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Tony Grist

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First Thoughts On Eugenie Grandet [Jan. 13th, 2008|11:11 am]
Tony Grist
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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: saare_snowqueen
2008-01-13 03:20 pm (UTC)
A few years ago I woke up and realised that I didn't remember 3 words of ALL the books I'd read to get my degree. so I embarked on a private re-reading program - much like yours. Oh, the delight of discovery - the Bronte's for myself, and Flaubert, and Dickens - yes and so many others - haven't got to Balzac - yet as I am still enthralled with Henry James - but I will - Oh yes I will.
Happy reading.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-13 04:00 pm (UTC)
"Happy reading"

And the same to you. There are so many good books out there and I've read only a fraction of them.

Balzac is going to keep me going for a while I think- even if I only bother with the acknowledged masterpieces.
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[User Picture]From: saare_snowqueen
2008-01-13 04:59 pm (UTC)
I've found that is a good start BUT there are undiscovered treasures in the lesser known works as well. Charlotte Bronte could almost be described as heralding the renaissance of feminism and suffragism in her 'other' works. I was transfixed by her description of 19th century England.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-13 05:23 pm (UTC)
It's one of my guilty secrets that I've read nothing by Charlotte Bronte- not even Jane Eyre. It's an omission I'm going to have to address.
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[User Picture]From: arielstarshadow
2008-01-13 04:23 pm (UTC)
I'm doing the same as well - though I've slowed down a bit simply because I've got so many in my to-be-read pile it's ridiculous.
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[User Picture]From: ingenious76
2008-01-13 03:34 pm (UTC)
I read Balzac - I think you joined my flist after I finished reading A Harlot High And Low, a brilliantly plotted and tense psychological thriller in which the Harlot of the title is proven to be a minor character. Another I think you'd like is Cousin Bette, which I read five years ago - a tale of skulduggery and corruption in the most respectable of families.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-13 04:01 pm (UTC)
Now I've started on Balzac I'm determined to continue. Thanks for the recommendations.
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[User Picture]From: margaretarts
2008-01-13 03:53 pm (UTC)

Thanks for this teaser -- now I'm interested in reading Balzac. It's true, even though I'm an English Lit major (and before that a French major) I never read him in college. Will try to find him at the library.

This is my hero (see userpic): poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89). He came a bit later than Balzac (1799-1850). Hopkins probably read Balzac's work at Oxford. I like to find connections between writers whose lives overlap. Sometimes you find that they actually met one another and wrote something about it in their letters or journals. Hopkins and Yeats, for example. Then Yeats and C.S. Lewis. It makes history more communal, less faraway.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-13 04:04 pm (UTC)
I like Hopkins too- a true original.

Yeats knew everybody- and formed a bridge between the "last romantics" and the 20th century modernists. He's my very favourite poet.
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[User Picture]From: margaretarts
2008-01-13 04:28 pm (UTC)

Funny that these are our two favorite poets, yet Hopkins and Yeats had an unfavorable impression of one another, at least at their first meeting. Of course Yeats was in his teens then, and Hopkins in his 40s. But I think I remember reading that Hopkins went back to visit more than once -- Yeats' father had an artist's salon going on at the time (1880s), is that right? There was a female artist there who became good friends with Hopkins (yes, just friends) but I can't remember her name.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-13 04:48 pm (UTC)
I should imagine the teenage Yeats was pretty obnoxious. He was never exactly a nice man. He wrote somewhere (quoting from memory)

"The soul of man must undertake
Perfection of the life or of the work."

And what he chose was the work.

Yeats Snr was a professional artist so- yes- he probably had a salon. I've no idea who Hopkins' lady friend would have been.
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