Sunday, December 14, 2008

Balzac and money

In this time when every single dinner party languishes into laments about the economy, it's fitting to read Balzac. Granted, buying the complete Human Comedy is not a cheap venture, but one can help along the economy with such an expensive outlay. Moreover, given that the Human Comedy is composed of 99 separate stories, the whole project can keep me entertained for at least two years for approximately $140 dollars (sixteen volumes purchased at $93 with the other two volumes being picked up separately through used book vendors on Amazon). The edition I purchased was edited by George Saintsbury (of History of English Prosody fame) and includes a useful introduction to each of the stories in the Human Comedy.

As Henry James notes in his essay, "Honore de Balzac", money is always of interest to Balzac and often a motivator for villainous or cowardly deeds. It is speculated that Balzac's great interest in money derived from the fact that he never could make enough to pay off all his debts. Indeed, if this is a primary reason to be so interested in money, those of us in publishing would only publish books with money as a central theme. I myself believe that Balzac, along with many French Naturalists, saw how much capitalism, in its evolving modern form, was changing the fabric of life and the values of society. Zola has that wonderful novel called The Ladies' Paradise where the real central character is the first large department store in Paris.

In regards to Balzac and money, Henry James wittingly says about one of his characters:

His women, too, talk about money quite as much as men, and not only his ignoble and mercenary women (of whom there are so many) but his charming women, his heroines, his great ladies. Madame de Mortsauf is intended as a perfect example of feminine elevation, and yet Madame de Mortsauf has the whole of her husband's agricultural economy at her fingers' ends; she strikes us at moments as an attorney in petticoats. Each particular episode of the "Comedie Humanie" has its own hero and heroine, but the great general protagonist is the twenty-franc piece.

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