cover image Balzac: A Life

Balzac: A Life

Graham Robb. W. W. Norton & Company, $35 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-393-03679-4

The Balzac we meet in British scholar Robb's extraordinary biography is a mass of contradictions. A ``rational mystic,'' the founder of the modern documentary novel embraced superstitions and scorned science as a glorified form of cataloguing. Chronicler of the urban proletariat, Honore Balzac (1799-1850) snobbishly added the ``de'' to his name, claiming wholly improbable descent from nobility. Defender of the family, he had at least one illegitimate child and many erotic adventures. Just five months before his death, he married Polish countess Eveline Hanska, whom he courted by correspondence for 15 years. We meet Balzac the bankrupt printer-publisher, blaming his ruin on his hated creditor--his mother; the treasure hunter seeking ancient silver mines in Sardinia; the sufferer from temporary insanity and aphasia. Without resorting to psychobiography, Robb elucidates the seething inner life of a titan and gives us a Balzac for our time who seems presciently modern in his attempt to remake reality through his fiction. Unfortunately, the work is only lightly sprinkled with commentary on Balzac's writing. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug.)