ARTS / Production Notes: Graham Robb recalls how he failed to find the lost world of Honore de Balzac the human comedy behind his search for the real world of Balzac

WHEN, four years ago, I began a biography of Balzac, I knew that, sooner or later, I should have to stop reading La Comedie humaine, venture out into what I previously thought of as the Real World, and visit the Balzacian sites. The problem was: what to do when I got there?

I already knew the Maison de Balzac museum in Balzac's hideaway in Passy, where he escaped creditors and tourists. I watched visitors trying to marvel at Balzac's famous jewel-encrusted walking stick. In Balzac's time, it had been the subject of a novel - 'that monster walking stick that fascinates every eye' - long before the phallic symbol had implanted itself in the popular mind. Now it appeared surprisingly small. Worse, I learnt that the whole house had been rebuilt several times since 1840, the smell of Balzac's coffee and pear preserves had long been overwhelmed by floor polish, and the lunatic asylum next door was now the Turkish embassy.

I took the bus to Tours, where I found that Balzac's birthplace had disappeared in the bombing raids of 1940. The free newspaper from the syndicat d'initiative contained an advertisement for a Hotel Balzac, which turned out to have no connection with the novelist.

The next day, on a visit to the library, I came closest to the Balzacian spirit. Miraculously, some of his father's hare-brained pamphlets had survived. Among them, a revolutionary History of Rabies in which Balzac senior broached the timeless subject of canine excrement.

By the time I returned to Paris, still with plenty of blank paper, I had decided to do what Balzac the urban historian always did, and look instead for signs of disappearance and decay. I went to the Louvre, where the glass pyramid had just been completed. A child standing next to me asked his father, 'What are they going to put in it?' - to which the sarcastic reply was, 'A statue of Francois Mitterand.' It was then that I remembered another of Balzac senior's pamphlets. He had called for a pyramid to be erected, on exactly the same spot, in honour of his son's great hero, Emperor Napoleon. Perhaps there was more to this kind of research than met the eye.

Graham Robb's 'Balzac' is published this week by Picador

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