With two small children taking naps at three different times during the day, it’s been a little more challenging than we thought to explore Paris. I’ve started sneaking out with Avery in the afternoons, taking short field trips in the quiet, after-lunch hour. We recently visited Maison de Balzac, the former home of French author Honoré de Balzac, now a museum to the writer and his work.
The house is small and quaint, perched on a hill overlooking the River Seine, with views of the Eiffel Tower from the garden. Balzac lived here for seven years beginning in 1840. In significant debt and hiding from creditors, he rented the apartment in his housekeeper’s name. It was within these walls that he edited his masterpiece, La Comedie Humaine, and drafted some of his finest novels, La Rabouilleuse, Une Ténébreuse Affaire, and La Cousine Bette.
I read “The Thirteen,” one of the short stories from La Comedie Humaine, in preparation for our museum visit. Paris is the setting for much of Balzac’s fiction, this story included. Part of his genius, though, and what makes reading Balzac in Paris so satisfying, is the significance the city itself has in his narratives. Paris takes on the qualities of a character; it is unpredictable, sometimes welcoming, sometimes vengeful. Paris is complex and dangerous, glittering and alive. The events that unfold in “The Thirteen” are inevitable, but they are possible only because the characters live in Paris. Balzac writes:
“O, Paris! He who has not admired your gloomy passages, your gleams and flashes of light, your deep and silent cul-de-sacs, who has not listened to your murmurings between midnight and two in the morning, knows nothing as yet of your true poesy, nor of your broad and fantastic contrasts.
There are a few amateurs who never go their way heedlessly; who savor their Paris, so to speak; who know its physiognomy so well that they see every wart, and pimple, and redness. To others, Paris is always that monstrous marvel, that amazing assemblage of activities, of schemes, of thoughts; the city of a hundred thousand tales, the head of the universe. But to those few, Paris is sad or gay, ugly or beautiful, living or dead; to them Paris is a creature; every man, every fraction of a house is a lobe of the cellular tissue of that great courtesan whose head and heart and fantastic customs they know so well. These men are lovers of Paris.”
Balzac, too, was a “lover of Paris,” a city he immortalized in novel upon novel. The museum celebrates his life, with several portraits of the author, his writing desk, and a complete collection of his written works on display.
Though the museum is a lovely tribute, the gardens are even more enjoyable, especially if you’re a tiny person who loves birds and can’t read. The sun managed to break through Paris’ perpetual winter cloud cover for a few moments, as Avery played in the grass and wobbled merrily after pigeons. In the bright, quiet gardens overlooking the city, it’s easy to see how someone could be in love with this city.
- Address: 47 Rue Raynouard, 75016 Paris
- Hours: 10 am – 6 pm Tuesday – Sunday; closed Monday
- Entrance fee: Free
- Languages: French only
- Metro Station: Passy