By the 1840s, Honoré de Balzac was not just a famous novelist but a world-famous celebrity, portrayed and caricatured so often that he could be spotted during his European travels even by the barely educated. He was also known to be up to his eyes in debt; as a world-class deadbeat, Balzac was never more than two steps ahead of his creditors. Would that he had been able to collect on the debt of influence which so many writers and intellectuals were eager to share in after his death. Zola, of course, wasted little time in claiming Balzac, the jaunty realist, as a key progenitor of naturalism; so, too, Marx and Engels ignored Balzac’s petit-bourgeois Catholic Royalism to stake their claim on him as a prescient critic of a budding capitalist society.

Given Balzac’s often indelicate attachment to brute fact, these particular hommages make a kind of ready sense, which is not the case with the tributes offered by Henry...


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