Andrew brings up an interesting point about the pension, its surrounds, and its relationship to the rest of Paris.

The book so far has emphasized the dreariness of the environs in which it takes place through the gossiping, the consumption, the general lethargy. But more than that, Balzac has effectively created an isolated world, in which to enact a social experiment. …

When Balzac removes the pension of the busy happenings of Paris, he manages to maintain a requisite distance between the story he wanted to tell and the audience who listened. He emphasized the his audience wasn’t really involved in this story, because he created the specific circumstances. However, he still manages to do a double take, claiming that his creation does, in fact, represent “truth.” Balzac performs a complicated move: he indicts his audience in what he recounts, while removing them from the scene of the story. If successful, Balzac’s novel would chronical the moral failings of his age, without fully alienating the audience that perpetuated those failings.

Ah, yes! having his milieu and eating it, too! The pensions is in Paris, is part of Paris, IS PARIS … yet, also a world of its own, aging, and forgotten by the rest of the cosmopolitan world.

Many of Balzac’s main character, encountering Paris for the first time as students or young professionals, find themselves in some dreary hotel in the Latin Quarter (apparently, it was not yet the vibrant center it is today. I’ve even stayed several times at one of the hotels where Balzac lived.) The pension occupies a crevice in that decrepit world,

between Val-de-Grâce Cathedral and the Pantheon, two towering structures that change the very atmospheric conditions, jutting up into the air with their sallow spires, muddying everything with the glowering, harsh colors of their domes. In there, the pavement is bone dry, there’s no mud in the streams, nor any water, and grass grows along the walls. In there, the most carefree man in the world is as depressed as everybody else walking those streets …

Balzac’s description of the quartier is pressing: locked between two monumental edifices, the first representing royal France, the other the revolutionary nation, lurks life that is unchanged by time. They are the refuse of an older Paris, that have been pushed together by necessity. They blend into their environs so well, they cannot be distinguished from it (Balzac literally says that the description of the buildings applies to the people as well.) Out of sight, the people of the Latin Quarter are victimized by the architectural politics that sucks life from the land and the spirit from the soul. They are like primitives, who live beneath mountains of stone: they are easily ignored.

They are also anthropological oddities. Lost between Val-de-Grâce and Pantheon are Daniel Roche’s “People of Paris,” who but fifty years earlier still carried the traditions they brought with them from the provinces. Balzac’s Paris is not just a world in which the the aristocratic traditions breath on life support, but the honorable traditions of the French country (which Balzac find, in their poverty and diligence, to be far more noble that the sociability of the elite) are pushed out, and the little people forced into closer interaction with the degenerate aristocracy.