Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Balzac, Honoré de

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(1799-1850) French writer who, from about 1835, began to think of his mature work as comprising a vast series, La comédie humaine ["The Human Comedy"]; in the 15 years before his death, almost everything he wrote was fitted into the ever-expanding (and, realistically, never-completable) sequence. Most of his Supernatural Fiction, however, precedes the Comedy, and generally lacks the interconnected, astonishingly complex bustle of the later work. The most successful of these early, usually pseudonymous works – Le Centenaire, ou le deux Behringeld (1822 as by Horace de Saint-Aubin; vt Le Sorcier 1837; trans George Edgar Slusser as The Centenarian, or The Two Behringelds 1976 US) – deals, in terms of demonic temptation (see Demons) and the search for Immortality, with one of HDB's lifelong obsessions: the idea that individuals have a fixed amount of energy, a kind of élan vital bank account which is drawn on until exhausted. Other relevant early work includes: "L'élixir de longue vie" ["The Elixir of Life"] (in Romans et contes philosophiques coll 1830; trans as Don Juan chap US; vt Elixir of Life 1901 US; also in The Unknown Masterpiece, see below) (see Don Juan); "Le recherche de l'absolu" (in Études de moeurs au XIXve siècle coll 1834; trans as The Philosopher's Stone 1844 chap US; vt Balthazar 1859 UK; new trans Ellen Marriage as The Quest of the Absolute 1990 UK); and the novel-length "Séraphita" (in Le Livre mystique coll 1835 with "Louis Lambert"; trans anon in coll Louis Lambert; Séraphita coll 1889 2 vols US; new trans Clara Bell in Séraphita (and Louis Lambert & The Exiles) coll 1989 UK), an occult romance (see Occult Fantasy) about an Angel.

Of much greater interest is La Peau de chagrin (1831; trans as Luck and Leather: A Parisian Romance 1842 US; vt The Wild Ass's Skin 1888; new trans Katharine Prescott Wormeley as The Magic Skin 1888 US), which HDB incorporated into the Comedy, and which, far more than earlier work, exemplifies his presentation of the City as inextricably complex, Gothic, tentacled, fog-ridden, haunting and haunted (see also Urban Fantasy). Suicidally desperate in the coils of Paris, the protagonist of the tale enters a magic Shop. Its owner gives him a present: the skin of a wild ass. When rubbed, this skin will grant him any Wish he might make; however, in strict accordance with HDB's obsession about energy, the skin will shrink each time a wish is fulfilled, and when it finally disappears its owner will die. Cursed by this Pact with the Devil, the protagonist attempts to eke out a life devoid of wishes, so that he can remain among the living. In the end, of course, he fails.

Of almost equal melodramatic impact is "Melmoth réconcilié" (in Études philosophiques coll 1835; trans Ellen Marriage as "Melmoth Reconciled" in The Unknown Masterpiece coll 1896 UK), which continues (see Sequels by Other Hands) Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) – as does, less explicitly, Le Centenaire (noted above). The venal young protagonist of "Melmoth réconcilié" is approached by a strange Englishman who turns out to be Melmoth (see Accursed Wanderer), and who offers to exchange Souls with him; he accepts, gains unhuman powers, despairs, passes on his demonic "gift" to another, and dies. Again, the tale is driven by HDB's obsession with the lifeforce as a substance to be bartered and spent. Other germane work includes: "Massimilla Doni" (in Une fille d'Eve coll 1839; trans in The Human Comedy omnis 1895-1898), made into an Opera in 1935 by Othmar Schoeck; and L'Histoire des Treize (1834-1835; part trans as The Mystery of the Rue Soly 1894 UK). These works take a peripheral place in HDB's overall oeuvre, but can be said to illuminate the shadows of that extraordinarily comprehensive world.

HDB published his titles in various forms, at various dates, in various states of completion, under various titles and overall rubrics; English-language translations, many pirated, are almost equally difficult to trace or ascribe with accuracy. [JC]

Honoré de Balzac


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.