FRANCE

Paris

House Where Balzac Hid From Creditors Still Hard to Find

The desk Balzac wrote at in his house in Passy

The desk where French novelist Honoré de Balzac wrote, next to a marble bust of the author. The author lived in this hard-to-find house at 47 rue Raynouard in Paris for several years while avoiding creditors. It is now the Maison de Balzac museum.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE HOUSE THAT novelist Honoré de Balzac rented to avoid his creditors is still hard to find, even knowing the address: 47 rue Raynouard. A 10-minute walk west from the Passy Métro station brings you to a gap in the street frontage—a long iron fence where Balzac’s bolt-hole ought to be.

Closer examination reveals a gate at one end, leading down 30 steps to a cream-walled, green-shuttered building with a small garden leading off it. This was once the annex of a larger home, long gone, and is now the Maison de Balzac, a modest museum dedicated to Balzac (1799-1850) and his amazing literary output (about 90 novels and novellas, plus poems, plays, essays and journalism).

Balzac stayed here from late 1840 to early 1848, when Passy wasn’t just the name of a Métro stop in the 16th arrondissement but a village distinct from Paris. Its remoteness was part of its charm for the always-indebted Balzac. It also had a lower-level exit, a postern gate to be used if creditors came knocking at the front door.

At one point, Balzac described living “in my hole in Passy, like a rat.” The seclusion helped make his literary output abundant, even by his standards. In a letter he said that his schedule was to arise at midnight, write until 8 a.m., take 15 minutes to eat, then work until 5 p.m., eat, sleep, “et recommencer le lendemain.” Among the works he completed at Passy was the still-read novel Cousine Bette and the long-forgotten play Les Resources de Quinolla, about a clever man whose plans and ambitions are scuttled by the small-minded, especially creditors.

Balzac had plenty of plans and ambitions, from owning silver mines in Sardinia to La Comédie humaine, the overarching title he saw all his novels falling under. Many of those novels dealt with the birth of capitalism, “of which Balzac surely would like to have taken greater advantage,” says the museum’s indispensible English-language audio guide.

In the author’s day the Passy house would have been filled with the antiques he passionately collected, despite his parlous financial state. Today it’s largely bare, but has two of his most significant possessions. In Room 3, his study, is the small desk he worked at, which travelled with him from one domicile to the next. “My arm has almost worn it out,” he said, “from rubbing on it as I wrote.”

In Room 4 is his coffee pot. Balzac was famous for the amount of coffee he drank. (“The need to write is very pressing,” he told a correspondent. “I will make some more coffee.”) The surprise is how tiny the white-with-oxblood-trim ceramic pot is. He must have brewed it very strong.

Balzac is considered the father of realism in the novel. In his own time admirers included Victor Hugo and Johann von Goethe. Later writers to sing his praises ranged from Oscar Wilde to Karl Marx. The coffee that fuelled him also helped kill him. He ruined his stomach, suffered strokes and died of heart disease at 51.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Maison de Balzac museum, and on Paris, visit the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau website at http://en.parisinfo.com.