When 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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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.
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