Balzac: Two Hours' Sleep & 50 Cups of Coffee
There are many stories about Balzac, but not all of them are true. In fact, many of them can’t be verified, one way or the other. Let’s explore the man, the myth, the work, and his own words.
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a master novelist and one of the primary architects of realism. He rejected romantic fiction because of its sentimental tone, melodramatic structure, and failure to gaze at society as a whole, high and low. Balzac’s objective was to analyze the “social species” the way a naturalist might study a biological species. To do so, he portrayed the mundane drama of everyday life alongside the sweeping arc of historical and political reality: neither one nor the other, he argued, was more real, more intriguing, more worthy of his pen.
Born in Tours to an upper middle class family, Balzac studied in the provinces before moving to Paris for legal training—much like the protagonist of a bildungsroman, which he’d soon be writing. Afterward, he clerked for a Parisian advocate, grew bored, and began a writing career.
Balzac started in journalism, but editors were hungry for short stories, so he turned to fiction. He composed historical romances and sensationalistic novels, publishing them under pseudonyms or anonymously. Always spending more than he earned, Balzac embodied the fake it till you make it mentality. Biographer Graham Robb called him “one of the best-dressed bankrupts in Paris.”
In 1829, his first serious book came out under his own name – a collection of short pieces entitled Scenes from Private Life. Like his mature work, these vignettes were characterized by precise language, the fastidious accumulation of detail, and an eye for social issues. In the same year, the hard-working Balzac published his first proper novel, The Chouans, a story of small-town life during the Revolution.
Prestige and financial rewards came two years later with The Wild Ass’s Skin, a satiric look at contemporary life and its shallow excesses. Eugénie Grandet (1833) and Old Goriot (1835) were further successes, both artistically and professionally. Each of his works depicted a modern world in which change was the only constant and society was ruled by influence, coercion and money.
Balzac’s major project was La Comédie humaine, first mentioned in an 1839 letter. Like Faulkner, Proust, Kerouac and others he would influence, Balzac saw each of his works as part of a greater whole, one continuous novel unfolding a chapter at a time. Some “chapters,” such as Lost Illusions (1837-43), are 1000 pages long, while others are mere novellas. The Comedy presents a panoramic view of French society, manners, morals and family life during the post-Napoleonic era, featuring over 2,000 characters: doctors, lawyers, clerics, reformers, inventors, mystics, dandies, painters, duchesses, bankers, money-lenders, criminals, editors, actors, shopkeepers, literary agents, prostitutes and homosexuals. Referring to this great breadth, Balzac once noted: “I am not deep, but very wide.”
La Comédie humaine includes 143 works—including novels, stories and essays—95 of which Balzac completed. He continually tweaked the outline and structure of his grand project, dividing and subdividing it throughout his life. By 1830, he’d labeled his early works Scenes from Private Life, and in 1833, he conceived a second set of novels, Scenes from Provincial Life. He also began to insert characters from existing novels into new works, which helped sustain the notion that each book was embedded within a larger framework.
The organization didn’t stop there. In an 1834 letter to Madame Hanska, Balzac discussed a new taxonomy: Studies of Manners in the Nineteenth Century, Philosophical Studies, Analytical Studies. Of course, by 1836, he’d further subdivided Studies of Manners into six smaller categories. The obsessive tinkering continued for many years.
Aside from the 95 works in The Comedy, Balzac wrote a collection of comic tales, as well as five plays, and his early potboilers. To accomplish it, Balzac worked 15 hours a day. To his credit, he did this without sacrificing his social life, which both energized him and provided the plots, and scraps of dialogue, for many of his works. He was also obsessively concerned with revision. His proofs were often illegible because he’d covered them with so many detailed scribbled notes.
Balzac slept only two hours a night, sometimes a bit more. He was simply too busy to nod off. Eating, drinking, smoking opium, gambling, shopping, carousing, investing in business ventures that invariable flopped. He did everything quickly and with gusto. “The Illustrious Gaudissart,” for example, is a 14,000-word story composed in single night—at a rate of 33.3 words per minute.
And then there were the sexual escapades. In 1833, Balzac began an affair with Marie du Fresnay, a fellow writer. She was unhappily married to a much older man, mayor of a Parisian suburb. They had a daughter, Marie-Caroline, who would not be the last child Balzac fathered out of wedlock. Although he cautioned Dumas fils that sex was a great time-waster—“No woman alive is worth two volumes a year.”—he didn’t take his own advice. As with coffee, gambling, and other pursuits, Balzac couldn’t stop himself. He jumped in and out of beds like a character from farce. In 1850, he settled down with his longtime mistress, Countess Hanska, but died before the year’s end.
Balzac didn’t rely purely on self-discipline and fervor—black coffee helped, too. If you trust the internet, or even printed books, he drank up to 300 cups a day, but such reports are clearly apocryphal. Some claim that he drank 20 cups, 40, or 60, but 50 seems to be the consensus. Balzac actually wrote an essay on the subject, The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee, but he doesn’t specify a number. The essay begins: “Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. Coffee roasts your insides. Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.”
Balzac’s drink was strong coffee with little water. Sometimes he just swallowed the grounds whole. This is ideal for staying awake and working late, but terrible for the stomach. He recommends strong coffee on an empty stomach, but also warns the reader about caffeine poisoning.
What’s the truth? According to Jack James of The Journal of Caffeine Research, even if Balzac made his coffee very strong, he could have downed 66 cups without overdosing. However, Forensic Science International argues that one could overdose on just half that amount. Another factor is that people build up a tolerance over time. V. S. Pritchett, in his biography of the writer, estimates that Balzac consumed 50,000 cups during his lifetime. We’ll never know the truth, but it’s likely that caffeine contributed to both his impressive productivity and his untimely death.
Balzac died at the age of 51. It’s speculated that the cause was gradual caffeine poisoning. Of course, his lifestyle suggests that it also could have been high blood pressure, stress, arteriosclerosis, or even syphilis. In any case, he’s now regarded as one of France’s–and the world’s–great novelists. “Henceforth,” said Victor Hugo at his funeral, “men's eyes will be turned towards the faces not of those who are the rulers, but of those who are the thinkers.” A statue of Balzac, by Rodin, stands at a bustling street corner in Paris; appropriately, its bronze eyes are focused on the city and its urban hustle, which Balzac dedicated his life to portraying.