Saturday, April 11, 2015
Monday, April 06, 2015
Wednesday, April 01, 2015
Many years ago, during my French decadent period, I read The Girl With the Golden Eyes, The Unknown Masterpiece, and Père Goriot. I generally prefer other writers like Louÿs and Proust to Balzac. For Eugénie Grandet, I read the digital edition translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Since we all know the plot, I will eschew a plot summary, first to note items which stood out to me while reading, and second to assess my reaction to the story.
Cruchotines and Grassinists I adore the use of such terms for the followers of certain factions that I have found often in French writing. The idea behind these terms for a group of supporters is no different from those today who identify themselves as belonging to Team Edward or Team Jacob. Balzac and others simply make the more literary and expressive word choice.
Eugénie and her mother silently exchanged a glance of intelligence. The sentence comes before Charles is introduced, in reference to the prospects of marriage for Eugénie. This took me off guard, because it suggested a hidden plot or secret which I did not find in the text. Even rereading the passages surrounding it later, I am still puzzled.
"Well, I shall be glad to have anything to eat,—anything, it doesn't matter what, a chicken, a partridge." The hour is 11:00AM, and the subject of discussion is breakfast. I laughed at the idea that Charles would eat a chicken or a partridge for breakfast. He says it so matter-of-factly, I don't know if this reflects his normal breakfast fare, or if, like the finery he wore, he is putting on for show.
"See here, monsieur," said Nanon, bringing in the eggs, "here are your chickens,—in the shell." Nanon, the loyal servant, provides this appropriate retort several paragraphs later.
When Eugénie, aged twenty-three, first sees her cousin Charles, his Parisian elegance makes a strong impression upon the ignorant provincial girl, who considers her other suitors to be unsuitable matches. For Eugénie, "roused in her soul an emotion of delicate desire", there is nothing wrong with love at first sight.
Eugénie is plain and "a girl without the least freshness" who all believe could not hope to capture the heart of Charles. Even Charles is seen to ogle Madame des Grassins. Eugénie's features are a little vulgar, but "the lines of her figure were ennobled by the softer Christian sentiment which purifies womanhood and gives it a distinction"--by all her actions she proves herself to possess the greatest inner beauty.
"Are there not thoughts and actions in the life of love which to certain souls bear the full meaning of the holiest espousals?" For Charles, his love strikes me at best as a matter of the moment, and at worst as mere expedience. He falls in and out of love several times. For Eugénie, her love is proven eternal. Charles had been brought up and taught "to calculate everything". What Eugénie saw in him was the reflected rays of celestial light from her own soul. She was attracted only by her own noble sentiments, for "Charles was too much a man of the world ... to be possessed of noble sentiments."
Eugénie reads a letter Charles has written to a woman called Annette whom he loves in Paris. Even in the face of such evidence that he loves another, Eugénie feels only love for his poverty. And she resolves to remedy his poverty by giving him money he requires to travel. Charles releases Annette from their love, because of his poverty, prefiguring his later release of Eugénie from their promise of love because he believes her impoverished.
Annette has ingrained in Charles what they had been taught by one Madame Campan (who brings to the mind of this reader the Marquise de Merteuil): "'My dears, as long as a man is a minister, adore him; when he falls, help to drag him in the gutter. Powerful, he is a sort of god; fallen, he is lower than Marat in the sewer, because he is living, and Marat is dead. Life is a series of combinations, and you must study them and understand them if you want to keep yourselves always in good position.'" In the way of this lesson Charles proceeds to treat the good-hearted Eugénie, taking all he can from her in emotion and money in exchange for mere words and artifice.
There are passing moments when it seems and is suggested that Charles falls genuinely under the influence of love for Eugénie. When they are alone together, sitting in the garden, Charles leaves his "worldly passion" and turns to "true, pure love". But as soon as his affairs in Paris are settled, he announces that he will leave and that Eugénie ought to consider other offers of marriage. She rejects the idea, and they both pledge themselves to each other. "No promise made upon this earth was ever purer. The innocent sincerity of Eugénie had sanctified for a moment the young man's love." Soon, though, apart from Eugénie, he falls back under the influence of worldly passion. I believe all along he was merely using Eugénie, treating her well just for what he might get from her, as he had been taught--though his heart and mind have been sufficiently warped for him to believe in the moment that his feelings are genuine.
I took note of an interesting sidebar to the subject of marriage and theme of love. At the end of Chapter Nine, Nanon declares: "If I had a man for myself I'd—I'd follow him to hell, yes, I'd exterminate myself for him; but I've none. I shall die and never know what life is. Would you believe, mamz'elle, that old Cornoiller (a good fellow all the same) is always round my petticoats for the sake of my money,—just for all the world like the rats who come smelling after the master's cheese and paying court to you? I see it all; I've got a shrewd eye, though I am as big as a steeple. Well, mamz'elle, it pleases me, but it isn't love." Three chapters later, she marries the same Cornoiller.
When Charles returns to France with wealth, he is offered a marriage. He writes to Eugénie to inform her, to release her from their "childish love", so that he may marry a woman whom he does not love, but through whom he will gain a title. Eugénie is encouraged to marry another, but only after she receives word that Charles refused to make good on his father's debts does she agree to marry one of her original suitors, President Cruchot, on the condition she may pay the outstanding debts and might remain a virgin while wedded. In addressing Eugénie's decision to marry without love at the end, the literary historian and critic George Saintsbury wrote: "It is perhaps necessary to be French to comprehend entirely why she could not heap that magnificent pile of coals of fire on her unworthy cousin's head without flinging herself and her seventeen millions into the arms of somebody else".
Eugénie's love for Charles is "the love of angels". Even so, she writes to Charles a letter that barely conceals her bitterness, and states the truth she has come to recognize: "I have, it is true, no part in the world; I understand neither its calculations nor its customs; and I could not give you the pleasures that you seek in it. Be happy, according to the social conventions to which you have sacrificed our love." Eugénie is faithful with small things in God's way, and so God continues to increase her more and more. She spends the rest of her days far wealthier than her father or her suitors or Charles could ever have imagined, and longing only for heaven.
Her father, Monsieur Grandet, fights against her throughout the novel, yet even during his harshest treatment she always honors him, and is never corrupted by him. Eugénie's faith clearly comes from her mother; her father remains hard-hearted, parsimonious at best, a lover of money at worst. Saintsbury called the character of Monsieur Grandet a bold depiction of "perhaps the worst and the commonest vice of the French character, the vice which is more common, and certainly worse than either the frivolity or the license with which the nation is usually charged--the pushing, to wit, of thrift to the loathsome excess of an inhuman avarice." He went on to claim that the money-grubbing of Grandet "almost escapes greediness by its diabolical extravagance and success."
In 1839, only six years after the first publication of Eugénie Grandet, the New York Times Review wrote about Balzac in reference to this book: "...the subjects of his sketches are neither suited to our tastes, nor likely to be understood by those who are unaquainted with the character of that society from which they are taken." Though the novel is titled after and follows the concerns of Eugénie, the Review noted it is her father, Monsieur Grandet, who towers over all the other characters, through whom Balzac exposes vice "in all its naked deformities."
Charles--the object of all Eugénie's affections, and perhaps a father-substitute in her quest to be loved--proves the worse character in the end, earning his ill-gotten wages through "traffic in human flesh"--the buying and selling of people as slaves. Though such trade was not outlawed in French colonies until twenty-eight years after events in the book take place, the text makes clear that Charles had become more merciless than Grandet: "He ceased to have fixed principles of right and wrong, for he saw what was called a crime in one country lauded as a virtue in another. In the perpetual struggle of selfish interests his heart grew cold, then contracted, and then dried up."
In the preface to La Comédie Humaine, Balzac wrote: "Christianity, above all, Catholicism, being ... a complete system for the repression of the depraved tendencies of man, is the most powerful element of social order." Eugénie Grandet ends, to my surprise, as a highly religious story, with the man who goes out and experiences the world becoming corrupted by it, and the woman continually refined and elevated by her heart closer to God.
In the 1901 Dana Estes edition, Saintsbury wrote: "As a matter of fact, no book can be, or can be asked to be, better than perfect on its own scheme, and with its own conditions. And on its own scheme and with its own conditions Eugénie Grandet is very nearly perfect." I liked it, too.
There is, perhaps, in these houses, a combination of the silence of the cloister, the desolation of the moorlands, and the sepulchral gloom of ruins. In them life is so still and uneventful that a stranger would think them uninhabited, if his eye did not suddenly meet the pale, cold look of a motionless figure whose almost monk-like face appears above the window-ledge at the sound of an unknown step.What little buzzing there is in this quiet town concerns the future of the novel’s title character, Eugénie Grandet, a young woman just reaching marriageable age. Who, the town wonders, will Eugénie marry? Her father, Felix, is extremely wealthy (and extremely miserly), and so quiet, sheltered Eugénie is much sought after. But she expresses no preference—or much of anything at all—until her cousin Charles unexpectedly arrives from Paris. She becomes immediately fascinated with this flashy young men, and as she learns of his sudden misfortunes, she is overcome with pity and love.
In meeting Charles, Eugénie, who, despite being a wealthy heiress, has had to make do with very little, begins to find her own voice. She sees possibilities outside her immediate environs. Her heart has left the cloister that her father has kept her in by withholding money and cultivating his family’s dependence. And so Eugénie acts on her newfound desires, eventually causing her father to clamp down even harder, stowing her away as he does his wealth. For Felix Grandet is not merely miserly his money; he is miserly with all things—food, attention, affection, and plans. Even his stammer is doled out only when it serves to his advantage. All things exist to serve his greedy ends.
Throughout the book, Felix takes note of the household spending, even when the spending comes from his family’s own allowances. He expects them to live a certain way, storing up money just as he does. Extra lumps of sugar or pancakes for a guest are serious indulgences, not to be taken lightly. Eugénie’s great crime is not that she wanted something, but that her desires caused her to treat her possessions as her own possessions.
In meeting Charles and releasing herself from her father’s influence, Eugénie finds her own power. But is this ultimately a good thing for her? The book’s treatment of the world outside is ambiguous. Charles seems to become his best self in the cloistered world of Saumur. On the outside, he is shallow and selfish. Poverty and quiet teach him to be different. Can he leave and remain that same man?
Eugénie certainly hopes for Charles to find success and remain her loving cousin when he steps outside. She has no choice but to remain with her father, always remaining faithful. Somehow, though, she manages to hold on to the independence she found when she met Charles. When she’s free of her father, she’s able to make choices to further her own self-interest in the way she sees fit. Her money gives her much of her freedom, but her purity of character gets some of the credit as well. She uses her money to defy convention, but her defiance is in devoting herself to goodness, choosing a sort of cloistered life for herself. In that life, “the greatness of her soul lessens the effect of the narrowness of her upbringing and the ways of her early life.”
The final lines of the short novel leave Eugénie in this cloister of her own making, and I wonder if she’s happy there. Balzac leaves the question open, I think. She does not seem angry or bitter, but we’re left with the idea that she feels a lack. Her money is no comfort. Instead, “money was destined to impart its cold glitter to her angelic life and to inspire a mistrust of feeling in a woman who was all feeling.”
Eugénie is the kind of character who could easily be written off as too pure, too obliging, too angelic, but I have a hard time seeing her that way. She is good, but her goodness is not weakness. In her, Balzac offers a character whose purity is her strength, and she is strong.
Also posted at Shelf Love
I’m not sure how much longer Eugénie Grandet will stick with me, but I did enjoy the reading experience much more [lots of spoilers ahead!]. Like Cousin Bette, it’s a critique of society’s obsession with money and the way the hunger for money corrupts and ruins lives. But perhaps Eugénie as a character is more memorable than anybody in Cousin Bette. Yes, she is drawn in broad strokes and the very large changes she makes throughout the course of her life are described quickly, but I think the shortness of the book and the relative brevity with which many of the events are described work well. We can see the larger point Balzac is making about greed, enjoy the satirical way he portrays many of his characters, feel pity and horror at Monsieur Grandet’s miserliness, and even suffer a little at Eugénie’s fate, all in a book that’s only about 200 pages. I like long novels very much, but perhaps I don’t like long novels by Balzac.
I seem to be confessing a lot in this post, so let me keep going: I had a hard time with the novel’s opening pages, the description of the town of Saumur and the Grandet home. I read and reread those pages, and I couldn’t pin down the details in my mind. I also couldn’t keep many of the minor characters straight, those Cruchots and des Grassins. It didn’t seem to matter much as I read along that I couldn’t remember who was who and what their relationships were. Those characters are there to make a point collectively, to illustrate the greediness of the town generally and the atmosphere in which Eugénie lives — one in which everyone is after the Grandet money but everyone generally loses their money to the Grandets instead. These characters spend their whole lives trying to ingratiate themselves into the Grandet family, hoping Eugénie will marry one of them, or her parents will marry her to one of them, and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that they are spending decades in this one pursuit.
The heart of this book seems to be the relationship between Eugénie and her father Grandet, and then the ways that Grandet haunts her even when he is gone. Through the influence of her mother, most likely, or just through strength of character, Eugénie passively resists her father’s greed and miserliness, keeping a freshness and innocence throughout her young life. When her cousin Charles appears on the scene, she finds a reason to actively resist her father: romantic love. She wants to provide for Charles, to give him the comforts she has grown accustomed to living without herself, and she doesn’t care about the money involved. And then she commits the act that her father finds it nearly impossible to forgive, giving away money itself.
But what does she get in return for her generosity and love? She gets to do the thing so many women get to do in novels: wait. And she is waiting for a man who fell in love with her, yes, but who is not worthy of her. He was a young dandy when they first met, vain and foolish, but after his father’s bankruptcy and his desperate need to make money, he becomes truly corrupt, making that money through slavery and wanting only to reappear in Paris a fabulously wealthy man. Poor Eugénie keeps believing in him as long as she can, but her faithfulness gains her nothing. Or perhaps it does gain her something — it seems to insulate her from corruption herself. She stays true to idea of love, even though she doesn’t ever experience it again herself.
Ultimately, the book seems to be exploring what greed does to the emotions, the way it shrivels them up and kills them. Or if it doesn’t kill them, it turns them against the one feeling them, becoming a burden:
and yet that noble heart, beating only with tenderest emotions, has been, from first to last, subjected to the calculations of human selfishness; money has cast its frigid influence upon that hallowed life and taught distrust of feelings to a woman who is all feeling.This is a melancholy tale, but it is kept lively by Balzac’s wonderful descriptions, like this one of Grandet:
Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.Or this one of the Cruchots and des Grassins:
All three took snuff, and had long ceased to repress the habit of snivelling or to remove the brown blotches which strewed the frills of their dingy shirts and the yellowing creases of their crumpled collars. Their flabby cravats were twisted into ropes as soon as they wound them about their throats. The enormous quantity of linen which allowed these people to have their clothing washed only once in six months, and to keep it during that time in the depths of their closets, also enabled time to lay its grimy and decaying stains upon it. There was perfect unison of ill-grace and senility about them; their faces, as faded as their threadbare coats, as creased as their trousers, were worn-out, shrivelled-up, and puckered … A horror of fashion was the only point on which the Grassinists and the Cruchotines agreed.These people are just horrible. Balzac is wonderful as describing horrible people! This seems to be where much of the book’s energy lies: in capturing just how truly terrible people can be.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
I look forward to the book--I've hardly read any Balzac--and to hearing what you have to say. Thanks to all who voted. Don't forget, anyone can participate.
Tuesday, February 03, 2015
Any other suggestions?
Monday, February 02, 2015
Friday, January 16, 2015
Seventeen-year-old Alice lives in a poor South London neighborhood with her father and mother and a menagerie of animals that come and go, sometimes going home and sometimes to the vivisectionist. At his best, her father is cold, but he can also be openly cruel and demanding. Both Alice and her mother seem terrified of displeasing him. When her mother is ill, she pleads with Alice not to tell him that she’d been lying down to rest.
When Alice’s mother dies, Alice’s situation becomes more desperate. She reaches out to one of his colleagues, a man who appear to be in love with her but whom she does not love in return, and he gives her a way out as a companion to his mother, a woman engulfed in grief and living in a partially burned home under the care of terrible couple who take pleasure in treating her poorly.
Alice, meanwhile, discovers an unexpected source of freedom. She realizes that she can float in the air. But just as she’s starting to learn to control and enjoy this ability, it becomes its own prison, with disastrous results.
In trying to work out what this book is actually about, I keep coming back to the fact that her father is a veterinarian, and the women in his home are treated no better than the animals in his care. The fate of the animals in his care seems completely subject to human will, and Alice’s fate is completely subject to the will of others.
At one point in the book, a parrot who lives in Alice’s house because the owners pay the vet to keep it is consigned to a downstairs lavatory because its chatter annoys Rosa, Alice’s father’s new girlfriend. Banished by its real owners, it is then banished again by its caretakers. Alice and the parrot are alike, right down to having their most notable skill become their biggest source of trouble.
Every bit of Alice’s life, even the good parts, is governed by someone else. She has to follow her father’s rules to the letter. The few bits of freedom she has are those he allows or those she sneaks. Her only way to get help is through another man. One man she meets attempts to rape her, and another woos her only to abandon her without a word. She never gets to make a proper choice for herself. She doesn’t have much more freedom than a pet, but she has a human mind.
All of the woman are pets, to some degree. Some are treated well, but hardly any of them get to make their own choices. All are at the mercy of the men who care for them. They may attempt to intercede for one another, but the success of those attempts are still subject to the choices of men.
But how does the turn toward the supernatural fit in with this idea? Maybe Alice’s ability is a way of showing that freedom cannot come through ordinary means. Women’s earthly talents are no good in this universe, so perhaps they need an unearthly talent. Yet, for Alice, that talent is also a prison, turning her into an organ grinder’s monkey. Literally breaking the law of gravity isn’t enough to free her.
Review also posted at Shelf Love.
Then I looked back a few pages, spotted a one-sentence flashforward whose significance I'd failed to note previously, and all was forgiven. I love dead narrators. Alice Rowland has been playing this card--that she's talking to us from beyond the grave--close to the vest.
Many things are played close to the vest in The Vet's Daughter, leaving the reader at the end not quite sure how we're supposed to interpret certain events, or even certain characters. For example, the novel opens with a description of a "man with small eyes and a ginger moustache" who walks along the street with Alice while she "was thinking of something else. . . . He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps." This man is not seen or mentioned again until the final pages of the book. Clearly Comyns intends the ginger man to serve more purpose than arouse Alice's pity--but what? I can't worry it out.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is the story of Alice Rowland, 17-year-old daughter of an abusive London veterinarian who is more apt to send an unwanted puppy to the vivisectionist for a pound than to put it down humanely as he is supposed to. He's broken Alice's mother's front teeth with a kick in the face, and even worse, her spirit. He mostly ignores Alice since she disappointed him by being born a girl, but she's still frightened of him. Their house is grotesque--dark, smelly, decorated with the rug of a Great Dane's skin and a monkey's jaw, filled with animals in cages that Alice is required to take care of.
One night shortly before Alice's mother, who is dying of cancer, is euthanized against her will by Alice's father, Alice listens to her mother reminisce once again of growing up on a farm in the mountains of Wales: "Dark brown moss grew in the mere by the farm; and once I saw a little child floating on the surface. She was dead, but I wasn't afraid because she looked so pure floating there, with her eyes open and her blue pinafore gently moving. It was Flora, a little girl who had been missing for three days. . . "
The morning that Alice is told her mother has died, she sees a Jacob's ladder that the sun has made across the floor of her mother's bedroom.
After the funeral, Alice's father goes missing for three weeks. He returns with a barmaid --the strumpet from the Trumpet-- Rosa Fisher (a fisher of men?), who he euphemistically tells Alice will be their housekeeper. Rosa quickly assumes an evil stepmother-like role in Alice's life. One afternoon while fixing their lunch in a steamy hot kitchen Alice imagines--or so she thinks at first--that she is floating above water in the mountains. "This wonderful water world didn't last long because a mist came, and gradually it wasn't there, and something was hurting my head. Somehow I'd managed to fall on the kitchen floor, and knocked my head on a coal scuttle. Coal had got in my hair, but otherwise everything was as it had been before I'd seen the water garden--just boiling beef and steam, and heard Rosa's and Father's voices coming through the wall."
Alice hasn't realized it, but her mother's reflections and death have inspired her to begin levitating. For most of the book, I was prone to read these instances metaphorically, as they happen after times of great psychological distress for Alice. Yet Comyns has Alice read ghost stories and Alice mentions how happy her mother's ghost must be when she leaves home to be a companion on an island for Henry Peebles' mother (Peebles is a kind man who cares for Alice, although she does not particularly want to marry him). There's no denying that there's something supernatural going on here, especially once you accept the story's being told from beyond the grave.
And after Alice's father decides to exploit her talent, once she has returned home following Mrs. Peebles' suicide, to have her "rise up before all the people on the Common" it becomes clear that Comyns is turning Alice into a Christ figure, parodying the Christ story, since, as a character explains, the beauty in Alice's case is she isn't religious: Alice is given wine to drink and thinks it must be blood; she smells sour bread and cockroaches; she is kept prisoner; she exclaims, "Please God, don't let that happen to me. Father don't make me do this thing. I don't want to be peculiar and different. I want to be an ordinary person. I'll marry Henry Peebles and go away and you needn't see me any more--but don't make me do this terrible thing."
Alice's ordeal is not removed. Alice, in despair and humiliation, is brought in a bride's white dress, in a hearse-like carriage, to rise up and then come "down amongst the people." Trampled by a frightened crowd milling about in circles, she dies. Unlike the man with the ginger mustache, who dies with a terrified expression on his face, at the moment Alice's life is finished, she states, "[F]or the first time in my life I was not afraid."
And now I'm left with the thought: is the man with the small eyes and the ginger mustache a stand-in for the reader? A small-eyed someone Comyns and her characters briefly walk beside while thinking of something else?