Honoré de Balzac is known for immensity, excess, all-night writing sessions in his monk’s robe sustained by countless cups of coffee, producing more than ninety novels and tales in the space of some twenty years. Rodin’s great, looming sculpture suggests a visionary who wanted to capture the whole of French society of his time, and more: the forces that animated it, the principles that made its wheels spin.
It may seem a paradox, then, to link Balzac’s vast Human Comedy to the adjective “short.” We think of Balzac as long, often too long—descriptions, explanations that correspond to the leisure associated with reading nineteenth-century novels, of a length for evenings without television or smartphones. His novels are often freighted with extended presentations of things and people, and weighty excurses on every imaginable subject. He was one of the first generation of writers to make a living from his work, and the need to generate ever more of it—since he was usually in debt—drove his pen. He produced masterpieces nonetheless, though not of the chiseled, perfect sort sought by Flaubert, for instance. Balzac’s claim lies rather in his capacity to invent, to imagine, to create literally hundreds of characters capable of playing out their dramas with convincing power. He stands as the first true realist in his ambition to see society as an organic system. Oscar Wilde came close to the heart of the matter when he declared: “The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac’s.” Balzac “invents” the new century by being the first writer to represent its emerging urban agglomerations, its nascent capitalist dynamics, its rampant cult of the individual personality. By seeing and dramatizing changes that he mainly deplored, he initiated his readers into understanding the shape of the century. “Balzac’s great glory is that he pretended hardest,” declared his faithful disciple Henry James: In the art of make-believe, Balzac was the master. . . .