Honoré de Balzac by Théophile Gautier

When I saw him for the first time, Balzac, one year older than the century, was around thirty-six, and his face was one of those that one would never forget. In his presence, one is reminded of Shakespeare’s lines about Julius Caesar: “Before him, nature stands up boldly and says to the world, ‘This is a man!'”

My  heart beat strongly because never had I approached without trembling a master of thought, and all the speeches I had prepared on the way stayed in my throat, allowing nothing to pass other than a stupid phrase like this: “The temperature is nice today.” Heinrich Heine, when he went to visit Goethe, could find nothing to say except that the plums that have fallen from the trees on the route from Iéna to Weimar are excellent for thirst, which made the Jupiter of German poetry laugh gently. Balzac, seeing  my embarrassment, soon put me at my ease, and during breakfast I became calm enough to examine him in detail.

He wore, in the form of a dressing gown, a robe of white cashmere or flannel held at the waist by a cord, in which, some time later, he was painted by Louis Boulanger. What whim had pushed him to choose, ahead of any other, this costume that he never took off? Could it be that it symbolized in his eyes the cloistered life to which his labors condemned him, and, Benedictine of the novel, he had thus taken the robe? This robe always suited him marvelously. He boasted, showing me the intact sleeves, to have never sullied its purity with the least stain of ink, “because,” he said, “the true writer should always be neat while at his work.”

 

Read David Desmond’s translation free from Project Gutenberg.

Anka Muhlstein on Food, Balzac and Flaubert

Vauquer Boarding House

BalzacsOmeletteSentimentalEduWhen he is invited to dinner at Arnoux’s house, Frédéric, the hero of A Sentimental Education, “had to choose between ten mustards. He ate daspachio, curry, ginger, blackbirds from Corsica, lasagna from Rome.” Arnoux, a porcelain manufacturer, is not in possession of a great fortune but prides himself on being a good host. He “cultivated all the mail coach drivers to secure foodstuffs, and had connections with cooks in grand houses, who gave him recipes for sauces.” Like many Parisians, he has no hesitation in spending a great deal of money both at home and in restaurants. The tyranny of the palate has never been described; as a necessity of life it escapes the criticism of literature; yet no one imagines how many have been ruined by the table. The luxury of the table is indeed, in a sense, the courtesan’s one competitor in Paris,” says Balzac in Cousin…

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Sphinx, Anyone?

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In Balzac’s Omelette, Anka Muhlstein writes that even though restaurants were flourishing in Paris during Balzac’s time, that was not the case outside of Paris. She relates an incident at Saint-Cloud.

 

 

 

One day when Balzac and Gozlan were visiting the area, they had a sudden craving for food and stopped at an inn. They were served with mutton cutlets and a golden mountain of smelts. But they were still hungry. Sadly, no leg of lamb, no chicken fricassee, no veal fricandeau. “And do you have any sphinx?” Goslan asked the astonished waiter, who went down to the kitchen to inquire. “Sphinx? Did you really ask for Sphinx?” Balzac asked his companion. “Well, yes,” he replied, “if you want a Paris déjeuner in a Saint-Cloud eatery, you might as well ask for a sphinx.” The waiter came back up and announced that he was sorry but there was no sphinx left.

 

Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

Balzac’s Omelette:
A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac
by Anka Muhlstein

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There are two grand themes in Balzac’s oeuvre, one is money — and most particularly debt — and the other is food. Of this second theme, Anka Muhlstein does full justice with her book Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac. Even though I have read over 95% of Balzac’s work in a Yahoo! Group dedicated to him, I am still amazed by Ms. Muhlstein’s marshaling of a mass of information into a coherent, and I might even say tasty, whole.

There is, for example, this gem from Cousin Pons, one of my favorite novels by the master:

One of the keenest pleasures of Pons’ old life, one of the joys of the dinner-table parasite, was the “surprise,” the thrill produced by the extra dainty dish added triumphantly to the bill of fare by the mistress of a bourgeois house, to give a festive air to a dinner. Pons’ stomach hankered after that gastronomical satisfaction…. Dinner proceeded without le plat couvert, as our grandsires called it…. Pons had too much delicacy to grumble; but if the case of unappreciated genius is hard, it goes harder still with the stomach whose claims are ignored.

As M. de Mortsauf says in The Lily of the Valley, “all our emotions converge on the gastric centres.”

Curiously, despite its highly focused subject, I think Balzac’s Omelette is not only an excellent introduction to the work of Balzac in general, but also to Dumas, Zola, Flaubert, de Maupassant, and other French novelists of the 19th century.

Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

“Tell me where you eat, what you eat, and at what time you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” This is the motto of Anka Muhlstein’s erudite and witty book about the ways food and the art of the table feature in Honoré de Balzac’s The Human Comedy.

 

Balzac’s Omelette
(Garçon, un Cent d’Huîtres! Balzac et la Table)*
By Anka Muhlstein

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It is not a coincidence that Balzac was the first in French literature to tackle this appetizing topic. Before the French Revolution, a traveler in France was apt to find local food scarce, tastless, and of doubtful appearance. Restaurants did not even exist! Just as cuisine became a centerpiece of French mores, Balzac used it as a connecting thread in his novels, showing how food can evoke character, atmosphere, class, and social climbing. How better to decipher the lady of the house’s personality than through her relationship with her cook or the color of her broth? Full of surprises and insights, Balzac’s Omelette invites you to taste anew French literature and gastronomy.

* Waiter, a Hundred Oysters! Balzac and Food

 

We are pleased to announce that Balzac’s Omelette will be the group read for September at the French Literature group. Please join us.

Honoré de Balzac by George Saintsbury

This general introduction attempts to deal chiefly, if not solely, with Balzac’s life, and with the general characteristics of his work and genius. Particular books and special exemplifications of that genius will be only incidentally referred to in it; more detailed criticism as well as a summary of the bibliographical information, which is often so interesting and sometimes so important in Balzac’s case, being reserved for the short prefaces to the various volumes of the series. Continue reading