Today: a love story.
You may remember back a couple of days when I wrote about The Music Man. My favorite part in the movie is when Marian’s mother asks what the gentleman wanted and Marian replies, “You’ll find it in Balzac.” I must have been seven years old when I heard that line and I knew I had to find out about this Balzac character. Her mother then later mentioned that, “She never read it.” That’s funny because Honore de Balzac, who was born on this day in 1799, wrote 91 essays, novels, and short stories, in addiction to 46 unfinished works all collectively known La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy). Balzac was not at all a smutty writer, but he is pretty much the first realist writer—he wrote of the world (post-Bonaparte France) as it was. He was a huge and direct influence on Dickens, but there are few great writers who followed him who were not, most notably Henry James.
In 1931, Balzac published La Peau de chagrin (The Magic Skin) about a poor and lonely man who gets a magic bit of rawhide that will grant all his desires. But with each desire, the rawhide shrinks and takes part of the man’s vitality. This isn’t like a the genii in a bottle where you make a wish, he finds that he can’t control it. The book ends with the hero wanting to die in the arms of the woman he loves while she runs from him, trying to kill herself in order to save his life. Of course, just as with The Monkey’s Paw (published 70 years later), the rawhide will not be denied and the two consummate their love before he dies in her arms.
The following year, Balzac got an anonymous letter without a return address. It criticizes the novel for its cynicism and its negative portrayal of women. Balzac was so impressed with the letter that he placed a classified ad in the Gazette de France. Soon he found that the letter came from Ewelina Hanska. She was in a marriage of convenience to a nobleman and landlord, so the two could not run off together. For 15 years they corresponded, until Hanska’s husband died in 1941. Thus began a nine year courtship. (Apparently, Franz Liszt was also trying to win her favor.)
The two finally married on 14 March 1850. But by then, Balzac’s health was failing and he died six months later—kind of like in the novel. Still, it is sweet that the two managed to get together. And they had been friends for almost 25 years.
Happy birthday Honore de Balzac!