Thursday, November 20, 2008

The springtime of love for Eugénie - some notes on Eugénie Grandet

So I think Eugénie Grandet (1833) is Balzac's best book, by a length. But I don't want to argue with anyone who prefers the wide-eyed cynicism of Père Goriot, or the grand opera of A Harlot High and Low, or the hysterical comedy of Cousin Bette, or the sweetness of Ursule Mirouet. Well, I want to argue a little bit, but I won't. I'll just look at some of the best things in Eugénie Grandet.

I mentioned yesterday that the basic story of Eugénie Grandet is uncommonly interesting. The story is ingeniously structured. This gives me an excuse to count things.

The Penguin Classics edition I read this time is 216 pages long. The first 23 pages give us background on the town of Saumur, the Grandet house and garden, and the life of Papa Grandet. Then, starting with the evening of Eugénie's twenty-third birthday, the next three days fill 113 pages, more than half the novel. That first evening alone takes up 37.

Then it's "the springtime of love for Eugénie," which lasts 10 pages. "Since that kiss in the passage, the hours had slipped away for Eugénie with terrifying swiftness." That's it, that's what's going on here. The structure of the novel exactly mirrors Eugénie's love for her cousin. Nothing happens in her life until that fateful birthday, when the cousin arrives. Then, for three days, every detail about every aspect of life becomes inordinately interesting. Once the love is mutual, time simply vanishes. The last fifty pages cover twelve or thirteen years. They're quite eventful, to the reader, but nothing in Eugénie's life will ever match those three days.

Eugénie and her father share the book in some ways, and both are wonderful characters. The art with which Papa Grandet's miserliness and deviousness are woven into the story, and the surprising directions from which his conscience occasionally intrudes (he's not quite a monster, he falls just short), are marvels. But it's Eugénie's name in the title; it's Eugénie's story that controls the entire structure of the novel.

When I talk about Balzac's, or any novel's, perfections, this is part of what I mean. Eugénie Grandet has some of Balzac's best descriptive passages, and three or four really fine characters, and a snappy story. But it's the combination of the characters, and the structure, and the details of the house and town that amaze me. It's all perfectly logical, inexorable, as if there were no other way to tell the story. There are some transitions, for example, from paragraph to paragraph, that were startling but exactly right. Maybe I'll save that for the next reread.

If Balzac's other novels are this good, then I have failed to understand them. Which, come to think of it, is likely. Good, that gives me something to look forward to. Perhaps someday I will write about my discovery that Père Goriot is, it turns out, Balzac's best novel, obviously.


  1. As well you should, because it is. Pere Goriot, I mean. Feel free to argue away. Looking forward to it.

  2. OK, here's a "for example." What do you think of the Jacques Collin Manifesto in Père Goriot? I think it's an excrescence, an esthetic blunder. Why does it go on so long?

    I can't say I'm a big fan of the entire subplot with Collin, but it's that speech that I wish Balzac had axed.

  3. Well, yes, it goes on too long. But you have to take the good with the bad. The passage's length is part of the point, n'est-ce pas? We're supposed to be getting exasperated. Frankly, I blame Walter Scott. I mean, have you read "Quentin Durward?" I thought that thing would never end. Or "The Black Dwarf" -- blugh. Also: remember, Pere Goriot was originally a serial. Padding is to be expected. I don't think that Collin is his finest hour, character-wise and development-wise, but you can't just write off the whole beautifully convoluted plot (which is impressive in that it is right on the edge of spinning right out of control, but never quite does) because there's one part that kind of drags and is annoying. I mean, sure, it's why I don't read James Fenimore Cooper ("The Prairie" in particular -- Ellen Wade, good God, yuckyuckyuck, bleah) (and while I'm thinking of it, I guess Balzac was kind of into Cooper, wasn't he?) but that doesn't mean you just decide that it all stinks.
    I got plenty tired of all the ridiculous, unending horrible stuff that Thomas Hardy kept on making happen to Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, but I think the book itself, viewed from a substantial distance (hee) is a fine thing.

  4. Now wait, the issue here is perfection. No one is deciding it all stinks. Père Goriot is my 3rd or 4th favorite Balzac - I say so here.

    Nevertheless, this has pushed me in a useful direction. At wiki, I found a French critic, Pierre Barberis, who does not just defend the Jacques Collin manifesto, but declares it "one of the great moments of the Comédie humaine, and no doubt of all world literature".

    Holy mackerel. No doubt! All of world literature! This is, clearly, from someone who reads fiction for very different reasons than I, but further research, something close to actual research, is perhaps required. Anyway, that speech is not filler, no more than the Paris architecture chapter in Notre Dame de Paris is filler. I suspect and fear that Balzac thought it was tres, tres importante.

  5. Oh, don't be such a grump. It's Thanksgiving time...if not a time of miracles, at least a time of sweet potatoes and marshmallows and tryptophan. I am also of the opinion that Dickens included plenty of filler. The milliner's bill was due, the tobacconist needed paying, what's the problem with throwing in an overlong scene or two? Hee.
    I think this is connected to our fundamental disagreement on several things, including but not limited to your ability to sit through complete albums (seriously -- Tales From Topographic Oceans? Really?) whereas I am, through and through, all about the singles.

  6. A vile calumny! I am being confused with someone else, and must defend my honor. I have never heard a note of Tales from Topographic Oceans, own no albums by Yes, and have never listened to one all the way through, except possibly Fragile, twenty years ago. I like "Roundabout" all right, I guess.

    I seem to be constitutionally suspicious of prog. Otherwise, point taken, and likely correct.

  7. I'll continue this offline, but basically: I know you, I have known you for better than 20 years, I know where you lived in college, and you, my friend, sat through "Tales From Topographic Oceans" if for no other reason than your proximity to several certain individuals on the third floor. Unless you just left and hid out at the library a lot. And I can't *believe* that you like Balzac and you don't like prog rock. "Misplaced Childhood" is more or less Eugenie Grandet set to music, for crying out loud! And Amon Duul II? Seriously, it's like the Ossian cycle gone (even more horribly) wrong. More later. Gotta go read the news and weather.