But on the whole he did devote himself to his true vocation, with a furious energy beside which even Scott's, except in his sadder and later days, becomes leisurely. Balzac generally wrote (dining early and lightly, and sleeping for some hours immediately after dinner) from midnight till any hour in the following day - stretches of sixteen hours being not unknown, and the process being often continued for days and weeks. Besides his habit of correcting a small printed original into a long novel on the proofs, he was always altering and re-shaping his work, even before, in 1842, he carried out the idea of building it all into one huge structure - the Comédie humaine with its subdivisions of Scènes de la vie parisienne, études philosophiques, etc. Much pains have been spent upon this title and Balzac's intentions in selecting it. But the "Human Comedy," as a description for mere studies of life as his, will explain itself at once or else can never be explained.
Of its constituents, however, some account must be given, and this can be best done through an exact and complete list of the whole work by years, with such abbreviated notes on the chief constituents as may lead up to a general critical summary. Of the two capital works of 1829, we have spoken. 1830, the epoch year, saw part (it was not fully published till the next) of La Peau de chagrin, one of the crudest, but according to some estimates, one of the greatest of the works, full of romantic extravagance and surplusage, but with an engrossing central idea - the Nemesis of accomplished desire - powerfully worked out; La Maison du chat qui pelote, a triumph of observation and nature, together with a crowd of things less in bulk but sometimes of the first excellence - El Verdugo, étude de femme, La Paix du ménage, Le Bal de sceaux, La Vendetta, Gobseck, Une Double Famille, Les Deux Rêves, Adieu, L'élixir de longue vie, Sarrazine, Une Passion dans le désert and Un épisode sous la Terreur. In 1831, La Peau de chagrin appeared complete, accompanied by Le Réquisitionnaire, Les Proscrits, Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (a masterpiece fortunately not unrecognized), Jésus Christ en Flandre and Maître Cornélius. 1832 gave Madame Firmiani, Le Message, Le Colonel Chabert and Le Curé de Tours (two stories of contrasted but extraordinary excellence), La Bourse, La Femme abandonnée, Louis Lambert (autobiographical and philosophic), La Grenadière and Les Marana (a great favourite with the author). In 1833 appeared Ferragus, chef des dévorants, the first part of L'Histoire des treize (a collection in the more extravagant romantic manner, very popular at the time, and since a favourite with some, but few, good judges), Le Médecin de campagne (another pet of the author's, and a kind of intended document of his ability to support the cause of virtue, but, despite certain great things, especially a wonderful popular "legend of Napoleon," a little heavy as a whole), the universally admitted masterpiece of Eugénie Grandet, and L'Illustre Gaudissart (very amusing). 1833 also saw the beginning of a remarkable and never finished work-out of his usual scope but exceedingly powerful in parts - the Contes drolatiques, a series of tales of Old France in Old (or at least Rabelaisian) French, which were to have been a hundred in number but never got beyond the third batch of ten.
They often borrow the licence of their 15th and 16th century models; but in La Succube and others there is undoubted genius and not a little art. 1834 continued the Treize with La Duchesse de Langeais and added La Recherche de l'absolu (one of Balzac's great studies of monomania, and thought by some to be the greatest, though others prefer Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu), La Femme de trente ans (the chief example of the author's caprice for re-handling, and very differently judged as a whole), with yet another of the acknowledged triumphs, Le Père Goriot. On the whole, this year's work, though not the author's largest, is perhaps his most unique. Next year (1835) followed Melmoth réconcilié (a tribute to the great influence which Maturin exercised, not over Balzac only, at this time in France), Un Drame au bord de la mer, the brilliant, if questionable, conclusion of Les Treize, La Fille aux yeux d'or, Le Contrat de mariage and Séraphita. This last, a Swedenborgian rhapsody of great beauty in parts, has divided critics almost more than anything else of its writer's, some seeing in it (with excuse) nothing but the short description given above in three words, the others (with justice) reckoning it his greatest triumph of style and his nearest attempt to reach poetry through prose. 1836 furnished La Messe de l'athée, Interdiction, Facino Cane, Le Lys dans la vallée (already referred to and of a somewhat sickly sweetness), L'Enfant maudit, La Vieille Fille and Le Secret des Ruggieri (connected with the earlier Les deux Rêves under the general title, Sur Cathérine de Médicis, and said to have been turned out by Balzac in a single night, which is hardly possible). In 1837 were published Les Deux Poètes, destined to form part of Illusions perdues, Les Employés, Gambara and another capital work, Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, where Balzac's own unlucky experiences in trade are made thoroughly matter of art. 1838 was less fruitful, contributing only Le Cabinet des antiques, which had made an earlier partial appearance, La Maison Nucingen and Une Fille d'ève. But 1839 made amends with the second part of Illusions perdues, Un Grand Homme de province à Paris (one of Balzac's minor diploma-pieces), Le Curé de village (a very considerable thing), and two smaller stories, Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan and Massimilla Doni. Pierrette, Z. Marcas, Un Prince de la Bohème and Pierre Grassou followed in 1840, and in 1841 Une Ténébreuse Affaire (one of his most remarkable workings-up of the minor facts of actual history), Le Martyr Calviniste (the conclusion of Sur Cathérine de Médicis), Ursule Mirouet (an admirable story), La Fausse Maîtresse and Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, on which again there have been very different opinions. 1842 supplied Albert Savarus (autobiographical largely), Un Début dans la vie, the very variously named and often rehandled Rabouilleuse (which, since Taine's exaltation of it, has often been taken as a Balzacian quintessence), and Autre étude de femme, yet another rehandling of earlier work.