Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Eugénie Grandet - my favorite Balzac novel

I won't be able to do Eugénie Grandet justice. I think it's Balzac's best novel, easily, by which I mean his most artful, the one that's perfect. Other readers may not be interested in my ideal of perfection. Balzac certainly wasn't. Henry James seems to agree with me, if I understand his speech "The Lessons of Balzac," which I certainly don't, except for that part.

Eugénie Grandet is the daughter of the richest man in a country town. Her father is a real peasant miser, so miserly that his wife and daughter don't understand how rich they actually are. Everyone else has a pretty good idea, though, so Eugénie is much in demand, although she only leaves her house to go to church.

This would seem like enough of a plot for a good novel - two families battle for an innocent girl's money, while her father squeezes them all. Good stuff. Balzac lets you think that's what the story will be for the first 30 pages or so. Then Eugénie's dandified Paris cousin suddenly crashes her twenty-third birthday party, and Eugénie's certainly never met anyone like him, and then the novel really gets going, oh yes it does. The last forty or fifty pages have some twists, or at least bends, that, for the reader who has really entered the spirit of the thing, are real shockers.

Anyway, the story in and of itself is very strong. The stage is small - the Grandet's house and garden, mostly - but the characters, the clashes, are big.

I suspect that I like this novel a bit too much to write about to effectively right now, but tomorrow I'll try, or try again.

21 comments:

  1. I'm planning this one for a holiday reread - it has been nearly fifteen years since I read it the first time so I've forgotten much and my French wasn't good enough for the nuances at the time, I think, so it should be a really rewarding re-read. I look forward to what else you have to say!

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  2. I have an 18-volume set of Balzac's novels and yet haven't gotten to him. Your review has reminded me I need to do myself a favour and get on it! Thanks!

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  3. verbivore, enjoy. I think there's actually a lot in Eugénie Grandet for a contemporary writer - a lot of real craft. I try to get at some of that today.

    Wow, an 18 volume set. Reading the whole thing doesn't seem as crazy to me now as it once did. Not that I'm going to do that. Although see Friday's post for more on that sunject. I mean, don't see it now, see it on Friday.

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  4. 1. I'm with DreamQueen: I need to read some Balzac.

    2. How on earth do you read this much and still hold down a day job? Wow.

    3. Your headlines are always super-tempting. I especially liked "At last he grew passionately fond of the panther." I mean, how can we not come over here to see what that's all about?

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  5. First, as to the headlines, I give all credit to Balzac, et al.

    Second, as to reading so much, I'll confess that for the Big Balzac Blowout, I am eating the seed corn to some degree. Some of these I haven't read for a couple of years.

    Third, I think any Victorianist would get a kick out of Balzac. For example, the way he writes about money, a bit like Trollope, but more direct, more crass. Or the un-Victorian sexual frankness. Or the stories involving the super-criminal Vautrin, ancestors of the police procedural - Wilkie Collins certainly knew them.

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  6. This was your favourite. Interesting to know what others prefer. Richard on Caravana de recuerdos mentioned that you don't like La fille aux yeux d'or either. It is the only Balzac I did not like. My favourite is Les illusions perdues, followed by La cousine Bette et peut-être Le père Goriot. I think I prefer his Parisian novels. I am planning on making a post on Balzac very soon. Hope you might come and have a look and comment. (I am French should you wonder). Maybe I will do it in a week or two.

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  7. Thanks for the tip - I will keep an eye put for your Balzac post.

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  8. And I have come upon this place by lost ways... er, I mean via XIX век, and I was delighted to find your Eugénie Grandet posts, because I recently had to be dragged kicking and screaming to read it (I was underwhelmed by La Peau de chagrin, but my readers insisted I give him another chance), and I thought it was just terrific. I'll probably try Le père Goriot next. I'm looking forward to your Chernyshevsky readalong, though I don't intend to read along; Nabokov put me off him for life. I agree with argumentativeoldgit (great moniker) in your announcement thread: "let me say that I'd be interested in what you all have to say about it, and keep it there!"

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  9. hat, if anybody's readers are always right, yours are. I can hardly believe Eugénie Grandet and La Peau de chagrin are by the same writer.

    Thanks for the Chernyshevsky encouragement - I'm gonna need it.

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  10. I'm a great fan of Languagehat's blog. I'm extremely grateful to him for introducing me to Hugh MacDiarmid's poetry and for many other wonderful things I found at his blog.
    Since we're listing our favorite Balzac's novels, mine are:
    La cousine Bette, Le lys dans la vallée and Pere Goriot.

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  11. All right, Le lys dans la vallée is in the two-thirds of Balzac I have not read. I have made a mental note.

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  12. Having mentally perverted Le lys dans la vallée to La valise dans l'allée, I may never be able to remember its correct name, but I will try to keep it on my reading list.

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  13. La valise dans l'allée, that should be a French novel, but not by Balzac. By Queneau, maybe. Or Simenon.

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  14. I finished Goriot and wrote about it here. (Good, but not as good as Grandet.)

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  15. For a true Balzacian, Goriot is the entry into the big system of the Human Comedy, but as an individual work of art Eugénie Grandet is easily superior.

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  16. It's funny, if I were into French literature the way I'm into Russian, I'd be rubbing my hands and plunging into the whole Comedy, but as it is I'm just marking it down mentally for future reference.

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  17. It would be fun, taking a run at the whole big mass, despite the highly variable quality of the writing and ideas. But I'm not going to do it.

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  18. Goriot is really good, I like Le cousin Pons too, But my favourites are Béatrix, Le lys dans la vallée, Le cabinet des antiques, Les illusions perdues, Les secrets de la princesse de Cadignan or La duchesse de Langeais and some short novels / shorts stories like Le chef-d'œuvre inconnu or La maison Nucingen (with its wonderful narrative plan: an anonymous narrator, hidden with a lady he doesn't name in a restaurant private room, listens to the dialog behind the wooden partition, a dialogue between they both know and a dialogue full of digressions and no action at all).
    Beatrix over all the others.

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  19. Goriot is very good, Le Cousin Pons too. My favourites are Béatrix, Le Lys dans la vallée, Les illusions perdues, Le cabinet des antiques, Les secrets de la princesse de Cadignan and La duchesse de Langeais. Some other novels are so badly written you should avoid them. Instead, try short novels/short stories: Le chef-d'œuvre inconnu first of all, or La maison Nucingen with its wonderful narration: the anonymous narrator is hidden with a lady in a private room in a restaurant. They hear people coming in the adjacent room, just behind a wooden partition, recognize their voices and stay silent no to be seen — so they listen to the dialogue, a dialogue full of digressions, anecdotes, etc.

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  20. Thanks, I'll put Béatrix at the top of my list.

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  21. What an interesting list of favorites. No one reading Balzac in English would ever come up with it. Les illusions perdues is a common favorite in English I guess. And Le chef-d'œuvre inconnu is one of mine, for conceptual reasons.

    So I am filing this list away - thanks.

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