for her. We both have the same edition in which most of the works were translated by Ellen Marriage circa 1900. We call it the Saintsbury edition since George Saintsbury provided Introductions to the volumes.

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        • August 25, 2011 at 4:16 pm

          Thanks, it’s clearer now. I read Balzac in French and I didn’t know this English edition.

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  10. August 25, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    How we envy you, reading in French!

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    • August 26, 2011 at 6:30 am

      I’m French, so it’s normal. Sure it’s always better to read the original.

      Like

  11. January 22, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Beautiful post, Emma! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your Balzac literary tour. It was nice to see his coffee pot 🙂 That triangular building is so interesting! Looking at Balzac’s desk and chair gave me goosebumps! So jealous of you 🙂 I also liked very much the photo of the illustrations from Balzac’s books. Thanks a lot once again for sharing!

    Like

    • January 22, 2013 at 11:42 pm

      Thanks Vishy, I thought you might like it after mentioning the coffee pot in your post!

      Like

  1. October 29, 2011 at 1:02 am
  2. January 25, 2017 at 10:24 pm

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