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Balzac, Honoré de

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1799-1850) French author whose enormous oeuvre – currently assembled in the Pléïade series in an edition over 20,000 pages long [not listed below] – is like Jules Verne a bibliographer's nightmare. Of his numerous early sensational novels, few translations seem to exist, and his later supernatural fiction appears in very various and chameleon guises. But some titles are of genre interest: Le Centenaire: ou les deux Behringeld (1822 4vols as by Horace de Saint-Aubin; trans George Edgar Slusser as The Centenarian, or The Two Behringelds 1976) [for further details see Checklist below], Melmoth Reconcilé (1835; trans Ellen Marriage in coll The Unknown Masterpiece 1896), a Sequel by Other Hands to Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin. The thirty stories assembled as Contes Drolatiques [for full title see Checklist] (coll 1832-1837 2vols; trans anon as Droll Stories Collected from the Abbeys of Touraine 1874) [further translations exist, not all complete; they are not listed below] include supernatural tales and other grotesqueries, often scatological.

Balzac is of course best known for the immense series of nonfantastic novels in the overall sequence known as La comédie humaine ["The Human Comedy"], which occupied most of his career. Some seemingly anomalous tales have been included in less important subdivisions of the overall structure, including"Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu" (1831 L'Artiste; rev 1831 and subsequently; full trans Anthony Rudolf as Gillette or the Unknown Masterpiece 1988 chap), a concentrated dramatic meditation on the unknowability of the work of art once representation has been dissolved; "Séraphita" (1836; trans anon 1889; new trans Clara Bell 1990), an occult romance; and a supernatural tale, Le Peau de Chagrin: roman philosophique (1831 2vols; trans as Luck and Leather: A Parisian Romance 1842; various vts; new trans Katharine Prescott Wormeley as The Magic Skin 1888), about a magic talisman which grants wishes until it is worn out. In this vast sequence his Proto-SF story, "La recherche de l'absolu" (in Études de moeurs au XIXe siècle, coll 1834; trans as The Philosopher's Stone 1844; vt Balthazar, or Science & Love 1859; vt The Alchemist 1861; vt The Alkahest 1887; vt The Quest of the Absolute 1895; vt The Tragedy of a Genius 1912; new trans Ellen Marriage as The Quest of the Absolute 1989) fits somewhat dissonantly. The protagonist, Balthazar Claes, invests everything into his search for a kind of universal element that lies at the base of all other elements, but fails. [JC]

see also: Money; Scientists.

Honoré de Balzac

born Tours, France: 20 May 1799

died Paris: 18 August 1850

works (selected)

There is no attempt here to exhaustively represent the bibliographical maze of Balzac's oeuvre.


about the author

  • V S Pritchett. Balzac (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973) [nonfiction: hb/]


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