Friday, February 27, 2015

Too many cups of coffee proved fatal for Honoré de Balzac, 51

Honoré de Balzac loved a cup of coffee. In fact, it was said that he loved coffee so much that he drank some 50 cups a  day, and caffeine proved to be his undoing. 

Born May 20, 1799, Honoré was schooled with the Oratorian fathers before enrolling at the Sorbonne. The son of a social-climbing lawyer, who changed the family named from Balssa to the aristrocratic-sounding Balzac, Honoré was not to be outdone in upward mobility: he later added the “de” before Balzac in order to sound even more aristocratic.

Known for his novels La Comédie humaine, Eugénie Grandet, Le Père Goriot, and La Cousine Bette, Balzac started his career as a lawyer, and then was a businessman, with interests in slag processing, lumber mills, type foundries, and publishing. One ill-fated venture was the issuance of cheap editions of Molière’s plays, which did not sell and had to be discarded as waste paper.

During his various business ventures, he was also writing. His novels were often scandalous, dealing with such subjects as incest and immoral priests, and not surprisiingly incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church, although Balzac himself apparently remained a believer. He wrote in La Comédie humaine, “Christianity, and especially Catholicism, being a complete repression of man's depraved tendencies, is the greatest element in Social Order.”

Balzac’s work regimen was highly disciplined. As he described it: “I go to bed with the chickens at six or seven in the evening. I wake up at one o’clock in the morning, and work until eight. Then I go to sleep again for an hour and a half, when I have a little nourishment and a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until four in the afternoon. That’s when I take a bath, receive guests, and perhaps go out. Then after dinner I go to bed again. I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.”

Balzac explained his caffeine addiction in an essay called “The Pleasures and Pain of Coffee,” in which he confessed, “Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. It sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles. It accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects.”

In 1832 Balzac received a letter about one of his novels from a woman in Russia and he began a fifteen-year correspondence with her. Ewelina Hanska was married to a wealthy Polish landower, and when he died Balzac wooed her, winning her hand over a formidable rival, the pianist and composer Franz Liszt.

Apparently his excessive coffee consumption was the cause of Balzac’s deteriorating health: frequent stomach cramps, headaches, nervous twitches, and hypertension. Shortly after his marriage, his wife wrote to her daughter of his “extreme weakness” and “profuse sweating.”  On the night of August 18, just five months after his wedding, Balzac became gravely ill.  His wife had gone to bed, but his mother was still with him when he died, of caffeine poisoning leading to heart failure, at the age of fifty-one.

The funeral was attended by virtually every noted writer in Paris. Pallbearers included Alexandre Dumas père and fils and Victor Hugo, who also delivered the eulogy. In his remarks he noted, “It is not the end, it is the beginning! It is not extinction, it is eternity! Is it not true, my listeners, such tombs as this demonstrate immortality? In the presence of the illustrious dead, we feel more distinctly the divine destiny of that intelligence which traverses the earth to suffer and to purify itself—which we call man.” Balzac was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

No comments:

Post a Comment