Honoré de Balzac, A Legacy

The writing desk and chair in Balzac's study.
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.

Horace Walpole To The Letter

In mid-April, I visited Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the former country home of author Horace Walpole, a new section of which has recently been opened to tours after an extensive restoration effort by the Strawberry Hill Trust. Walpole began building the rambling gothic mise-en-scène at the age of 30, purchasing a pair of small houses on a large swath of property along a fashionable section of the River Thames in 1747, which had become a sprawling spired and turret-topped bon-bon of a residence by the time he died in 1797, 50 years after he’d bought it.

The Green Closet at Strawberry Hill
The Green Closet where Horace Walpole wrote many of his letters.

One of my favorite rooms on the tour was the Green Closet, but not because it was the grandest room in the house—it wasn’t by far—it was because the tiny slice of the home was Walpole’s study where he wrote most of his letters, which have gained him as much renown as his fiction has since his death. Walpole was such a firm believer in legacy that he was known to annotate his letters to make them historically complete. He asked his friends to bundle them up from time to time and send them back to him so he could organize them and add anecdotal caveats to them. That is why there is currently four volumes of them between covers—quite an epistolary legacy if I say so myself.

An example of his desire to keep everything buttoned up is a missive he wrote while on his Grand Tour through Italy, which he undertook with the poet Thomas Gray, whom he had met at Eton. Written to his pal Richard West about the then recent discovery of the town of Herculaneum, which had been buried during one of the major eruptions of Vesuvius, his letter of 1740 predated the discovery of Pompeii so he felt compelled to add a footnote years later stating that eight years after he wrote the initial piece of correspondence the most famous Vesuvius carnage was discovered!

Horace Walpole on his grand tour
A portrait of Horace Walpole while on his Grand Tour.

His notoriety as a pen pal led Carrie Frye, writing for Longreads, to call his letters “marvelous little masterpieces: subtle, witty, and dripping with description and gossip and observation. They read like the literary equivalent of a cat curling itself around your ankles, showing off, sure, but glad to see you all the same.” I agree with her and and I highly recommend the entire collection of Horace Walpole’s letters as a serious historic survey of the time in which he lived. And a quick FYI on Gray: the tercentenary of Thomas Gray’s birth is coming up in 2016 so there will be some serious attention to his legacy in the coming months.

Strawberry Hill Library Door
The Library door at Strawberry Hill is on slant to make room for more books!

The other room at Strawberry Hill that knocked me out was the Library (for those of you who know me, there’s likely no surprise there). It was a sumptuous space that must have been a treasure-trove of knowledge when he was alive. Imagine my surprise when I learned that one of the largest collectors of Walpoliana was Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, a Yale graduate who bequeathed his collection to the university. He had amassed more than half of the traceable volumes in the Walpole library before his death. His cache of the books, which numbers 32,000, are housed in the Walpole Lewis Library in Farmington, Connecticut, along with other important artifacts from the Brit’s life and home. You can bet I will be paying the library a visit in the not-too-distant future to get a peek at this fragment of Walpole’s legacy!

Seeing the wall-to-wall shelves in the room at Strawberry Hill brought the question to mind, “How many books is too many?” I’m not sure it’s possible for a writer to go overboard, especially someone intent on bringing literary history into the present in some way. I’ve been in relationships with non-writers who don’t agree but I’m betting those of you who share my passion for the written word understand this point of view.

Text of Horace Walpole to the Letter © 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.