Throughout history countries all over the world have produced some extraordinary writers and France is no exception to this rule. The two that spring to my mind are Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac. When I was at school I studied the latter and loved his story Le Colonel Chabert. Balzac wrote many short stories, novellas and novels during his lifetime, all of which were stunning works of literature. He was known as a prolific French journalist and wrote La Comedie Humaine which translated means ‘The Human Comedy’.
His books fell into several categories which are called ‘Scenes’. These include Scenes from Private life and Scenes from Provincial Life, to name but a few. Born in 1799, Balzac went on to make his mark in a very big way throughout France and the rest of the civilised world. He was very critical of the Napoleonic Empire and of the French Revolution as well as the bourgeois French Monarch Louis Philippe. He based much of his writing on these subjects. He was very interested in how man saw his place in society and how man influenced all that was around him but he also explored so much more including art, literature and metaphysics.
Along with Gustave Flaubert, Balzac was an important part of the French realist movement. He had much influence on Emile Zola, Marcel Proust and another superbly great French writer Guy de Maupassant. He inspired these writers but he himself drew inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ and studied works of his great friend Sir Walter Scott.
Balzac writings were of ‘observation and imagination’ all rolled into one which was his true forte when it came to his wonderful writing, a thing that most writers have trouble in balancing. Many film adaptations of his works have been produced over time including the Gothic romances of Ann Radcliffe’s.
Émile Zola was another very influential French writer in the naturalism literary school. Born in 1840 he wrote twenty novels in the years between 1871 and 1893 which followed the fortunes of a French family. The books were called The Fortune of the Rougons. Later in 1880 he wrote the series of Nana which is a tale of the under classes about a prostitute who he refers to as ‘a devourer of men’. The books tell a story of how she infiltrates French Society which represents the eventual downfall of the Second French Empire.
Zola was an intense writer who investigated everything he wrote about including the coal miners strikes of Northern France. He descended the mine shafts so he could feel for himself just what the conditions were. He could then write about them in his book the Germinal written in 1885. From his first book that was published, the autobiographical La Confession de Claude, right through to his last books, he remained a writer who experimented continually often landing himself in trouble with the authorities. His most famously sensational book being ‘J’accuse’ in which he accused the French government of the day of being anti-semitist. He died in Paris in 1902 under what was widely believed to be suspicious circumstances and was buried at the Cimitière de Montmartre but then later his body was moved to the Panthéon which is situated in the Latin Quarter of Paris.