Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), author of the many books comprising La Comédie Humaine, lived in this house in Passy for seven years in the 1840s.
He did not own the house, but was the tenant of a five-room apartment at the level of the garden. He once wrote that he enjoyed going out into the garden, “emerging into the Paris sunlight in this carbon dioxide-filled atmosphere, where flowers and books thrive like mushrooms.”
But he seems to have spent most of his time in the house, working. He wrote: “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 over again the next day.”
Of course he did not have a view of the Eiffel Tower, which wasn’t built until half a century later.
Balzac was heavily in debt during this period, so to hide from his creditors he rented under the pseudonym of “Monsieur de Breugnol”, but they sometimes found him anyway. Tradition has it that Balzac made use of the back door on Rue Berton to escape from his creditors when they were knocking at the front door on Rue Raynouard.
Today Rue Berton is best known for the fact that its upper end points directly towards the Eiffel Tower, which is a coincidence since the street was there long before the tower was built. The lower end of Rue Berton is probably one of the narrowest streets in Paris.
Balzac’s house is now a museum which belongs to the City of Paris. Admission is free except when there is a special temporary exhibition. Once or twice a week the curators offer guided tours of the house, and each month they give a talk about one of the hundreds of characters in Balzac’s novels under the title Le personage du mois (The character of the month).
It happened that when I was in Paris in January 2018 their “character of the month” was Vautrin, the ex-convict in Balzac’s novel Le Père Goriot. So I went over to Balzac’s house at the appointed time, at 13h00 (= 1.00 pm) on a Friday, expecting to find a room with twenty or thirty listeners. I was surprised to find, however, that I was the only person who had come to hear the talk, and I was even more surprised when the curator said she would give the talk anyway, just for me.
I told her at the outset that I had never read any of Balzac’s books besides Le Père Goriot, and that my interest had been aroused by the economist Thomas Piketty, whose book Le capital au XXIe siècle includes quotations from Vautrin’s lengthy rant about the 19th century French economy. Apparently she hadn’t read Thomas Piketty (“isn’t he sort of left-wing?”), but she proceeded to give me a cogent introduction to the character of Vautrin, who appears in three of Balzac’s novels.
Among other things, I learned that Vautrin is Balzac’s only homosexual character. I hadn’t realized he was homosexual because Balzac revealed this fact rather obliquely, in ways that apparently were too subtle for me as a foreigner to understand. In the other novels, it turns out that Vautrin speaks fluent Spanish (learned from fellow prisoners in the bagne, I believe) and that he is adept at disguising himself and concealing his identity.
I had already read in Thomas Piketty’s book that Balzac’s Le Père Goriot was “probably the most successful literary expression of the structure of inequality in the society of the nineteenth century, and the central role played by legacy and inheritance.” The protagonist, Rastignac, is a young law student in Paris who “quickly loses his illusions as he discovers the cynicism of a society entirely corrupted by money.”
According to Piketty, the blackest moment of the novel, the moment “where the social and moral alternatives faced by Rastignac are expressed with the most clarity and crudity, is without a doubt the lecture that Vautrin gives him in the middle of the narrative.”
Piketty describes Vautrin as “a troubled being, a smooth talker and a seducer, who conceals his dark past as an escaped convict in the manner of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte-Cristo or Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. But unlike these two, who in the end are positive characters, Vautrin is profoundly evil and cynical. He tries to involve Rastignac in a murder to get their hands on an inheritance.” Before this, Vautrin gives Rastignac a detailed explanation, citing exact amounts of money every step of the way, to prove that affluence in 19th century France can only be achieved by inheritance and never by studies, diplomas, work or merit.
After quoting a lengthy excerpt, Piketty makes this comment: “The most frightening aspect of Vautrin’s speech is the accuracy of his numbers and of the social picture he draws.”
Location, aerial view and photo of Balzac’s house on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2008, 2011 and 2018. I revised the text in 2018.