Monday, February 18, 2013
Gobseck by Honoré de Balzac
Such a fascinating character deserves an equally fascinating story
Originally published in 1830, Gobseck is among the earliest handful of works to be included in Balzac’s magnum opus La Comédie Humaine, a collection of over 90 novels and stories in which he attempts to depict all the myriad aspects of French society. This novella contains many of the same characters that feature in his novel Père Goriot. Though that masterpiece was published five years later than Gobseck, the two works must have been conceived somewhat simultaneously, as their stories are intricately interwoven. That said, one need not have read one in order to enjoy the other, and even those with no knowledge of Père Goriot can still appreciate Gobseck.
Late one evening in the salon of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu, the conversation turns to the discussion of a young man, Ernest de Restaud, for whom the Vicomtesse’s niece Camille bears some romantic feelings. A guest and friend of the family, the attorney Monsieur Derville, shares a story from his past which he claims relates to the young man. The connection is not readily apparent, however, as the story he tells is primarily concerned with a former neighbor of his, the moneylender Jean-Esther van Gobseck. “Daddy Gobseck,” as he is sometimes affectionately called, is an aged man of action with a mysterious past whose entire existence and personal philosophy revolves around the acquisition of wealth. He craves money not for the things it will buy him, but for the effect it gives him over people’s lives. He considers himself and a small group of his professional colleagues to be the ten most powerful men in Paris. As people of all walks of life come crawling to him, begging for loans at usurious rates, their personal dramas become to Gobseck what the theatre is for art lovers. He is a connoisseur of desperation. Derville develops a social relationship with his neighbor, but eventually must consult the moneylender on a matter of business. From that point on he becomes Gobseck’s legal advisor and bears witness to many of the old man’s dealings. When Anastasie de Restaud, the daughter of Père Goriot, consults the usurer in hopes of concealing from her husband the fortune that she has wasted on her lover, the real drama of the story begins.
The novella starts out auspiciously enough. Balzac’s character sketch of Gobseck is remarkably vivid and absolutely fascinating. The book takes a turn for the worse, however, the deeper it delves into the affairs of Madame de Restaud. The dramatic events that lead the characters to seek out the moneylender are riveting. The mathematics of their business transactions, on the other hand, often dull the emotional impact of the plot. In Gobseck, as in other of his works, Balzac demonstrates his fascination with legal proceedings. He delights in the mechanics of wills, deeds, writs, and contracts—a proclivity that this reader, for one, does not share. Were it not for the tedium and confusion inspired by so much clerical detail, Gobseck would likely be every bit as strong as Père Goriot.
If you haven’t already read Père Goriot I would strongly suggest you do so, not because it’s a prerequisite for reading this book, but simply because it's Balzac’s greatest work. If you enjoyed that excellent novel, then you will probably find much to appreciate in Gobseck as well. Despite the preoccupation with legal matters in its latter half, Gobseck is still a very good story overall, and Balzac has endowed it with a few truly unforgettable scenes. The singular title character alone makes it well worth the reading.
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