Balzac's Paris

Balzac's Paris:The City as Human Comedy

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Exploring Paris arm in arm with Balzac, nineteenth-century France’s most famous novelist and observer

In Balzac’s vast Human Comedy, a body of ninety-one completed novels and stories, he endeavoured to create a complete picture of contemporary French society and manners. Within this work is a loving ode to Paris and an incomparable introduction to the first capital of the modern world.

To this ageless city he makes a declaration of love in an accumulation of finely observed detail – the cafés, landmarks, avenues, parks – and captures the populace in countless meticulously drawn portraits: its lawyers, grisettes, journalists, concierges, usurers, salesmen, speculators.

Balzac gathered the elements of this Paris by sauntering through it. ‘To saunter is a science,’ he writes, ‘it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; to saunter is to live.’ Eric Hazan follows in Balzac’s footsteps, criss-crossing the city in the novelist’s outsize boots, running between printers, publishers, coffee merchants, mistresses and friends, stopping for a moment, struck by a detail that would be fixed in Balzac’s photographic memory.

More than a tour of the city, Balzac’s Paris is an attempt to measure the soul of a city as recovered in its finest literature.

Reviews

  • Amid the intellectual murkiness of the European scene, a few bright flames are burning: as witness the work of Eric Hazan.

    New Left Review
  • Hazan's scrupulous readings of Balzac bring 19th-century Paris to life, shedding light on the social friction between old money and the nouveau riche that shaped the city in the wake of the 1830 July Revolution. It's an enchanting literary love letter to the City of Lights.

    Publishers Weekly
  • Eric Hazan's delightful cultural history Balzac's Paris: The City as Human Comedy, ably translated from the French by David Fernbach, traces the roughly 35 years that Balzac spent living and working in the City of Light.

    Tobias GreyAir Mail