Posted in Kafevend Blog

Following our article last week about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, we're going to have a look today at the French author, Honoré de Balzac, a contemporary of Kierkegaard who had a similar liking for coffee.

Balzac was born in Tours, France in 1799. He spent very little time with his parents during his childhood and teenage years. He was cared for by a wet nurse before being looked after by a governess at the family home. At ten, he was packed off to a grammar school where he remained for seven years before returning home due to ill health. He was then sent to private tutors and schools for another two and a half years, during which time he attempted suicide, before entering the University of Paris in 1816. After his studies, he followed his father into law. Three years later he stopped, to the chagrin of his family, but finally he took the chance to make his own way in life.

Like Kierkegaard, Balzac was a prolific writer and produced a great deal of work. His greatest achievement was the sequence of novels and stories he named 'La comêdie humaine', which examined French society after Napoleon's fall from power. The sequence contained almost 150 different works, although not all were finished by the time of his death in 1850. His representation of French society featured a large cast of characters, many of whom made recurring appearances throughout the sequence and whose lives he portrayed in great detail. His style of writing concerned itself with the real, everyday sort of life and eschewed romanticism. This approach made him one of the pioneers of literary realism

Balzac had rather extraordinary work habits, fuelled by excessive amounts of coffee. Eating a light meal at six in the afternoon, he would then sleep until midnight before waking and writing for a solid fifteen or so hours- sometimes it would be longer, and he claimed that he once worked for two days straight with only three hours of rest in the middle.

Unlike most of us who probably have a single preferred way of drinking coffee, Balzac used coffee like a tool and changed the way he made it depending on his needs. Starting with a coarse grind in plenty of water, as the days passed he would use a finer and finer grind mixed with smaller amounts of water until he was consuming several espressos per sitting to keep up the caffeine buzz. In his work "The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee" where he details his coffee uses, he also mentions "a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigour... It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach"- in other words, eating coffee by the spoonful!

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