January 13th, 2008

First Thoughts On Eugenie Grandet

What do I know about Balzac? Well, he was a genius. He wrote La Comedie Humaine- an interlocking series of novels designed as a complete overview of early 19th century French society. He was commemorated by Rodin in a rough hewn monolith which is one of the greatest modern sculptures.

But I've never read him. Does anyone read him? My World's Classic copy of Eugenie Grandet from Oldham Library was borrowed twice in 2006 and once in 2007- so I suppose they must do.

First impressions: 

If he were English he'd be the missing link between Jane Austen and Dickens. He has Austen's fascination with the minutiae of social interaction and Dickens' love of the in-your-facedness of the physical world. He's also- like both of them- really quite funny.

Like most 19th century novels Eugenie Grandet is about money. There are three things that rule society- Money, Birth, Land and the biggest news of the century is that money has elbowed past the other two and is now top dog.  A millionaire winegrower can buy out a Marquis. Pere Grandet- the millionnaire winegrower- is that stock figure of 19th century fiction- the miser. He loves his money. He doesn't want to part with it. His friends and neighbours- the lawyer, the society hostess, the abbe, the magistrate- representatives of church and state- want to get hold of it in the shape of his daughter- the simple-minded but sympathique Eugenie. Pere Grandet has other plans. And into this stifling set-up (we're in the provinces and- as I've observed elsewhere- no provincial town is as provincial as a French provincial town) steps Eugenie's cousin- a penniless Parisian dandy....

And that's as far as I've got.

Balzac is a realist.  He spends pages describing things. If you were filming this book the costume designer and the set-designer would find all they needed in the text- right down to the ornaments on the mantlepiece. People are their houses, are their clothes. Very modern, this. Very lifestyle magazine. The Parisian dandy is presented to us in terms of all the fashionable tat he is carrying in his luggage. 

And it works. These people are very vivid.  There's not much going on inside their heads except gimme, gimme, gimme- but I'm interested,  I care. Apart from describing them- at length- Balzac presents them in vivid little tableaux. When his society guests arrive Pere Grandet is down on his knees with a hammer mending a broken stair. It tells you all you need to know about him. a. He's working class and proud of it. b. He's too mean to hire a carpenter. c. He doesn't give a fig what his neighbours think of him because he's the one with the money. d. He may be an old codger but he's still vigorous. There's a certain complexity here. Grandet's not just a miser- not just a type or archetype; there are things about him you can't help but admire.

So what happens next?  I haven't a clue. And here's an oddity: usually these classic novels are so well-embedded in the culture you sort of know them without having read them. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Tess of the D'Urbevilles: most moderately literate people will have seen the movie or the TV adaption or encountered them in conversation and have some sort of rough idea what they're about. But that's not true of Balzac - at least not in England, it ain't. So here I am, reading a 19th century classic as if it were just off the press- unmediated, free of prior assumptions. It's really rather exciting.