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.
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 Robb draws attention to a passage from an unpublished text in which Balzac describes this sense of multiplicity allied to egomania: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 …