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Gobseck by Balzac

“I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet; it is not petty spite; I like to make them feel a touch of the claws of necessity.”

The lawyer Derville is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and so I was delighted to find him again in the story Gobseck. It’s the winter of 1829-1830, and the action takes place in the salon of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu. The evening’s entertainment is over, and most of the guests have left–with the exception of the Vicomtesse’s brother and an old trusted friend of the family who turns out to be Derville. The Vicomtesse takes the opportunity to lecture her 17-year-old daughter Camille about her improper behaviour towards the Comte de Restaud. Apparently the Comte carries considerable baggage–namely his mother:

A mother who wasted millions of francs; a woman of no birth, a Mlle Goriot; people talked a great deal about her at one time. She behaved so badly to her own father, that she certainly does not deserve to have so good a son.

Ok, so the objections to the Comte are largely his mother, and the Vicomtesse adds:

So long as his mother lives, any family would take alarm at the idea of intrusting a daughter’s fortune and future to young Restaud.

I’ve read Old Goriot, so I knew just what the Vicomtesse was talking about, and at this point Derville, who finishes his hand of cards, interjects with a story from his youth. And what an incredible story this is–one that shows Balzac’s amazing powers of perception, and here he’s at his supreme best as he dissects the nature of greed and various other human vices. The story (which racks in at about 154 pages) gives us a dash of Derville’s early career, a man who according to Balzac “had not an attorney’s soul.” Derville is a successful man who’s trusted by some of France’s most prominent families, but he’s not driven by ambition–there’s some nebulous design to his actions. Can it be that he’s interested in gaining some sort of justice for those wronged in a world in which the unjust, corrupt and greedy prosper so well? Does Derville’s intelligence demand at least some sort of fascination for those he represents? Both of these elements–fascination and a sense of justice–seem to be in play when he represents Colonel Chabert.

Derville takes his story back in time to when he was a 25-year-old student lodging in a dreadful boarding house in the Rue de Gres. One of Derville’s fellow lodgers is Gobseck–a notorious money lender:

His age was a problem; it was hard to say whether he’d grown old before his time, or whether by economy of youth he had saved enough to last him his life.

His room and everything in it, from the green baize of the bureau to the strip of the carpet by the bed, was as clean and threadbare as the chilly sanctuary of some elderly spinster who spends her days rubbing her furniture. In winter time, the live brands of the fire smouldered all day in his grate. He went through his day, from his uprising to the evening coughing-fit, with the regularity of a pendulum, and in some sort was a clockwork man, wound up by a night’s slumber. Touch a wood-louse on an excursion across your sheet of paper, and this creature shams death; and in something the same way my acquaintance would stop short in the middle of a sentence, while a cart went by, to save the strain to his voice. …

His life flowed soundless  as the sands of an hour-glass. His victims sometimes flew into a rage and made a great deal of noise, followed by a great silence; so is it in a kitchen after a fowl’s neck has been wrung.

A miserable and appropriate image indeed. Derville is clearly fascinated by Gobseck, and over the years, an unlikely relationship slowly develops between the two men, and strangely this relationship grants Derville an education in the deviousness of human nature. Here’s Gobseck to the young Derville:

You have all sorts of beliefs, while I have no beliefs at all. Keep your illusions–if you can. Now I will show you life with the discount taken off. Go wherever you like, or stay at home by the fireside with your wife, there always comes a time when you settle down in a certain groove, the groove is your preference; and then happiness consists in the exercise of your faculties by applying them to realities.

According to Gobseck there is only “one concrete reality” in the world, and yes, it’s GOLD which he says “represents every form of human power.” Living next to Gobseck over the course of several years, Derville sees many people from all walks of life fall into the moneylender’s dreadful and pitiless power. There are some people who seek money from Gobseck to assuage the vices of others, but there are also members of the ‘finest’ families in France who come to Gobseck’s door as a result of a range of secret behaviours. Derville sees it all, and amasses experience through witnessing the constant, unceasing caravan of the desperate who seek money from the hands of Gobseck–the moneylender of last resort.

One of the things that amuses Gobseck the most is the massive, constant upkeep of the wealthy. Here’s Gobseck arriving at the home of a certain Countess de Restaud to collect his money:

A painter would have paid money to stay a while to see that scene that I saw. Under the luxurious hanging draperies, the pillow crushed into the depths of an eider-down quilt, its lace border standing out in contrast against the background of blue silk, bore a vague impress that kindled the imagination. A pair of satin slippers gleamed from the great bear-skin rug spread by the carved mahogany lions at the bed-foot, where she had flung them off in her weariness after the ball. A crumpled gown hung over a chair, the sleeves touching the floor;  stockings which a breath would have blown away were twisted about the leg of an easy-chair; while ribbon garters straggled over a settee. A fan of price, half unfolded, glittered on the chimney piece. Drawers stood open; flowers, diamonds, gloves, a bouquet, a girdle were littered about. The room was full of vague sweet perfume. And–beneath all the luxury and disorder, beauty and incongruity, I saw Misery crouching in wait for her or for her adorer, Misery rearing its head, for the Countess had begun to feel the edge of those fangs. Her tired face was an epitome of the room strewn with relics of past festivals. The scattered gewgaws, pitiable this morning when gathered together and coherent, had turned heads the night before.

So the signs of vice are slowly demolishing the beauty of the young Countess, and Derville goes on to tell the tale of just how he becomes involved with Gobseck and his business dealings with the Restauds. Gobseck predicts the worst for the Comte and the Comtesse de Restaud, and Derville sees Gobseck’s worst predictions come true.

Anyway, an incredibly powerful novella–one that immediately shoots to my favourite Balzac list. Not only does Gobseck give us another glimpse of the intelligent and fascinatingly elusive Derville, but here we also see just how Gobseck–one of literature’s greatest creations operates and exists parasitically on the vices of others. Yet we should remember that Gobseck only feeds the vices that already exist–he doesn’t own a gambling house, he doesn’t encourage spending or the keeping of mistresses (or gigolos), he just feeds the vices of others until those vices consume those who indulge weaknesses.

Pay the price of your luxury, pay for your name, pay for your ease, pay for the monopoly which you enjoy! The rich have invented judges and courts of law to secure their goods, and the guillotine–that candle in which so many lie in silk, under silken coverlets, there is remorse, and grinding of teeth beneath a smile, and those fantastical lions’ jaws are gaping to set their fangs in your heart.

Translated by Ellen Marriage

(The photo depicts Fabrice Luchini as Derville in the film Colonel Chabert)

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