Honoré de Balzac, A Legacy

The door to Honore de Balzac's study in Paris.
The door to Honore de Balzac’s study.

I stood to the side as the others on the tour filed into the study of La Maison de Balzac, the museum dedicated to the famous French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac. His petite writing table and roomy upholstered chair were placed in the center of the intimately-scaled room where the writer spent hours creating his novels, plays and stories, nearly 100 of which make up his well-known La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) alone.

The author retreated to the tiny home that now houses the museum, which was originally an outbuilding for a larger residence (or a folly as the museum dubs it), to escape creditors during a financial low point in his life, living in the one-story dwelling between 1840 and 1847. “Working means getting up at midnight every evening, writing until eight o’clock, having lunch in a quarter of an hour, working till five o’clock, having dinner, going to bed, and starting all over again the next day,” Balzac wrote. The writing table, which remains exactly where he had placed it, is where he proofread his work, including the entire La Comedie. He said the desk served as “the witness of my worries, my miseries, my distress, my joys, everything. My arm has almost worn it out with rubbing as I write.”

The writing desk and chair in Balzac's study.
If these walls could talk! The writing desk and chair in Balzac’s study.

As I stood trying to imagine the mammoth creative energy that must have been unleashed in that room, the thing that struck me the most? How I could see where the tabletop had been worn down to the point that it had a significant indention in it, one that corresponded with the spot where the writer had repeatedly run his arms over the wood as he drew wildly flailing lines to the margins of the pages he edited and scribbled in the updated text—all visible on the edited pages on display.

I as in awe of the tiny table with its sturdy turned legs because it had acted as the foundation of such great literary works, and knew I was witnessing a place where the rubber met the road for a writer I respected. It is a memory I will treasure forever because it made me burn to get back to my desk and begin putting words on a page or a screen as fast as my fingers would fly across the keyboard or scribble with my pens. I’m wondering if other writers have this type of experience when visiting the studies of famous authors they appreciate.

Left Bank location of Shakespeare & Co
The Paris location of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore.

When I left the museum, I headed straight for Shakespeare and Company, one of my favorite bookstores in Paris, and bought a copy of his three short novels collected in the History of the Thirteen. I read the book while café hopping on the Left Bank, just as the Lost Generation had done decades before me.

Desk and chair in Balzac's study
The desk and chair where magic happened!

In Balzac’s novella “The Girl with the Golden Eyes,” I could see how the thread of autobiography was woven through the storyline given his money troubles: “Love is reduced to desire, hate to a whimsy. The only family link is with the thousand-franc note, one’s only friend is the pawnbroker.” I could also feel how his inescapable French point of view permeated the story: “This general attitude of devil-may-care bears its fruit: in the salon as in the street no one is de trap, no one is absolutely indispensable or absolutely noxious, be he knave or blockhead, intelligent man or honest citizen.”

Balzac’s use of the character to vent makes me wonder whether I do this in my poetry. He has inspired me to look more closely as I craft new poems in the future so see if it is even possible for a writer to stay out of his or her own way. I wonder if it’s inevitable that we all emote in our writing whether we intend to or not…definitely food for thought.

If you find yourself in Paris and you want to visit La Maison de Balzac, the museum is located at 47, rue Raynouard. The Metro stop is La Muette on line 9 of the Paris Métro. Happy literary adventuring!

Text of Honore de Balzac, A Legacy © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. Saxon is also the co-founder of Sharktooth Press.