The Paris Review

Balzac and the Reassembly of France

Louis Boulanger, Balzac, 1836.

In the 1820s, when Honoré de Balzac decided to become a writer, the novel was a minor literary genre in France. Like Voltaire, educated French people preferred poetry and grand tragedy, wherein virtue, truth, enthusiasm, and hope marched solemnly across the page. As a result, contemporary French novelists were almost ashamed of their prose. Many published under pseudonyms—the men because their tone tended to be light, schoolboyish, and edgily anticlerical; the women because they knew to expect prim, frowning disapproval if they openly wrote for publication.

Then the sentimental novel began to win popularity. Writers such as Adelaïde de Souza, Sophie Cottin, Germaine de Staël, Madame de Genlis, and Madame von Krüdener gravitated toward Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1761 , enriching its approach to prose with fresh narrative procedures that realist novelists would later adopt. With remarkable precision, these authors analyzed contemporary dilemmas regarding, for instance, the postrevolutionary longing for individual freedom and and (individual morality and the collective ethic, respectively).

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