Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote eighty-five novels in twenty years and made innumerable corrections and revisions in the proof sheets of each. This opus he called La Comedie Humaine — or The Human Comedy. Concerning his countless revisions, his first publisher — one Henri Latouche — said, none too politely:
“What the devil has gotten into you? Forget about the black mark under your mistress’s left tit, it’s only a beauty spot.”
Balzac made decent money from his literature but was extraordinarily extravagant, a chronic spender who because of his extravagance was hounded all his adult life by creditors. He never succeeded in divesting himself of debt — not even close — and it was largely for this reason that he wrote so much.
To hide from creditors, he registered under phony names and frequently changed his lodgings.
Bills still exist for Balzac’s order of fifty-eight pairs of gloves at one time, and there are extant bills of similar extravagance from his fashionable tailor and jeweler. Balzac was famous for his jeweled walking sticks, his red-leather upholstered study room, his busts of Napoleon (whom he loved), and many other things of this luxurious nature.
In a letter from 1828, his publisher (and friend) Latouche also wrote:
You haven’t changed at all. You pick out the rue Cassini to live in and you are never there. Your heart clings to carpets, mahogany chests, sumptuously bound books, superfluous clothes and copper engravings. You chase through the whole of Paris in search of candelabra that will never shed their light on you, and yet you haven’t even got a few sous in your pockets that would enable you to visit a sick friend. Selling yourself to a carpet-maker for two years! You deserve to be put in Charenton lunatic asylum.
It is more than a little remarkable, then, to discover that in the midst of all this spending Balzac was still able to find time to write for sixteen hours per day.
Here is Balzac’s own fascinating description, penned in March of 1833, of his relentless writing routine:
I go to bed at six or seven in the evening, like the chickens; I’m waked at one o’clock in the morning, and I work until eight; at eight I sleep again for an hour and a half; then I take a little something, a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until four. I receive guests, I take a bath, and I go out, and after dinner I go to bed. I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.
He was, he said, “driven by the terrible demon of work, seeking words out of the silence, ideas out of the night,” and for this priestlike task he dressed accordingly in Moroccan slippers and a notorious white monkish robe with a belt of Venetian gold from which hung a pair of scissors and a golden penknife.
Honore de Balzac, perhaps not a great writer, but indubitably one of the world’s most prolific, RIP.