Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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!

Any takers?

9 Responses to “Honoré de Balzac – Eugénie Grandet”

  1. Cliff Burns

    Bless you for reading a novel that requires time, effort and an intellectual commitment on the part of the Reader. Too many people out there go for light, frivolous reading, escapism, anything with a cute vampire on the cover or the latest fake memoir. It’s luvly to know the classics still hold appeal to discerning souls and that the term GOOD BOOK isn’t always an oxymoron…

  2. Litlove

    I would love to read the entire Balzac oeuvre one day – just not right now! But I like him a lot and have read some quite obscure novels like Ursule Mirouet (also good in its way). Eugenie Grandet was one of the books I used for my finals and I can still remember Eugenie looking in her mirror at herself, and at the reflection of Charles out in the garden and telling herself she isn’t beautiful enough for him. To love is to lose part of one’s narcissism, was the tagline, I recall.

  3. ds

    Oh dear, oh dear. I remember the greed of old Grandet, but Eugenie and Charles escape me. The state of the book–cracked spine, old note between the pages–tells me I read it, but the state of the mind–blank–tells me to do it again & make a better job of it this time! Thanks (I think)!

  4. Stefanie

    I’ve never read Balzac before. A short story or two maybe. Is this the first book in the “project?” It sounds great. I would love to give it try sometime but I have yet to finish Proust!

  5. Dorothy W.

    Oh, dear, I’m a good candidate for this large project of yours because I finished all of Proust not too long ago! But I’m trying to steer clear of big projects right now … I would love to read Balzac soon, though. You make him sound very appealing. I’ve been on a bit of a 19C novels kick lately, so Balzac would fit right in.

  6. Amateur Reader

    My favorite Balzac, as you know. Lovely book.

    I am all for the Comédie Humaine project. Great, great litblog idea. If anyone does it, please let me know.

    I feel that I should point out, though, that the Pléiade edition fills 12 volumes, with page counts ranging from 1,574 (!) to 1,984 (!!). I don’t know how much of that is notes. But, assuming a conservative 1,60o pages per volumes, that’s 19,200 pages.

    Makes the 3,000+ of Search look almost reasonable. But Balzac is approximately 3 times easier to read than Proust, and his party scenes do not last for 300 pages. But, again, I haven’t found the artistic equivalent of the “Combray” section of Swann’s Way in Balzac, not even in Eugénie.

    As litlove said, Ursule Mirouët is a good follow-up. Balzac described it as Eugénie Grandet with a happy ending.

  7. verbivore

    Cliff – Your comment made me wonder whether Eugénie Grandet might have been considered somewhat frivolous reading when it first came out. It was a best seller and perhaps Balzac was trying to do something different than his peers at the time, documenting bourgeois life. It would be interesting to go back and read reviews written upon the novel’s reception.

    Litlove – I’m very tempted to embark on a year or two of Balzac, I’m not even sure it would feel like work, despite the length of the project. He’s so readable!

    Ds – oops! This happens to me all the time. In fact, this was technically a re-read but so much of the book seemed completely new to me.

    Stefanie – I believe Eugénie Grandet was one of the first to be published, but almost everything he wrote ended up in La Comédie Humaine is some form or another. He was a great reviser, Balzac, and redid his work continually, updating the overall project as he added new novels.

    Dorothy W – I think the great thing with Balzac is that you can slowly read him without it ever having to “feel” like a great project. Some characters do come back but each book stands alone. I salute you for finishing Proust – that is an achievement.

    Amateur Reader – I am considering a Balzac project, but wouldn’t be able to start until next year. Even though the sheer volume of Balzac is overwhelming (more than overwhelming, those page totals should just be ignored!) he is very readable and I think that helps. I’ll try to add a few more by the end of the year and see how I feel about a more concentrated read next year. I loved Eugénie Grandet, just loved it.

  8. aimee

    I’ve just finished Eugenie Grandet (yes, on a Saturday night) — and have gladly stumbled upon your blog… I’m interested in this Proust/Balzac challenge, as I’ve just read Swann’s Way as well this month. I’m going to mull that one over for a bit! It would be quite a commitment. Although, I do think Balzac would be the easier of the two to read, although I’d be hoping for a few happier endings than Eugenie. Call me crazy, but “Suffer, then die” isn’t the most uplifting of life lessons 🙂

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