Excusing himself for not undertaking to write a life of Balzac, Monsieur Brunetiere, in his study of the novelist published shortly before his death, refused somewhat disdainfully to admit that acquaintance with a celebrated man’s biography has necessarily any value. “What do we know of the life of Shakespeare?” he says, “and of the circumstances in which Hamlet or Othello was produced? If these circumstances were better known to us, is it to be believed and will it be seriously asserted that our admiration for one or the other play would be augmented?” In penning this quirk, the eminent critic would seem to have wilfully overlooked the fact that a writer’s life may have much or may have little to do with his works. In the case of Shakespeare it was comparatively little — and yet we should be glad to learn more of this little. In the case of Balzac it was much. His novels are literally his life; and his life is quite as full as his books of all that makes the good novel at once profitable and agreeable to read. It is not too much to affirm that any one who is acquainted with what is known to-day of the strangely chequered career of the author of the Comedie Humaine is in a better position to understand and appreciate the different parts which constitute it. Moreover, the steady rise of Balzac’s reputation, during the last fifty years, has been in some degree owing to the various patient investigators who have gathered information about him whom Taine pronounced to be, with Shakespeare and Saint-Simon, the greatest storehouse of documents we possess concerning human nature.
The following chapters are an attempt to put this information into sequence and shape, and to insert such notice of the novels as their relative importance requires. The author wishes here to thank certain French publishers who have facilitated his task by placing books for reference at his disposal, Messrs. Calmann-Levy, Armand Colin, and Hetzel, in particular, and also the Curator of the Musee Balzac, Monsieur de Royaumont who has rendered him service on several occasions.
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