I finally finished Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet Friday afternoon. I love how Balzac writes, even when he does narrative summation – something which can overwhelm sometimes in older novels. But Balzac manages to keep the tension alive even when he’s covering several years and lots of events in a single paragraph. Perhaps it’s the power and inflection of his narrative voice. Or the sheer confidence of his storytelling.
Eugénie Grandet is primarily a love story. Although I would argue it has two main characters. First is Eugénie, who falls in love with her cousin. And second is Eugénie’s father, whose love and devotion to his money gives Eugénie’s less-experienced passion some stiff competition. And of course the book isn’t really JUST a love story. It’s about greed and family legacy, about small-town social machinations, religious devotion and martyrdom. This last theme is what I found myself reading for the most. Balzac makes Eugénie into a perfect martyr and her movement toward that decision (because really, it’s her choice) was fascinating.
Eugénie Grandet is filled with all sorts of surprises. The first surprise to me was Eugénie. Balzac describes her in the beginning as an ignorant fool. And she is. But she develops over the novel in such a way that you almost wonder whether he was teasing you to start. For example, the very first time she’s confronted with a difficult choice (between her father’s wishes and her desire to please her cousin), she doesn’t hesitate for a second to find a way around her father. She may be ignorant but she very quickly digs her heels in and decides to do what will make her happiest. That self-will transforms itself into something self-defeating later on as she accepts a series of disappointments.
Something else I find surprising is the way Balzac doesn’t pull his punches. His entire project was to reveal the multi-faceted face of humanity and he doesn’t disappoint. Eugénie’s cousin Charles is a good indication of how well Balzac understood human nature. Charles evolves over the course of the novel and the result is fairly disappointing until you realize how many clues Balzac leaves along the way. Charles’ character develops as a result of circumstances and personality, two aspects of human existence Balzac grasps nearly perfectly.
It’s funny to me how much more often people give themselves Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu as a project. I think Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine might be even better – more entertaining and just as insightful. They are very different projects, if we take the author’s intention as a starting point, but both deal with the fundamentals of existence. A comparison of these two monumental works would be fascinating – I won’t be volunteering for that job anytime soon, just throwing the idea out there for someone else!