by Honoré de Balzac
In Balzac's vast collection of novels, most of which are contained within The Human Comedy, he features many characters who appear in many different books, with varying degrees of prominence. In one, we see a small minor character with no lines. In another, the story is all about that same character. It is one of the elements of his work that gives Balzac's novels their impression of a sprawling portrait of the world the author lived in. It is one of the great feats of literature in any language. Nevertheless, the dozens of books vary a great deal in their accomplishment. Some are great intricate works of art. Others are pulpy vignettes. Balzac seemed to have been a man driven to make literature, and there was a rough exuberence in his output that reflected, too, his moments of greatness as well as his own foibles and slips.
In several of his works, there lurks in the background a nevertheless necessary character. He is Gobseck, the money-lender. As so many of Balzac's stories revolve around the issue of money and status in French society, the money-lender is vital to painting a complete portrait. Gobseck is a miserly old man, Jewish and Dutch in descent (and, though there are temptations to see the many negative Jewish stereotypes of his day in his descriptions of this character, Balzac doesn't really belabor the point or create a cartoonish caricature). Gobseck lurks through these novels, appearing in the background, or popping up in a scene or two. Here, in this small novella (published in Le Monde in 1830, but under this title for the first time in La Comédie Humaine in 1842), Gobseck gets the author's direct gaze.
Narrated by a lawyer with whom Gobseck had a business relationship, we learn of the kind of man Gobseck was, his ruthless adherence to a kind of code of money-lending, and his self-serving manipulation of the weaknesses of those who have come to him for help, sometimes in their most vulnerable moments. Gobseck grows rich on these dealings, but only insofar as he takes advantage of people who have fallen into financial need through their own misdeeds. The culture of the upper class Parisian is portrayed as quite corrupt. Every man has a mistress; every woman has a lover; every youth is striving for position and money. And when these men and women go a bit overboard with the jewelry, gambling and spending upon their lovers, they need a little boost from the money-lender, often in contravention of their marriage vows. For the women, these laws also govern how their husbands hold power over them and their finances. A rich woman, fallen from favor, alone and broke, is the most miserable figure, and yet Balzac conveys her complicity in her collapse. While she has no power in her society, she also knows the rules she is breaking. And so does Gobseck, who takes advantage of every bend and break to make his profitable deals.
But the lawyer, here, tries, at least once or twice, to recover lost fortunes, working quietly in the shadows lest Gobseck find out his own manipulations. He tells Gobseck's story for a young woman who has fallen in love with a young man whose family was laid waste by Gobseck's clever dealings. The lawyer attempts to make that fortune return upon Gobseck's death. His tale is dire and bleak, but has a note of hope, at least for this one family. It is easy to imagine Balzac's stories taking place within a landscape of darkened interiors, dusty stairwells and icy streets; that would suit the cold darkness of many of his characters. But this is also within the glittering world of the wealthy 19th-century Parisian, a world undercut by corruption, lust and dissipation. And that's not to mention the grim sight of a miser's vast collection of wealth and junk, cluttering up the garrets over Paris. This might not stand as one of the finer tales in Balzac's ouvre, but it helps to complete the vast picture he painted over the years.
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Also by Balzac: [Cousin Pons] [Cousin Bette] [Ursule Mirouët] [Pére Goriot] [Eugénie Grandet]