"A bourgeois tragedy without poison, dagger, or bloodshed"
Balzac, in "Family Sorrows"
After finishing Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, I went to see a new French film, Summer Hours. The amazing thing is that the 1833 novel is paced almost exactly like the 2009 film. The French seem to have time in novels or film to let things play out without rushing them and, given our penchant for action, the French films seem slow. Very slow.
What I liked about Eugenie Grandet was the portrait of bourgeois French life in a provincial town in which Eugenie's father becomes rich by doing the capitalist thing and double-crossing others in his village and then, with piles of gold in his house, pleads poverty. In this sense the book reveals a great deal about the opportunity for wealth created in the 1820s at the end of the Empire and the beginning of a new France, one not dominated by aristocrats, but open to the wiles of clever businessmen like Grandet, who understands, like Jeremy Bentham, that money is a commodity.
Like a good farmer, Grandet sees that money begets money. However, Grandet is not a farmer, but a cooper, and he puts his skills to work by secreting his gold in small barrels. Ironically, his clever business deals sound very much like modern deals with bonds and derivatives and I constantly expected the bubble would burst. But it did not.
Eugenie Grandet is a love story too, but of no kind that makes sense to us today. Eugenie remains faithful to her first love, her cousin Charles, a cad who eventually marries a woman for her title and her money. The irony, however, is that Eugenie inherits her father's unsuspected 17 millions and if Charles knew, he would have married her.
Eugenie herself marries on condition that Des Grassins, her husband, demand no sex. That way she can be faithful to her true love. And since her husband primarily wants her money, everyone is happy.
The French Film is about successful French upper middle class people. A sister (living in New York), a brother (in Peking) and an older brother (in Paris) inherit their mother's country house with magnificent art and antiques. One wants to keep the house for the next generation, the others need the money and realize they will never come back to the house. The next generation is interested in hip-hop music, drugs, vodka, and mild orgies, and they do not recognize the name Corot even though there have always been two splendid Corot's in the house.
There are some marvelous ironies in both works, and some lovely writing in Balzac. He was one of Proust's favorites, as well as a favorite of Henry James. Both those writers have important essays on Balzac. Flaubert also much admired Balzac and this particular novel and I suspect, as well, that Dickens found him instructive.