The Lawn Is Resting: A Visit to Balzac’s House


Writers' Houses

The Maison de Balzac. Photograph by Bailey Trela.

The Maison de Balzac is located in the sixteenth arrondissement at 47, rue Raynouard, Paris, in the heart of the former village of Passy. If you visit, chances are you’ll approach it along the rue de l’Annonciation, which is pleasantly quiet and perfectly shaded, and boasts, according to Google Maps, a Pizza Hut that I don’t remember seeing when I visited in April. What I do remember seeing was an unaccompanied Alsatian with some sort of harness girding its chest, loping through a small nearby park. When I looked around, vaguely nonplussed, I noticed a clinique vétérinaire directly across the street.

If I’d had to explain to myself why, with only three days to spend in Paris, I felt such an acute need to visit the home where Honoré de Balzac, a writer I wasn’t even that familiar with, had composed the bulk of The Human Comedy, a fictional project I’d barely even dipped my toes into, I’m not sure what I would have said. Probably it just seemed that if anyone would have had an interesting house, it would have been him. Open one of his novels at random, and chances are you’ll find a gratuitous description of a room and its furnishings, a flurry of signifiers that, today, can seem hard to place. Take Monsieur Grandet’s living room, for instance, as it appears in the opening chapter of Eugénie Grandet. We learn the room has two windows that “gave on to the street,” that its floor is wooden, that “grey, wooden panelling with antique moulding lined the walls from top to bottom,” that its ceiling is dominated by exposed beams. “An old copper clock, inlaid with tortoiseshell arabesques, adorned the white, badly carved, stone chimney-piece,” Balzac goes on. “Above it hung a greenish mirror, whose edges, bevelled to show its thickness, reflected a thin stream of light along an old-fashioned pier-mirror of damascened steel.” I don’t know what a pier-mirror is, and I couldn’t begin to differentiate an old-fashioned model from a sleeker, more modern one. In a sense, this feeling of being lost was part of the appeal of Balzac’s world as I’d imagined it. 

Which is another way of saying that when I contemplated a sort of generic Balzacian space, a vision of plushness, of pure and overwhelming material profusion would unfurl in my mind: a little room fitted out with dark wood and damask curtains, gilt mirrors and stubbornly bombé furniture, its walnut shelves and limestone mantelpieces offering stable quarters to a full range of dandy’s trinkets, like engraved pistols and silver-handled riding whips and even, glowing palely in the manufactured dusk like a sturdy snowball, a fine Sèvres sugar bowl—every detail, down to the motes of light-struck dust spinning in the sepia-toned air, tuned precisely to some ideal of costive, costly languor. You know, luxus, as the Romans must have done it. Who wouldn’t want to disappear into this?

So, here I was. There was a false start: a pleasant little gate with a plastic-sheathed slip of paper taped to it declaring that the gate was no longer the entrance to the Maison de Balzac. Through the gate I could see a set of steps leading down to the grounds of the museum, which occupies a sort of plateau between the rue Raynouard above and the rue Berton below, but I was directed instead down the road some thirty yards, to a squat, flat-roofed, glass-walled hutch. When I entered, the young woman manning the information desk swiftly rerouted me to a side door, which deposited me at the top of a set of open-air stairs that, it turns out, are completely accessible from the street. Dizzily, I descended.

The ground floor of the visitor center is occupied by the Rose Bakery, a modern assemblage of plate glass and black steel that seems, topologically, to bend everything into its orbit, like a black hole of bad taste. Spacewise, the Maison de Balzac seemed unbalanced, as though every effort had been made to keep my eyes directed away from the actual home where Balzac had lived. A half-kempt garden occupies most of the grounds, while the home itself is tucked away in a corner. Looked at directly, the house is strikingly modest—a low, almost defensive-looking structure, huddled on the hillside like a barnacle. I went in.

Inside visitors are confronted, not with the building blocks of a home—trinkets, chairs, rugs—but with depictions of the man himself: twenty or so visions of Balzac, the bulk of them markedly ugly. Here, for instance, is a caricature by the lithographer Benjamin Roubaud, in which Balzac looks like a swollen, somehow arrogant thumb. If your taste veers more modern, admire Balzac, Monumental Head by Auguste Rodin, a slabby, gleaming bust that seems to be actively melting before your eyes and that fully delivers on the promise of its title: it is a head, and it is monumental. And for a very particular audience, here’s a sculpture of Balzac as a surprisingly svelte seal, leaning back coquettishly as though just surfaced from the seas of some sexually confusing fever dream. (Apparently the statuette was made by Hanz Lerche to capitalize on the negative reaction to Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, whose harshest critics noted the work’s Pinnipedian affinities.)

Seven aggressively productive years of Balzac’s life were spent here. In 1840, harried by creditors in Paris and looking to disappear, he fled to the western suburb of Passy, going so far as to rent the property under the name of his housekeeper, Louise Breugniot. Naturally, a sense of guardedness animates the home. In his biography of Balzac, Graham Robb describes it as “a cunning little house,” partly hidden between an upper road and a lower road, while the writer Gérard de Nerval, Balzac’s close friend, referred to it as “an upside-down house.” It was here that Balzac went about his customary routines, composing his novels in the early morning hours and taking breaks to write passionate, lengthy letters to his mistress Eveline Hańska, the Polish noblewoman he later married, or gorge on stone fruits and pomes. Balzac was, by all accounts, extremely partial to pears, and their delicate, rounded scent pervaded the home in Passy.

These and other traces of life had all but disappeared. The only room maintained in the style of the time is Balzac’s writing room, a sort of humble cube containing a small personal library, a painting, and the writing desk on which he composed almost all of The Human Comedy, cranking out up to twenty pages a day—this before the advent of prescription amphetamines. The wall text describes the room as a “modest study” and, in what seems like an unnecessarily cruel appositive phrase, “a small room in a banal apartment in a village on the outskirts of Paris.” The floors were creaky, the famous red writing chair blanched by the sun, but there was something in the air—maybe it was just dust. Then again, maybe it was the poignant fact that a man who insisted on richly imagining the spaces his characters inhabited, sometimes to a plot-slackening fault, had done it all from a space that was, comparatively speaking, barren. 

Scattered about the ground floor of the house are a few other curios, including a bronze cast of Balzac’s pen hand, looking somehow pudgier in isolation; the porcelain cafetière that supplied his reputed fifty daily cups of coffee (Balzac drank his coffee black and unfiltered and described its effect in combustive terms, even going so far as to compare, in a short tract he wrote on modern stimulants, the black grains of ground coffee to gunpowder); and his cane, its handle wrapped in gold and studded with turquoise florets. The cane, which you almost certainly didn’t know about, made such a splash on the Parisian scene that it inspired Delphine de Girardin to write a novella, Balzac’s Cane (La Canne de M. de Balzac), in which Balzac lends his magical, invisibility-granting aide à la marche to a young man in trouble. (I have not read this book.)

I did another walk-through of the house, not wanting to miss anything, though it seemed I hadn’t. Outside, the sun was still out. I sat down on a bench outside of the Rose Bakery in front of a long wooden table and took out my Balzac—an old mass-market paperback edition of Old Goriot with one calamitous crack in the spine, which I’d been careful to tend to throughout the trip. I read half a page and didn’t feel anything in particular, which seemed like a shame. (Later, when I finished the book, I’d think to connect Rastignac’s final position, perched at the highest point of Père Lachaise and gazing down at the “humming hive” of Paris, with the Maison de Balzac’s own lofty station, overlooking various buildings, including the Turkish embassy.) To my right, an older woman with frosty blond hair and a black fur stole sat down with a paper thimble of espresso and began to smoke a cigarette so thin it seemed like a scratch on the air. Which at least was very French of her. 

In addition to its garden, the Maison de Balzac boasts a large lawn of natural grass, unevenly tufted. No one seemed to be taking advantage of it, and eventually I noticed a series of pale green signs posted here and there at foot level, on each of which was written, in a looping white script, “Pelouse au repos.” I googled it, and learned that the lawn was resting. There was a pigeon, unaware of this generous Gallic policy, exercising the lawn. It moved about and settled by a sign. It’d make a good picture, I thought, though by the time I’d gotten my phone out, he’d flown away. 


Bailey Trela is a contributing writer for the Cleveland Review of Books. His criticism has appeared in Commonweal, The Baffler, Frieze, and elsewhere.