Of the many Parisian residences inhabited by the great French writer Honoré de Balzac, only one remains and can still be visited today.
I mentioned his last home on Fortunée street (now Balzac street, in the 8th district of Paris) here, so now here is his penultimate home, Raynouard street, in the 16th district.
This house, clinging to the hill of Passy, is arranged on three levels: the lower level opens onto the little Berton street which in the 18th century marked the limit between the villages of Auteuil and Passy (villages which will be incorporated into Paris only in 1860 during the Haussmann works) while the upper level opens onto Raynouard street.
The choice of this house by Balzac is quite significant: the two entrances located in two different streets of a house exactly on the border between Paris and Passy allow him to flee his creditors, whom he knows to be numerous. He also rents the upper level of the building under an assumed name, “Madame de Breugnol” (inspired, except for one letter and one particle, by the name of Madame Breugniol who serves him as her governess. Madame Hanska, the future wife of Balzac, courted epistolarily and episodically for 18 years, will be so jealous of Madame Breugniol that she will obtain his dismissal by Balzac in 1845).
Well, let’s be honest, Balzac often moved. The “Maison des Jardies” succeeded the apartment in Cassini street (rented at the same time as the one located on Batailles street, which has since become Iéna avenue), which itself succeeded the apartment on Visconti street. Balzac’s lifestyle has always been expensive and the crippling debt quite perpetual – in fact, Balzac flees the bailiffs and the National Guard permanently.
He remains on Raynouard street from 1840 to 1847, with five rooms on the upper level, on Raynouard street. A password is required to enter the home of the great writer who works there tirelessly from midnight to 6 p.m., gorging himself on coffee. “Splendours and miseries of courtesans”, “Cousin Bette” and “Cousin Pons” will be written, among other things, in the modest house of Passy by the pope of realism. His work, “The Human Comedy”, an ongoing series of novels in which he offers a complete picture of contemporary society, will inspire another writer – Emile Zola, who will write the “Rougon-Macquart” cycle.
As a high school student, I suffered a lot on “Father Goriot” whose endless descriptions tired my impatience. It must however be admitted – more than 30 years later – that “The Human Comedy” deserves to be read and read again. Balzac, like Hugo, like Zola, like Dumas (to name but a few) deserve an adult, patient readership – who has lived a little. I hated “Father Goriot” at 16, but now I can only be touched by the character of Goriot, the archetype of paternal sacrifice. Today I am more sensitive to a Vautrin – complex in his wills and his affections – than to a Rastignac, still green in his poor and ultimately flat ambitions.
Let’s go back to this museum, “Balzac’s House”. It is utterly charming. It is easy to imagine the larger-than-life writer who reminds me of another (Alexandre Dumas not to name him) wandering between the kitchen and his study, his busy mind full of the fate to be reserved for a Nucinger, a Vautrin, a Rastignac, an Esther.
The garden, although small, is so peaceful that Parisians come here to enjoy the sun for hours. Of the bailiffs and the National Guard, nothing remains. Only remains the tranquillity of the place, haunted by this overcaffeinated writer with a head full of 2,500 paper characters.
May 8, 2022