04 September 2015

Eugenie Grandet, by Honore Balzac

-->Balzac is fascinating to me, in large part, because of the way he brings together two aspects of the 19th century that I tend to keep separate: high flown melodrama, and the cold, methodical, calculations of finance in an age of burgeoning capitalism. You can see why Lukacs loved him so much: he is basically a one-man Marxist expose, illuminating how the sentimental frolicking of the upper classes is underwritten by money, and more specifically, exploitation, trickery, and other people’s labor. It’s dazzling. So you get these borderline tedious passages of careful accounting, who has how much money per year, in the same narrative voice that brings us the raptured descriptions of the domestic angel and her holy romantic love. Fantastic.

I think, though, that most people love Balzac for his characters, and indeed, they are delightful. Eugenie is not quite as developed as one might wish, but she is more feisty and hard-headed than it would appear at first glance (qualities, of course, that she inherited from her father). The real star is her father, the shrewd, miserly businessman. Surely someone has written a study of the miser in 19th century letters: they have a quality similar to the obsessive drive of the anorexic, a terrifyingly ascetic existence lived among abstract calculations of profit. And there's the long-suffering mother, the loyal housekeeper, the gossiping neighbors, the selfish fop, the calculating mistress... All the types you hope to see in this kind of stuff, and so much fun.

All the same, one must admit that it is a clumsy novel in some ways, and tends rather towards easy solutions to its problems. The pacing is strangely uneven, dilating on several days and then zooming ahead a few years, and the ending is hurried, almost rudely so. Nonetheless, it is a delight to read (or, in my case, listen to) -- in exactly the way that you expect it to be.