31 July 2007

Honore de Balzac - Eugenie Grandet

This is one of Balzac's earliest novels, and one of his best. It is, as with most of his works, concerned primarily with money and inheritance, and the darker impulses of men which interested him.

Monsieur Grandet is a cooper and winegrower who, by assiduous harbouring of his wealth, and good business dealing, has come to accumulate a fortune. Very few people are aware of this, not even his wife or daughter, the eponymous Eugenie, due to his compulsive secrecy and obsessive scrimping. Only his lawyer and his banker, who compete to provide a match for Eugenie from their families, know about his riches.

Grandet is a fabulously drawn character, a miser, but not a caricature. Balzac observes him close-up, and creates a consistent, although terrifying man, all emotions sacrificed to the obsessive, and pointless, accumulation of wealth, to the exclusion of even his own family. A criticism of Balzac is his cynicism - he finds avaricious, malicious people more interesting, so his novels are dominated by them, and Grandet is an extreme example.

Eugenie is less interesting to begin with, not just because she is good, but because she is a child, simple and without many character traits, so she genuinely has less interest. As she grows more bold, and then hard, her character develops, but still the heart of the book is with her father. Balzac's rhapsodising over Eugenie never convinces, it feels forced and not true to life as he observed it.

Grandet is a sort of counterpoint to Pere Goriot. Both are obsessed and ambitious, but whereas Goriot sacrifices himself for the sake of his daughters, Grandet sacrifices his family for his own sake, to the extent of forcing his daughter to forgo her inheritance from her mother so that he doesn't have to disclose his wealth. He is a monster, but such is Balzac's skill that he isn't implausible.


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