by Honoré de Balzac
While I wasn't really sure what kind of storytelling experience to expect from my first Balzac ever, what I got was so plain and old-fashioned in some respects that I at times felt a little like an early '80s postpunk fan being confronted with a mid-'70s Bruce Springsteen record by mistake. What the hell? That being said, Eugénie Grandet wasn't exactly bad as an exemplar of 19th century earnest realism. Balzac's relatively straightforward tale of woe--a miser's daughter discovers that her father isn't the only man in the world to place the love of money above love and all else in his life--is related with a subtlety that surprised me, and there was probably just enough of an off-kilter vibe to the characterizations to make up for the lack of narrative flashiness. Although I doubt I'll be reading too much more of La Comédie humaine anytime soon, that Springsteen comparison might seem like more of a slight than was called for if/when you stop to consider that this little book is big and contradictory enough to contain an outsized character like Monsieur Grandet, who at one point accuses his nephew of being a good for nothing for being more upset over his father's death than with his father's debts which he has inherited, and an occasionally sympathetic narrator who, despite casting Eugénie and her mother as "coeurs purs" ["pure hearts"] in contrast to père Grandet's personification of "L'Argent dans toute sa puissance" ["Money in all its power"], is still willing to chastise the Grandet women in a rare intrusive outburst: "Encore, combien d'ignorance dans leur naïveté!" ["Still, how much ignorance in their naïvety!"] (93).
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)
I'm two weeks late for this post due to the reading hangover occasioned by Spanish Lit Month, but Eugénie Grandet was read with Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza fame. Her review can be found here.
Ack no, I have to disagree my friend. The gender politics in Eugenie Grandet are extraordinary, and put this novel well ahead of other 'realist' 19th century works. Eugenie transcends her mother's prophesy that women's lives are just 'souffrir et mourir', and she transforms her father's miserly legacy into a new economy of self. She will no longer give herself away, as she did in her fateful love affair, she will give away his money instead and hold herself in security. This is an original rewriting of the dominant marriage plot, and one that sees Eugenie refuse her parent's inward-looking lives and turn outwards towards the world in a new kind of social engagement. Balzac is not a writer for writerly flourish, but his plots are often clever and challenging. AFter all, Barthes wrote S/Z on his novella, Sarrasine, because it was a book that seemed so conventional but turned out to be full of underlying strangeness.ResponderBorrar
I agree that there's a lot one could say about Eugénie Grandet's gender politics, Litlove, but you and I will have to disagree about the "extraordinary" part in that I'm not so sure Eugénie really does transcend her mother's prophesy. At least, there's no transcendence for the character at the end; she seems just as punished and unfulfilled as Emma Bovary or Effi Briest in terms of the choices available to her. P.S. Good to hear confirmed that "Balzac is not a writer for writerly flourish, but his plots are often clever and challenging." I wasn't concerned about that first part so much as I was surprised about it, and I have no problems assuming the latter part of the sentence is true either. Would have liked more of that "underlying strangeness" here, though!Borrar
If this really was your first Blazac, that's very unfortunate because I don't think if this had been my first I would have ended up reading at least 15 or more others...ResponderBorrar
I really hated La Fille aux yeux d'or, while I still appreciated Eugénie Grandet and know that many love it, I would never recommend it as a first. Too dry, provincial and... Everything he isn't normally. You should have started with Père Goriot or right away THE Balzac, Les Illusions Perdues.
I thought the novel was all right, Caroline, but I just didn't get anything out of it that would make me want to read tons of other stuff by Balzac just yet. Suffice it to say that I don't understand Balzacmania at this point. I already own an English version of La Fille aux yeux d'or (bought before I realized how much everybody hates it!), so I'll read that and one or both of the other titles you mention before judging Honoré too prematurely.Borrar
NOOOO. Do not read La Fille aux yeux d'or. That would drive you off the Balzac path for good. It's so sickly sweet.Borrar
Sickly sweet? I thought it was supposed to be depraved and vile. What a letdown! :DBorrar
Richard, I so admire how you write powerful posts; mine feel so very trite in comparison. It also appears to me that you read this in the original French, and I wish I hadn't let my French slip to where I can no longer read or write it as well as I once did. There's a beauty in reading a novel in it's original language which, of course, cannot be duplicated.ResponderBorrar
I, too, found the writing rather "uninteresting", and nothing can compare to Madame Bovary unless it's Anna Karenina, but I'm still glad to have read this Balzac. I liked the character study, which I found as applicable to people of our time as it was in Balzac's. Does the human condition ever change? These novels point out our flaws, even that our good sides are perhaps not so good afterall, and for that I am grateful.
I'm so glad that we read this together, and I'm looking forward to Sentimental Education which I must start soon!
Bellezza, thanks, reading EG in its original language was a worthwhile and enjoyable experience all in all--but I think this post was only "powerful" in terms of the reactions it provoked from our Balzac fan friends intent on telling me how wrong I am about the novel! That said, I agree that the character study aspects of the novel were more interesting than the prose in some ways--and the prose was likely more "subtle" than I give it credit for given that Balzac managed to hold my interest throughout. P.S. I just started the Flaubert yesterday; it will likely take me a while to get through it with my remedial French!Borrar
First, what litlove said.ResponderBorrar
Second - "earnest realism"? In this novel? Papa Grandet is a fairy tale character. And the novel is shot through with irony. You single out some examples.
Third - dry? The awaking of Eugénie's love is almost soggy. The complaints about the prose surprise me - the big set piece describing the house and the party is not well written? Perhaps my translator upon improved the French.
Fourth - there is a way this novel is unlike his others. It is far more artistically or tightly structured, comparable to Flaubert's best in this way. Balzac becomes - what's a positive word? - looser as he develops. Lost Illusions is a definitive "loose, baggy monster."
Really, though, still dogging on Born to Run, after all this time? The punks and New Wavers haven't made their peace with Springsteen? The younger ones have - see The Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady for examples.
Caroline, given Richard's tastes - Decadence, Doom - don't you think he is just the right reader for La Fille aux yeux d'or? That novella is lurid, ethically dubious, and completely insane. An authentic precursor to Osvaldo Lamborghini, or at least the Lamborghini of my imagination.
Tom, what wonderful defense attorneys you and Litlove make! However, I still wished I was reading one of your Weird France novelists instead of Balzac during much of EG. "Lurid, ethically dubious, and completely insane"? Now you're talking my language! Your third and fourth points are particularly helpful to me in terms of better appreciating and understanding this novel because Balzac's prose, while not really complaint-worthy to me here, surprised me on account of its "tightly structured" nature; I had expected him to be more ragged, more all over the place in some regard (at least in comparison to Flaubert), and I was surprised when he wasn't. There's definitely a fine amount of irony throughout as well, although I might not have appreciated that as much as you. As far as the most important point of all, my beef with Born to Run, well, some feuds are just built to last. "Thunder Road" is actually a song I think is really, really great, but the rest of that record just isn't what it's cracked up to be at all. If I had wanted to be really mean to Balzac, though, I would have compared him to Billy Joel and not Springsteen. Nuff said!Borrar
Ragged and all over the place - that's Hugo! Notre Dame de Paris, published the year before EG, is the place to go. Or maybe Gautier's conceptual cross-dressing novel Mademoiselle du Maupin (published 4 years after), granddaddy (and grandmama) of the Decadents.ResponderBorrar
Stendhal is frying other fish. His sentences can also be awfully plain.
I thought of another characteristic that separates EG from almost all of the other Balzac I have read. EG is sweet Balzac - bittersweet, yes. (Ursule Mirouët is the only novel as sweet - Balzac called it "Eugénie Grandet with a happy ending"). Père Goriot by contrast ends with the greatest declaration of principled cynicism in literature.
Thanks for all these wonderful tips--and the juicy laugh about that Gautier Project Runway extravaganza! You have sold me on Père Goriot now, by the way: "ends with the greatest declaration of principled cynicism in literature." How inspiring!Borrar
How funny that Caroline and I use the word "sweet" simultaneously, but with entirely different meanings.ResponderBorrar
What is more decadent than "sickly sweet"?
Touché! Go decadence!!Borrar
Now I'm curious and think Riahcrda has to read La Fille aux yeux d'or after all.ResponderBorrar
If I'm not totally mistaken, I seem to remember you're not too fond of it either? Put into the words you choose it does sound like Richard would like it BUT I think he will end up comparing it to Margo Lanagan. Hehe.
Richard, do it, it's short... but don't base you decision on going on reading Blazac or not on the outcome. If you like it, you will not find anything like it in his oeuvre. If you don't, you can be sure there isn't anything like it in his works.
Margo Lanagan? Now, I'm really confused about what to expect this from novella other than an unsatisfying reading experience for non-unicorn fans! However, staying true to your advice, I'll give Balzac a free pass on this one if it turns out to be a dud pour moi. Cheers!Borrar
Poor Richard, jumped on by us Balzac fans. When it boils down to it, a reader likes what they like, right? If you're ever in the mood for it, and haven't read him already, I'd definitely suggest Huysmans. Now he really is the oddest, weirdest, craziest of the French Crazies. He may be more to your taste.ResponderBorrar
Thanks, Litlove, but I'm semi-tough--I think I survived the Balzacian beatdown from you and Tom anyway! Funny you mentioning that great weirdo Huysmans, the creator of my hero/role model Des Esseintes--have been meaning to reread À rebours for a couple of years now, so this might be just the push I needed. I'm getting all tingly just thinking about it, in fact. Thanks for the suggestion!Borrar
I really liked A rebours (sorry, can never locate accents on keyboards) and would love to know what you make of it.Borrar
It's probably been a good 20 years since I last read that one, Litlove, so the reread will be a good test of how well that bottled Huysmans weirdness ages over time. Cheers!Borrar
So here's a question for the Balzac fans: what would be a good start? I'm thinking of reading Lost Illusions? Is that a good novel by him?ResponderBorrar
In hindsight, maybe I should have started with Père Goriot or Lost Illusions. However, I'm not all that bummed that I started with Eugénie Grandet. It was "readable."Borrar
A little dusty but it works!ResponderBorrar
Or skip that & read Père Goriot which is the book that really gets the interlocking-story contraption going. Lost Illusions follws PG. Just ignore the thing about the diamonds - that's all explained in separate story.
I will return to your dusty but action-packed Balzac reader's guide once I move on to my next book by him. Am also interested in some of his short stories and novellas despite my maybe being a little unkind to EG on Monday.Borrar
Hm, Père Goriot then. I have to say I was interested in Lost Illusions because the plot reminded me a lot of Eça's To the Capital, one of my favourite novels.Borrar
But I prefer to start at the beginning.
Père Goriot and Lost Illusions are both "to the capital" stories, actually, different takes on the theme. Lost Illusions is more directly parodied in the Eça novel, but there are some elements and scenes that aim at PG too.Borrar
Miguel and Tom, all this Eça talk in relation to Balzac is whetting my appetite...for more Eça! OK, maybe a little more Balzac, too (am nibbling at the much panned The Girl with the Golden Eyes today, in fact).Borrar
I ve yet to read juch of his work recently picked a couple up so will soon put my lack of knowledge on his works right ,all the best stuResponderBorrar
Stu, Balzac seems to be the type of writer that people either read early on or put off until retirement age like I did (I'm not really retirement age--it's just that my body feels like I am on Mondays). Anyway, hope you enjoy the guy's stuff.Borrar
went through a French stage in my teens & remember enjoying Balzac before moving on to the likes of Camus, particularly Old Goriot & country doctorResponderBorrar
Gary, great to have another vote of confidence in support of Goriot (and that The Country Doctor novel, which I'm way less familiar with in terms of its reputation). As far as my own "French stage" goes, though, I think I'm going to try a Hugo novel next before I take on Camus again. Cheers!Borrar