Honoré de Balzac stands as a true giant of world literature. One of the founding fathers of realism, Balzac was a prolific writer who produced more than a hundred novels, plays and short stories during his career, together with numerous essays, pamphlets, reviews and thousands of letters. At the heart of this vast corpus is La Comédie humaine, a collection of ninety-four novels and shorter fictions set principally against the backdrop of nineteenth-century French society. A towering literary edifice in which Balzac sought to document every aspect of the period in which he lived, La Comédie humaine has enthralled successive generations of readers with its dramatic plots and memorable characters. Moreover, the scale and richness of this project have inspired – and sometimes intimidated – writers since the nineteenth century. Among Balzac's compatriots, Flaubert, Zola and Proust all cited him as a key influence on their own artistic endeavours. Outside of France, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Benito Pérez Galdós, Oscar Wilde and Italo Calvino have also featured among his most enthusiastic literary admirers. In addition to its enduring impact on writers, Balzac's work has been theorised extensively, garnering the attention of Marxists, structuralists, psychoanalysts and gender theorists, to name but a few. His writings have appeared in countless translations and re-editions, and continue to provoke scholarly debate, with new books and articles constantly being added to the already-extensive body of critical material devoted to his work. Finally, his stories have spawned numerous adaptations across film, television, radio and, less obviously, bande dessinée. From the earliest stage adaptations of the author's work during his own lifetime to the Bolshoi Ballet's recreation of Illusions perdues in 2014, Balzac has never ceased to fascinate the cultural imagination.
Balzac's achievements as a writer were certainly hard-won. He was born in Tours in 1799 to middle-class parents who were well respected in the city. His father, Bernard-François, had risen from the peasantry of southern France to become Secretary to the King's Council before the Revolution, while his mother, Laure, was the daughter of Parisian haberdashers. Balzac did not enjoy a particularly happy childhood, and after spending the first four years of his life in the care of a wet nurse, he was sent to boarding school in Vendôme.