A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Sometimes, such a heaviness hangs over the beginning of a book that the pages feel almost literally heavy to turn. This was the case with Eugénie Grandet, which I’ve owned for years, and been intrigued enough to start reading over and over again, but never got past the beginning until now. It wasn’t dull, precisely: it just seemed off-puttingly, depressingly heavy.
My book is a Penguin Classic, a translation by Marion Ayton Crawford. Some years ago I made an attempt with the original French as well, but was forced to admit to myself that the language wasn’t the problem. Crawford’s translation is lucid and elegant enough, and true to the tone of the original. The timing simply wasn’t right, and I couldn’t get past that suffocating beginning with its piled-on descriptions of Saumur and the Grandet household.
Eugénie is the daughter of an old miser, who is reckoned to be the richest man in Saumur, though how rich precisely nobody can guess. The heiress is pursued by local families whose marital ambitions old Grandet shrewdly exploits to his own ends. With her soft-hearted, timid mother, and an old servant ‘girl’ Nanon who has more backbone and common sense than the rest of them put together, Eugénie leads a simple life with few pleasures. Everything is done according to Grandet’s strict rules: no matter how cold the autumn, a fire isn’t lit until a specific date in November. The life of the Grandet women is repeatedly described as monastic, but even for a monastery, Grandet’s household is depressingly ascetic.
But then Grandet’s impoverished nephew Charles descends upon the cloistered family, and opens Eugénie’s horizons. Charles is young, charming, very handsome – and at this point in the book, still an unwritten page, with sentiments and visions of the future that Eugénie hopes to share. I’m not telling you what exactly happens, but needless to say that Eugénie’s youthful hopes will suffer bitter disappointment in the hands of others. Old Grandet does love her, but not enough; and cousin Charles does have enough finer feeling in him to love her back – but not enough. The book is not long and the plot is not complex, and to tell too much would be to spoil its surprises, of which there are some, if not many. Nothing in this book turned quite the way I expected – for good or ill.
It suddenly strikes me that if you enjoyed Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (and especially its bitter parts), you might enjoy Eugénie Grandet as well. There is something that connects these two books in my mind, though Balzac’s tone is overall more sly and sardonic. Eugénie’s character – and the character of her suffering – is very different from Lucy Snowe’s, and even at his most biting, Balzac is strangely forgiving. He seems to be fundamentally sympathetic even towards awful characters who do awful things.
I often had to put the book down for a moment, with my finger between its pages, and pause to consider what I was reading. Not because the writing was difficult to understand, but because I was slightly disturbed by Balzac’s vision. It was almost too human. Even when the characters are not exactly realistic, even when the structure of the novel is clearly calculated for effect, there is something – some undefinable quality – in Balzac’s writing that comes across as almost disconcertingly human. Now that I finally got to grips with Eugénie Grandet, I look forward to reading more of his novels; this one was an early novel, written in 1833, so no doubt his vision will refine itself as the Comédie humaine progresses.
Perhaps most of all, I admired the fine and subtle symmetry in the structure of this short novel. Eugénie’s lack of experience is contrasted with Charles’ experiences in the world; and her character becomes, in the end, not so much a contrast as an ennobled version of her father’s. Late in the book, there is a marvellous moment: ‘then and there she made up her mind to turn an impenetrable face to the world, as her father had done’. Balzac’s Eugénie, beaten down by disappointments in life, takes on qualities from those who have disappointed her and refines them into something great. The naive girl becomes an intimidating cipher, but one who is comparable to a saint. The metamorphosis is impossible to describe; it must be experienced for yourself.
(The cover image is from the old Penguin edition that I’ve got; the new one is different, and – if you ask me – less fitting.)
Penguin Classics, paperback, 256 pp. ISBN: 014044050X