Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review of Eugénie Grandet

Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac, 1833. Read in French. Glossy's rating: 3.5/10.

To a large extent this is a novel about cheapness. The title character's father, an epically miserly wine grower, is at least as much a focus here as Eugénie herself. Having amassed enormous amounts of money through his business acumen, he stinges on heating, candles and food, wears old clothes and lives in a dilapidated house.

I'm a little less down on cheapness than Balzac was. Being a spendthrift is easy and common. Chasing after pleasure is foolish. There seems to be a finite amount of it that most people are able to experience. This limit is probably determined by our brain chemistry. In fact, drug addicts sometimes reach a condition called anhedonia, where their capacity to enjoy themselves becomes exhausted.

By buying a bit of pleasure now we seem to be only borrowing it from the future. For example, the only way to treat post-coital tristesse is by making sex less pleasurable with drugs like Zoloft. We quickly get used and desensitized to expensive and fun things. It's a mistake to imagine that monks enjoy themselves less than billionaire playboys, or that blind, deaf or wheelchair-bound people experience less pleasure than healthy ones.

The smart thing to do in life is to simply pursue one's goals, leaving the pursuit of happiness to idiots with low future time orientation. Because of how our brains are set up, you will end up enjoying yourself as much as those idiots, but unlike them you might also end up accomplishing a few things.

It's possible that the positive aspects of père Grandet's frugality weren't explored by Balzac because this family drama was aimed at female readers more than at male ones, and women do hate cheap men.

"A woman's mistakes almost always come from her belief in goodness or from her trust in the truth" - this assertion of Balzac's is false, but it's certainly something that women would like to believe about themselves. Truth is, in fact, too abstract and impersonal for them.

It's a genuinely sad story. I think that in general French literature is about as good at making one cry as English literature is at making one laugh. It does this by inviting the reader to pity poor, downtrodden and/or proudly lonely people.

Fortunately this didn't lead to any leftism in Balzac's case. In fact he explained père Grandet's avarice, and the general increase in avarice that he claimed to have noticed in French society of his time, by the advance of secularism, specifically by the decrease in people's fear of eternal damnation.

When Charles, Eugénie's Parisian cousin, visits his provincial relatives, he remarks that he did not think it possible for their level of wholesomeness to exist in France and that he had assumed that it could only be found in Germany.

Balzac calls Charles a "dandy" only a few years after Pushkin used that word to describe Onegin. You'd think that the French of that period would have felt themselves above any linguistic borrowing in that sphere, but in fact they did not.

Speaking of Brits, one of them was referred to here in passing as "l'insulaire", "the islander". I found that amusing.

Being a guy I would have preferred this novel to focus more on the history of père Grandet's business and less on his daughter's feelings. How does one make so much money? Niall Ferguson's history of the Rothschilds, who are mentioned in this book, and who were, by my calculations, about 7 to 8 times richer in the 1820s than Balzac's Grandet character, was an intensely interesting work, even though Ferguson had to stick to the documentary record. Novels can strive to depict a higher level of truth.

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