Balzac Mania: Eugenie Grandet

Balzac mania.

Others have had it, never I.

I prefer Zola to Balzac and have read many of Zola’s 20 Rougon-Macquart novels.

Balzac, my new hero.

Balzac, my new hero.

Of course I’ve also read Balzac over the years, and I love Cousin Bette. But Balzac is choppy.  He includes too much background at the beginning of his novels.  Once you get to the true starting point of his books, however, they are remarkable.

Last week I read and fell in love with Pere Goriot.

There are 90 novels, novellas, and short stories in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.

And I just finished Eugenie Grandet (1833), a realistic novel about miserliness. Like the other hundreds of my favorite books, it is a stunning, richly-colored novel.  It has been compared to the dramas of the 17th century, and Balzac himself was thinking of Moliere’s Harpagon in the play, The Miser, when he conceived the character of Grandet.

Set in a small country town, it is the story of a miser, Grandet, and the effect of his inability to love on the fate of his wife, Madame Grandet, and daughter, Eugenie.  When his brother commits suicide, he is equally unable to care for his nephew.  And it is this, in the end, that ruins lives.

eugenie_grandet old penguinGrandet, a master cooper, owner of vineyards, and financier, began to make his millions “when the French Republic put the Confiscated lands of the Church up for sale.”

His isolated wife, Madame Grandet, and daughter, Eugenie, are accustomed to living penuriously:  the house is cold–fires are allowed only Nov. 1-March 31–and they are half-starved, because Grandet doles out the food and provisions to their maid, Nanon.

Grandet keeps the women sewing full-time, keeping the linen in good condition.  Grande is so strict that if Eugenie wants to embroider a collar for her mother, she must do it late at night.

And if not for Nanon, the quality of life for the Grandet women would decline:  although Nanon, whom no one except Grandet would hire because of her ugliness,  accepts his ways, she calculates how to make the food go further, warms them with her brazier on cold days,  and often schemes to help her favorite, Eugenie.  Madame Grandet and Eugenie are meek.

The novel begins with a description of the gloomy houses in a quarter of the country town, Saumer. The stark setting of the houses reflects Grandet’s severity.

In some country towns there exist houses whose appearance weighs as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister, the most dismal ruin, or the dreariest stretch of barren land.  These houses may combine the cloister’s silence with the arid desolation of the waste and the sepulchral melancholy of ruins.  Life makes so little stir that a stranger believes them to be uninhabited until he suddenly meets the cold listless glance of some motionless human being, shoes face, austere as a monk’s, peers above the windowsill at the sound of a stranger’s footfall.”

Once Balzac finshes the exposition, the plot of the novel fascinates.  Whom will Eugenie marry?  That’s what the people of Saumer want to know.  On Eugenie’s 23rd birthday, the Grandets  entertain two families, the Cruchots and the des Grassins, each with a young men who wants to marry Eugenie.

eugenie-grandet-honore-de-balzac-paperback-cover-artMonsieur Cruchot, a notary, and Abbe Cruchot, an official of the church, have a self-confident, successful nephew, a magistrate and president of the court.  Madame des Grassin and her husband, a banker, hope  their 23-year-old son, Adolphe, a law student, will prevail.

The townspeople gossip and are divided in their opinion about who will marry Eugenie, but most reckon without the presence of Charles, Grandet’s nephew.

That night, Charles arrives at the party uninvited, because his father, a Parisian millionaire, has sent him to stay with his uncle for a few months.  Having been  told Grandet is rich, Charles has had a manicure, bought rich new clothes, and arrived in style in a beautiful carriage.  When he sees the starkness of the house, he believes his father must have been mistaken about the money.

Grandet is displeased to see him.  The women, on the other hand, have never seen anyone as beautiful as Charles and welcome him.  Eugenie does everything she can to make his room nice, even sending Nanon to a store to buy a wax candle (they use tallow, because they’re cheaper).

This could have turned out to be a comedy of errors.

Instead, it is a tragedy, because Charles’ father lost his money, sent Charles away, and then committed suicide.  Grandet will not help Charles, and sends him away to the Indies with only money for his fare.

When Grandet finds out that Eugenie gave her birthday money to Charles, he is furious.  And this causes a falling-out with the women that changes their future.

The incredible detail with which Balzac describes Grandets’ household, in particular the lives of the three women, makes for a striking, vivid social history.

Balzac does some moralizing.  He believed immorality and materialism were rampant in post-revolutionary France. He lets us know that Paris corrupted Charles.   When Charles tries to make money, he deals in slaves, because it is the most profitable.  He cares only for money when he goes back to Paris.  He has no compassion for people.

To see things as they are, there, means to believe in nothing:  in no affection, in no man, not even in events–for events can be falsified or manufactured.  To see things as they  are you must weigh your friend’s purse every morning, know the proper moment to intervene or twist whatever may turn up to your profit, suspend your judgement and be in no hurry to admire either a work of art or a fine achievement, in every action look for the motive of self-interest.”

Honestly, are things so different in contemporary America?

Fabulous book!