It will tell you something about me that the Balzac I know best is his story “Sarrasine” (1830), a text mostly ignored by readers for a century until, so the story goes, Roland Barthes came across an offhand reference to it by Georges Bataille that intrigued him enough to devote an entire seminar to the little story, the result of which was his extraordinary narratological study S/Z.
“Sarrasine” is amazing and holds up to many readings. But one story out of the thousands of pages Balzac wrote, well, it’s not much to base a judgment on, is it? (Technically I read Père Goriot a long time ago, too, but I can’t tell you anything about it except that it’s about a boarding house. It’s about a boarding house, right?) But now as part of the Slaves of Golconda group I’ve read Eugénie Grandet (1833) and I’m planning to immerse myself in Balzac as soon as reasonably possible. The guy was clearly a genius.
To come to Balzac through Barthes and post-structuralism is now so old-fashioned as to be almost quaint. The news that Princeton has bought the library of Jacques Derrida, though it warms my heart, makes me certain that the theory that was meat and drink to me is rapidly becoming antiquated. As Alexander Trocchi once said of the canonization of Dada, even “the turds of anti-art were framed and hung alongside “The School of Athens.”
Although Barthes offered his reading of Balzac as a critique of the ideological dominance of literary realism—specifically, its way of pretending that what it is doing is merely transforming things into words when in fact every thing, in this case every referent, is already produced through the combination of a number of interpretive codes—Barthes would be the first to acknowledge what time has made increasingly clear: S/Z is a paean to that realism, and especially to Balzac. Barthes described the realist writer as a painter whose main tool was not his canvas but the frame he placed around it, which Barthes employs as a figure for the condition of representability itself. To show anything it must first be selected, chosen, made. The trick played by realism—the ideological sleight of hand that bothered Barthes in the early 70s—was to pretend that the frame didn’t exist and that the canvas was simply a swathe of the real. But that didn’t mean, as critics of post-structuralism liked to say, that the art of the canvas was second-rate or disingenuous or bad. After all, S/Z is as much love letter as critique.
It’s entirely possible, though, that what Barthes said about literary realism might really only be about Balzac. Maybe the circulation of codes—by which Barthes meant both pre-established conventions for depicting and thinking about the world, and the way texts are in fact citing other texts when they claim to be showing life—isn’t the way realism works. Maybe it’s just how Balzac works. That’s the thought that came to me when I read, in Eugénie Grandet’s stilted and awkward opening pages, this description of Monsieur Grandet, the heroine’s father, a miserly cooper whose speculations first in the wine trade and later in the financial markets make him rich: “Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet had the qualities both of a tiger and a boa-constrictor.” A tingle ran down my spine. Hadn’t I read about tigers and boa constrictors before? I pulled my copy of “Sarrasine” off the shelf where I duly found this description of a woman entranced by an old man she does not yet know is a castrato: “She was under the spell of that timorous curiosity which leads women to seek out dangerous emotions, to go to see chained tigers, to look at boa constructors.”
No doubt someone has written a book on the history of circuses and the Paris zoo (which, a quick Wikipedia search tells me, was founded in 1793) or any of the other ways in which such exotic animals might have made their way to 19th century France. If anyone knows about that stuff, please let me know, but honestly I’m only halfheartedly interested in that sort of background. What I’m genuinely interested in is how this repeated imagery tells us something about Balzac’s method and the preoccupations of this book. It’s not that Balzac copies himself—Barthes says copies are at the heart of Balzac’s work: what they are about and how they are made—but that in citing himself, in returning even to tropes that aren’t at all central to the subject matter of his writing, Balzac incorporates a process of circulation that is central to that subject matter.
Balzac delights in expressing and examining received wisdom; Barthes called this doxa and Franco Moretti called it Balzac’s “loquacious wisdom.” One of Balzac’s favourite formulations (present dozens of times in “Sarrasine,” admittedly less frequently in Eugenie) is “one of those”: “Prompted by one of those ideas which arise in a young girl’s heart…”; “It was one of those looks in which there is almost as much coquetry as deep feeling.” The implication is that readers will know what the narrator is talking about (ah, one of those ideas, one of those looks). The narrator becomes a kind of cataloguer of the world, able to show us what we might have missed but what, prompted by his description, we recognize as present in the world. But again the point isn’t that literature simply reflects the world beyond it but that it summons that world into being. The circulation of tropes, whether the “repetition” of known truths (“one of those”) or the self-citation of metaphors and images (tigers and boa constrictors) contributes to the way Balzac’s texts elide their own construction. How otherwise could such fanciful and melodramatic tales have come to seem so natural? The seemingly haphazard quality of the prose and the structure—this isn’t Flaubert—similarly contribute to the “natural” or “found” quality of the work: here is a slice of life.
As I said above, circulation isn’t just present in the form of the text. It’s also important in its content. The circulation of tropes that realist representation depends on is like the circulation of capital. And Eugénie Grandet is, at least superficially, about a miser (though the fact the miser is Eugénie’s father and that the book is not named for him suggests we might need to rethink that assertion). Grandet amasses his fortune first through trade (often by deviously undercutting his fellow vintners) but later through investment and speculation, where money is made from money. Rohan wrote about how unconcerned the novel seems to detail the source of Grandet’s money, how uninterested in detailing the labour that goes into making it. But from the perspective of capitalism, the more alienated capital is from labour the more powerful its ideological purchase.
That said, there are important counterweights in the novel to the idea of effortless speculation. Grandet loves gold, even picking gold threads out of a dress. He hoards copper coins in his study, so many that when he takes them out of the house, under cover of night, he needs a servant to help him carry the cauldron on a yoke around his neck. (The scene where Eugénie, half asleep and in the fever of new love, chances upon her father in this act is a masterful phantasmagoria.) In this sense wealth is highly material—and so too are the vividly evoked deprivations Grandet’s household endures as a result of the father’s miserliness, like the sugar cubes Grandet finds time in his busy schedule to cut up. Indeed, the miser challenges the idea of capitalist circulation, because he wants to hoard his money rather than keep it moving about. So although the novel depicts the increase of the Grandet fortune as implacable and inevitable, it also positions the miser as not just the capitalist par excellence, but also, more challengingly, as the limit of that economic system.
I struggled with how to understand the relation between money and heredity in this book. For heredity—by which I mean the passing on of emotional traits and values rather than of physical characteristics—seems to be something that also persists implacably. The novel tells the story of a family, but mostly it focuses on just the father and his daughter. What the daughter takes from the father is important to understanding the book’s remarkable ending. (Balzac might not be too great with beginnings, at least as evidenced by this book, but he sure knows what to do with an ending.)
The back cover of the Oxford edition I read—which comes with a really excellent, smart but not pedantic introduction by Christopher Prendergast, you should check it out if you’re at all interested in this book—asks “Who is going to marry Eugénie Grandet?” “This is the question,” the copy adds, “that fills the minds of the inhabitants of Saumur,” the town in the Loire where the book is set. Amateur Reader has pointed out that this is not really the question of the book. I submit that if there were something like a guiding question for the book it would be something like: “How should we understand Eugénie’s fate?”
I love the book’s way of wrong-footing us, of presenting scenarios we’ve seen before and then upending them. When Eugénie’s glamorous and spoiled Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, and when the girl is instantly smitten with him to the point of giving him her heart, and, just as importantly in this novel, paying off his debts, we think we know what to expect. Surely this rakish dandy will do her wrong; surely he will be her ruin. When Charles learns, shortly after his arrival in Saumur, of his father’s suicide after the shame of becoming a bankrupt and accepts that his only hope of recovering any position in Parisian society is to seek his fortune in the Indies, we are sure he will abandon to Eugénie. And in this case we are right, just as we are also right that Eugénie will hold fast to his memory. Charles, who whatever his flaws was always rather sweet, becomes hardened in his seven years overseas—not least because he soon realizes that the real money is in selling people not goods. Embroiled in the slave trade—in “unremitting contact with selfish interests”—he becomes hardened and cynical: “his feeling for others contracted and withered away.” Balzac immediately adds that after all Charles is a Grandet: “The blood of the Grandets fulfilled its destiny. Charles became hard and ruthless in the pursuit of gain.” That ruthlessness extends to his personal life. On the ship home, Charles meets a titled, well-positioned family that has been much reduced materially. Although he doesn’t much care for Mademoiselle d’Aubrion—and Balzac does his best to make sure we don’t either, describing her as “thin and spare, with a supercilious mouth, dominated by a blunt, over-long nose, which was normally yellowish but became quite red after meals, a kind of vegetable phenomenon that is more unpleasant in a pale, bored face than in any other”: nothing by halves for our Balzac—Charles marries her anyway, because her family’s connections will open Parisian society to him. So important to him is this idea of securing a brilliant position that even when he learns that Eugénie has repaid his father’s creditors, with interest, he only pauses momentarily to lament the loss of a fortune the size of which he hadn’t suspected—what he really cares about, Eugénie can’t give him.
I suspect Charles isn’t the only Charles in Balzac’s works, and I bet some of them get their own novels. But in this novel his trajectory must remain only a sketch because its main interest is in Eugénie. Her honour has not been besmirched; she hasn’t become a fallen woman. She and Charles share only two kisses before his departure; he does not force himself upon her or leave her ruined. Nor does she simply renounce the world after her disappointment. She doesn’t become a nun, exactly—this isn’t The Princesse de Cleves. It’s true that her first reaction to the news of Charles’s dismissal of her after seven years is to calmly state that now she can only “suffer and die.” She even tells her priest that she wishes to leave the world and live in seclusion. But she doesn’t. She learns Charles’s marriage will not come off until his father’s creditors are appeased and arranges to pay all the outstanding bills. We don’t know why she does this. From self-abnegation? From a desire for revenge? To make Charles dependent on her? None of these are right. What we do know is that when she decides to take this action, a friend of the family tells her, “ ‘As you said that, your voice was just like your late father’s.’” This a moment after the text has told us: “she decided that, in future, she would assume an impassive expression as her father had always done.”
So the heredity that concerns the book pertains as much to Eugénie as to her Charles. For she too is a Grandet. And she becomes increasingly like her father. She is immured neither in a convent nor in the walled garden where she once sat with Charles, but she is imprisoned in a life of emotional nullity. Although enormously rich, she doesn’t hoard her wealth; indeed, she gives generously to charity and the Church. But the hardness that attached itself to Charles also begins to manifest itself in her. She isn’t cynical, but she does, the narrator tells us, respond to others “ironically,” a word it would never have used to describe her earlier.
It is in this spirit of emotional asperity that she agrees to marry a lawyer from Saumur, the now middle-aged son of one of two families that had been vying for Eugénie’s hand—and her fortune—since even before the arrival of Charles. But she marries Monsieur de Bonfons only on the condition that he expect nothing more than friendship from her. (And that friendship seems quite icy.) She doesn’t pine for Charles, she doesn’t preserve the memory of their courtship in Havishamian aspic. She simply turns that part of herself off. When Bonfons dies only a few years later, she becomes even richer, even more isolated, even more forbidding. The irony of the Grandet family is complete: the one who cares nothing for gold is showered with it. She uses it to do good in secret. But despite this charity, and despite her beauty, which, the narrator tells us, persists even as she approaches forty, despite her poise, she isn’t the same as she was as a girl:
She has all the nobility of grief, the saintliness of one whose soul is unsullied by contact with the outside world. But she has also the rigid outlook of an old maid and the narrow vision that comes from the restricted life of a provincial town. In spite of her income of eight hundred thousand livres, she lives as poor Eugénie Grandet used to live. She lights her fire only on the days when her father used to allow the fire to be lit in the living-room, and puts it out according to the rules in force when she was young. She always dresses as her mother did. The house at Saumur, sunless, devoid of warmth, gloomy, and always in the shade, reflects her life.
I’m interested in the way the book here reverses its understanding of the distinction between Paris and the provinces (Paris = flashy, vain, superficial; provinces = solid, demure, profound). There’s enough criticism of Eugénie in this passage to complicate the saintly resignation that would otherwise have reduced her to caricature. To be sure, if the book really believes in the ideas of emotional inheritance it so often references, then she couldn’t have ended up any other way, and so it would be meaningless to speak of criticism. And on the book’s final page, the narrator both backpedals on some of the things it says here—claiming that “the greatness of her soul lessens the effect of the narrowness of her upbringing”—and finds fault with the situation itself. Whether the tragedy is really that “a woman who, made to be a magnificent wife and mother, has neither husband nor children nor family” (a surprising thing to say, given the book’s interest in heredity, which would seems to make nonsense of the possibility raised here that Eugenie was made to be something her family could not have given her), the book does leave us feeling the hopelessness of her situation.
But Eugénie Grandet is melancholic not tragic. From the first sentence, in which the houses in certain provincial towns arouse melancholy as much in the stranger who comes across them as in the people who live in them, melancholy is referenced throughout the book, the best way to describe the strange uncertainty of the narrator’s description of the widowed Madame de Bonfons. Melancholy is the way the book gives its protagonist a fate more complicated, if not necessarily more pleasant to experience, than those typically granted to heroines of the period. I find myself thinking about her a lot, and, as Barthes once did, look forward to delving further into the vast and surprising work of her creator.