If I had known Balzac was going to cause me this much trouble, I would not have bothered. Maybe this was payback for all the crude jokes I had made at his name’s expense. After a 45 minute metro ride to the sleepy 16th arrondissement in a sweltering 108 degree heat with a screaming sore throat, I finally arrived at the Maison du Balzac museum door with a big fat “FERMÉ” sign posted outside.
“Fermé” seemed to be Paris’ motto. “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Fermé.” Need to buy soap on Sunday evening? Fermé. Hungry for lunch at 3pm? Fermé. The online website says the museum will reopen after renovations on July 24th? Fermé. I only had three days left in France to research Honoré de Balzac for my literary tour of Paris sabbatical project, and it felt like all doors were closing on me.
As I stared at the sign and the still leftover carnage of construction littering the property, I noticed a man in a security guard uniform pass behind me. He looked like he might work there, so I asked, “Excusez-moi, Monsieur. Est-que vous savez si le musee est fermé?”
He smiled and replied in accented English “I not know. It looks like zee construction.”
“Oh, désolé, I thought you worked here,” I replied, “Thank you for speaking Anglais.”
“I studied in New Hampshire for deux years.”
“Mon Dieu? I grew up in Londonderry, New Hampshire!” I said.
“ I lived in Keene, not far. Quelle coincidence!”
While he looked up the museum opening hours on his smart phone, he gushed about his love of New England and his time at Keene State. We chatted about favorite places, the autumn foliage, and our time in Paris.
“Yes, the website say museum open aujordhui,” he said. “Maybe we walk around le building to see if another entrance.”
He escorted me about 20 yards down the street, past a construction truck where we did indeed find a brand new, modern glass entrance. Finally, a door that read “Ouvert.”
“Voilà!” He smiled throwing his hands in the air.
Showering him with “merci’s” and “enchanté’s,” I wonderered if I should offer him a euro or buy him a café. But he gallantly departed without any suggestion that I owed him anything.
The welcoming museum staff behind the counter looked as if I were the first person to enter the newly remodeled building. They handed me a house map and showed me the bookstore with stacked shelves of Balzac’s most famous work La Comedie Humaine, (The Human Comedy), the impressive multi-volume work of more than 91 stories of intertwining characters of 19th Century Paris.
I walked down the stairs to the ground level lawn where construction workers and gardeners were laying brick and planting flowers. Navigating around the rubble, I entered the green shuttered house that Balzac called home from 1840-1847.
A narrow hallway and creaky wooden floorboards led me to a musty room of wall-to-wall quotes and glass-enclosed manuscripts. I had the whole house to myself it seemed, except for the watchful eye of Balzac’s bust. He was a portly man with a bulbous head and a huge swath of jet-black hair. Even Auguste Rodin sculpted him with unflattering girth in a creepy black overcoat that made him seem daunting and unapproachable. At any minute, I felt as if Balzac might come booming in the room shaking his cane at me to be quiet so he could work. I suddenly wished my security guard was with me now.
The next room was Balzac’s study, replete with bookcase, desk, and porcelain coffeepot. Legend has it that he worked incredibly long hours, fueled on massive amounts of coffee, sometimes up to 40 cups a day. In his journal, he wrote, “Yesterday, I worked 19 hours, and today I shall have to work 20 or 22.” He would eat a light dinner at 5 or 6 then go to bed and wake up at midnight to write all night. Had the security guard also stayed up all night to work a night shift? A whole world seems to happen when we are sound asleep beyond the dreams in our heads. Writers create stories, nurses tend to patients, pilots fly passengers through the air, security guards keep people safe. So much happens that we are unaware of.
I wandered into another corridor, past a spiral staircase to a room of characters. Balzac brought to life 2500 characters in The Human Comedy, and many of them were in this space staring straight at me. From floor to ceiling, woodblock illustrations of doctors, lawyers, tailors, captains, prostitutes, milkmaids covered the walls. Balzac has often been compared to Charles Dickens in his ability to bring ordinary lives into extraordinary life. These distinctive figures were like French Oliver Twists, David Copperfields, or Ebenezer Scrooges. Below the pictures, I saw an intricate web of a map listing every single character and his/her relation to each other like a massive family tree. Balzac’s genius portrayed a Paris where everyone was interconnected with everyone else. No story stood alone or isolated. Characters wove in and out of each others’ tales in a grand tapestry, a grand narrative of life.
I thought about Balzac’s short story The Atheist’s Mass where a physician named Bianchon tells of his admiration for the renowned surgeon, Desplein. Desplein is an atheist but cares for the sick with incredible compassion and care. Bianchon finds out that Desplein does so because he too was cared for when sick, by another character named Bourgeat. The story reminds us that we are all responsible for each other and affect each other greatly. We are all part of the greater humanity that touches everyone we come in contact with. The last line of The Atheist’s Mass read “A grateful country to its great men.”
I felt as if the security guard should have been up on that wall, commemorated in a story for his small act of kindness to a stranger. I like to think that Balzac would have written him well. I like to think that Balzac would have written me well.
I walked towards the exit of this old 19th century house towards a door that was now propped wide open.
Perhaps Balzac was worth the trouble after all.