Monday, September 13, 2010

#32 - Gobseck - putrid pies, mouldy fish, nay, even shell-fish, the stench almost choked me.

Some people out on the internet have been saying some nice things about me as a part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week.  Warm thanks and returned appreciation to Jenny and Teresa at Shelf Love and Rebecca Reads.*

To any new visitor not particularly interested in Honoré de Balzac, this post is a poor introduction to Wuthering Expectations.  Last week’s Moby Dick Fantasia may be more typical, but I’m not sure it’s 100% readable.  I would like to direct newcomers, and perhaps everyone else, here (This is what I do) and here (Balzac 101, part 1 – of, maybe 20? I’ve written a lot about Balzac).

Today, I look at the euphonious Gobseck (1830), one of the earliest parts of the elaborate interlocking Human Comedy, written, in fact, when there was no Human Comedy, but later reworked into it.  Retconned, as the comic book kids say.  The long (70 page) story is by no mean top-drawer Balzac, but is of great interest to readers exploring the entire big system.

Or, hang on, maybe it is top-drawer?  Don’t I want to put things in the top-drawer that I don’t use very often, because I have to get the step ladder?  No, that’s top-shelf.  Gobseck is top-shelf Balzac.  This cannot possibly have been my point.

Yes, my point – Gobseck, the story of a Paris usurer and his entanglements with a young lawyer and a Countess, intersects directly with two of Balzac’s greatest books.  The Countess is, in fact, Anastasie Goriot, the older of the two cruel sisters in Père Goriot (1835).  And the usurer, the blood-sucking Gobseck, is in fact – well, never mind who he is, but he is the source of a surprising turn of events in A Harlot High and Low (1839 and later).  Also, the young lawyer shows up in many Balzac stories, including Colonel Chabert (1832), a favorite of mine, and we learn a lot about him here.

The episode from Père Goriot, some nonsense involving the retrieval of some diamonds, makes, as I remember it, no sense at all in the novel.  In fact, I recall a long footnote in the edition I read that tried to explain the scene, which must be how I learned that I needed to look at Gobseck.  I’m not sure how much it matters, since there’s plenty else going on in the book, but I see this as a flaw in Balzac’s scheme.  His interconnections are not always seamless.

Père Goriot is a short novel.  Someone should publish Père Goriot Plus, which would include the full novel followed by the stories Gobseck, The Red Inn (1832), and the essential The House of Nucingen (1838).  They’re all pretty good – Gobseck is the weakest – and would quickly demonstrate how the Human Comedy actually works.

The title of the post is from my favorite scene in Gobseck.  The usurer has died, and is discovered to be the first of Balzac’s chain of marvelous misers (see Eugénie Grandet or the first part of Lost Illusions).  He’s becomes so grasping that, by the end of his life, he even hoards food.  Without refrigeration.  Yuck!

Translation by Ellen Marriage, from the 1897 complete Comédie Humaine.

* And E. L. Fay joins in. Fella could get a swelled head. Thanks!


  1. Haha, YES, that diamond scene makes no sense! But by that point the melodrama is tearing along at such a pace that I was just along for the ride.

    I'd be way into Père Goriot Plus. Even though it was my first Balzac, I still felt like the tantalizing knowledge of those out-of-reach interconnections was one of the most compelling parts about it.

  2. I think that's the point - by having 'Le Père Goriot' reduced, you're forced to hunt out his back catalogue: now that's marketing ;)

  3. Congrats on your well-deserved internet accolades today, Amateur Reader! I hope to get to some Balzac later this year, but this post will have to do for now. Cheers!

  4. die geneigte LeserinSeptember 13, 2010 at 8:18 PM

    His name is particularly grotesque, since "gober" in French means "to suck or devour whole." So it's almost to be expected that he'll devour other people's fortunes and suck them dry.

  5. The diamond scene in Suckdry, I mean Gobseck, has a fine melodramatic climax. I wonder to what extent Balzac assumed his readers knew the earlier story. This is all complicated, massively complicated, by his substantial rewriting (renaming of characters, for example) to get everything to fit together.

    Hunting out the back catalogue - just what I have been doing. More on that tomorrow, though. So no, Richard, this won't do!

  6. 'A Harlot High and Low' might also count as part of 'Pere Goriot Plus'. I read the former recently and it is more about Jacques Collin (aka Vautrin) than Lucien it's supposed main character. A number of the characters from 'Pere Goriot' also reappear in that book.

  7. Ed - Yes! And no - don't you think Goriot bound up with Lost Illusions and Harlot makes the book a little too thick? A lot too thick?

  8. It would be too thick a volume. That's the problem with Balzac, he makes so many interconnections between all of his characters.

  9. I didn't like Pere Goriot enough to read quite so much Balzac...but I do admit I'm interested to see how the story continues.

  10. Ah, Rebecca, Eugénie Grandet, that's the Balzac for you!

    The cynicism of Rastignac's story is so strong - "The House of Nucingen" is almost poisonous. Not Eugénie Grandet, though, not at all.

  11. So what you're saying is that if I ever do decide to jump into my Great,Long, Enormous Balzac Read, there will be top-shelf stuff amidst the gems?

    p.s. I also love Colonel Chabert

  12. Plenty of dreary or trivial or misguided Balzac. The question is, how much? I have no idea. My impression is lots, and, given his headlong speed, how could it be otherwise?

    I tell you, though, if you read it all, or anything close to it, I'll follow right along, and anything you say is good, I'll read (you know, someday).

  13. I just need to get myself organized and start reading, I have other projects set for this year but I won't be doing any of them at a breakneck speed and starting Balzac won't interfere with any of it...must get myself to a library and start digging.