Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)
Honoré de Balzac was a prolific French novelist and playwright. He wrote eighty-five novels in the space of twenty years and made innumerable corrections and revisions in the proof sheets of each. His magnum opus was a sequence of short stories and novels collectively entitled La Comedie Humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1819, having abandoned former plans to take up the law, he announced his intention to live in Paris as a writer. According to English critic George Saintsbury, an authority on the history of French literature, Honoré de Balzac was living at this time in a garret furnished in the most Spartan fashion, with a starvation allowance and an old woman to look after him.
He made decent money from his literature but was extraordinarily extravagant, a chronic spender who was hounded by creditors all of his adult life.He often used false names and frequently changed his lodgings in an attempt to hide from them. He never succeeded in divesting himself of debt and it was largely for this reason that he wrote so much.
Balzac’s work habits are legendary. He did not work quickly, but toiled with an incredible focus and dedication. He drove himself relentlessly as a writer. This is his own description, written in March 1833, of a punishing work schedule:
I go to bed at six or seven in the evening, like the chickens; I’m waked at one o’clock in the morning, and I work until eight; at eight I sleep again for an hour and a half; then I take a little something, a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until four. I receive guests, I take a bath, and I go out, and after dinner I go to bed. I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.
” The days melt in my hands like ice in the sun … I’m not living, I’m wearing myself out in a horrible fashion – but whether I die of work or something else, it’s all the same … I am driven by the terrible demon of work, seeking words out of the silence, ideas out of the night. “
He often dressed in Moroccan slippers and a white monkish robe with a belt of Venetian gold from which hung a pair of scissors and a golden penknife.
His consumption of strong black coffee was every bit as remarkable as his gruelling work schedule. It is said that his intake was anything from 50 to 300 cups a day. It is also highly probable that he died of health problems related to caffeine poisoning. He most certainly found it an absolute necessity for his creativity …
“Coffee falls into the stomach … ideas begin to move, things remembered arrive at full gallop … the shafts of wit start up like sharp-shooters, similes arise, the paper is covered with ink… ”