I’ve been reading rather a lot of Zola during the past few years, and it occurred to me that I’ve neglected Balzac. There are probably all sorts of arguments that rage for the superiority of one author over the other–Zola’s novels, such as Germinal, and L’Assommoir have that social conscience aspect, for example. And then again Nana is one of literature’s enduring courtesans. While all those considerations are noted, there’s just something about Balzac….
Balzac’s bon vivant spirit tends to seep through in his novels–even when he’s writing about the nasty side of human nature. The man had a lively sense of humour (at least I think he did), and perhaps that is what makes his novels so enjoyable. And so deciding that I’d neglected Balzac lately, I pulled Eugenie Grandet off the shelf.
Eugenie, the heroine of the tale, is the only daughter of Monsieur Grandet. Grandet, who married late in life, is now quite elderly. Grandet worked as a cooper, and after marrying the daughter of a wealthy lumber merchant, he cashed in on the French Revolution by buying “for a song, legally if not legitimately, the finest vineyards in the district, an old abbey and several small farms.”
When the tale begins, the Grandets live far from Paris in their house in Saumur. No one knows just how wealthy Grandet is these days, but everyone speculates that he must have “a private treasure, a hiding place full of louis, and that every night he indulged in the ineffable joys afforded by the sight of a large mass of gold.”
Grandet is a miser, and like most misers he possesses an almost unearthly ability to manage and make money:
“Monsieur Grandet inspired, then, the deferential esteem that was rightfully owed to a man who never had any debts, who as a skilled cooper and winegrower, could estimate with the precision of an astronomer when he ought to manufacture a thousand barrels for his harvest or only five hundred, who never misjudged a speculation, who always had barrels to sell when a barrel was worth more than its contents, and who could store his vintage in his wine cellars and wait until he could sell it for two hundred francs a cask, when the smaller winegrowers had to sell theirs for a hundred. His famous vintage of 1811, judiciously stored and slowly sold, had brought in over two hundred and forty thousand francs. Financially speaking, there was something of both the tiger and the boa constrictor in Monsieur Grandet: he knew how to conceal himself, lie in wait, watch his prey for a long time and finally leap on it; then he would open the jaws of his purse, gulp down a bellyful of gold and placidly lie down like a snake digesting its prey , impassive, cold, methodical.”
If Grandet has a ‘greatest’ treasure, then it is his only child Eugenie. Since she is an heiress, she is considered a great catch, but in the provinces, there aren’t many eligible men considered worthy of her. There are two rivals for her hand–a judge, Monsieur Cruchot, and 23-year-old Adolphe des Grassins. Both families have their factions, their supporters and their allies, and most of the townspeople take considerable interest in the subject of Eugenie’s possible engagement. In a town where not much happens, everyone eagerly watches for any sign that the Cruchot family is favoured over the des Grassins and vice versa.
Meanwhile “older inhabitants of the region maintained that the Grandets were too shrewd to let the money go outside of the family,” and that Eugenie will most likely be married off to her cousin from Paris, the son of her father’s brother. And then one day that cousin, Charles Grandet, arrives unexpectedly.
Charles Grandet is an elegant, spoiled young fop. This is his first trip into the provinces, and so he travels and dresses to impress and “overawe the entire district with his opulence.” Charles struggles to align the stories of his uncle’s wealth with the reality of a cold, ill-lit, shabby house fashioned more like a fortress (complete with a vicious dog) than the country chateau of a wealthy gentleman. He’s not so much appalled as unable to comprehend how these long-lost relatives live. While Charles stares at the unfashionable Cruchots and the des Grassins through his monocle, Eugenie’s provincial suitors sense a formidable rival. But Eugenie is entranced by her cousin–she’s never seen such elegance, and when Charles’s visit is extended by tragic circumstance, Eugenie struggles to provide him with a few extras–such as a wax candle. For the first time in her life, Eugenie feels the shame of her father’s raging obsession with money, and in time Eugenie’s relationship with Charles leads to a rift between Eugenie and her father….
Old Grandet is a marvellous creation. As is so typical with Balzac characters, Grandet is sharply drawn and detailed in such a way that he comes to life. Balzac shows how Grandet’s miserliness is a character trait that enters into every aspect of his life. He keeps all the food under lock and key, meting out sugar cubes, and in one hilarious scene, Grandet instructs his faithful servant, Nanon to make crow soup. Grandet has even developed a manner to further his business interests, and using selective deafness and periodic stuttering, he simply wears people down.
Grandet’s obdurate obsession with money gradually destroys his relationships with his wife and daughter, and while he’s by no means an evil man, his horrible flaw and ruling characteristic is his avarice. As Professor Milton Crane notes in the novel’s introduction: “For Balzac it was not love but money that made the world go round,” and we certainly see that philosophy freely at work in Eugenie Grandet.
Crane also notes that Balzac conceived of La Comedie Humaine, “the device to describe and analyze all French society” in 1842. Eugenie Grandet was published in 1834 and after creating the idea of La Comedie Humaine, Balzac slotted Eugenie Grandet into the Scenes of Provincial Life section (one of seven sections that comprise La Comedie Humaine. Crane argues that there is “something unavoidably synthetic about Balzac’s scheme, which he endeavoured to superimpose on books that had obviously been written without thought of a Comedie Humaine.” At the same time, Crane acknowledges that Balzac may “have been feeling his way instinctively toward this plan throughout his career.”
The novel is rife with Balzac’s rich sense of humour, and some of the very best moments take place when Charles first arrives at his uncle’s shabby home. Charles imagines that he’ll impress the locals with his Parisian ways, and he poses “putting his hand in his vest and looking off in the distance to imitate the pose given to Lord Byron by Chantrey.” Everyone except Eugenie and her mother are appalled by Charles for a range of reasons. To Grandet, Charles represents possibly the worst affront to a miser: a spendthrift who doesn’t understand the value of money, and he can’t get his nephew out of the house fast enough. Meanwhile Eugenie’s suitors, sensing a “common enemy” scramble into action, and Eugenie and her mother scrape together items they consider luxuries to offer to Charles. Of course, he doesn’t appreciate these humble offerings one bit, and he fails to grasp the cost to Eugenie.
Grandet’s house could very well feature as one of the novel’s characters. The house is freezing and ill-lit, and its walls yellowed and covered with grime. Grandet’s office is “walled-up” with only one entrance and its windows are covered by iron gratings. The banister is “worm-eaten,” the floors are covered with carpets made of rags, and the bed coverings are full of holes. Charles even begins to wonder if he’s in the right house.
Eugenie Grandet isn’t the greatest Balzac heroine by any means. She’s acted upon in most instances, and while she maintains dignity and admirable integrity, ultimately she has learned some lessons from her father and some of her final transactions between Eugenie and Charles Grandet are delivered with the sort of cold unemotional delivery that remind me of Catherine in the Henry James novel, Washington Square.
Translated by Lowell Bair.