Saturday, November 21, 2009

Père Grandet

It’s an obvious comparison – the two great misers of French literature – the subject of a well-known essay by 19th century French critic Hippolyte Taine. And, aside from the intense love of lucre, they could hardly be further apart. It’s not just that Molière’s Harpagon is a comical creation, a laughingstock, rather incompetent in the end, while Grandet has a kind of near-tragic dignity, and remains formidable to the end. As Taine points out, Harpagon is a man born into the middle-class who stoops to avarice, while Grandet is an elevated peasant and cooper, who builds an empire.

Harpagon for all his miserliness, is hardly connected to the physical world – the conventions of 17th century French comedy, the bienséances, dictate a limited range of objects in the play’s universe and a limited, proper vocabulary to describe them. We hardly pot of gold (cassette) that is stolen from the miser, and his frugality is mostly conveyed through talk.

By contrast, Grandet has his hands on everything – not only does he cut the family’s bread and determine the menu, he also replaces a loose tread on the stairs with his own hammer and a piece of old wood, builds shipping cases for his soon-to-be-exiled nephew, and (with two trusted servants) lugs hundreds of pounds of coins down the stairs into a waiting wagon late at night, in order to accomplish one of his financial masterstrokes.

And it’s not just the physical specificity. Grandet knows the inventory of his possessions and income to the sou. He can calculate interest rates and rates of exchange in his head. Not just a miser, he is a brilliant businessman who knows how to negotiate with Belgian wine dealers when the prices are high, calculate the return on timber plantings, and take advantage of opportunities in the complex floating relationships among gold, francs, and government paper. He even, from a distance, manages (somehow – repeated readings still stump me exactly how) to trick the Parisian moneymen, making a tidy profit from his brother’s bankruptcy.

What a multifaceted, surprising, dense character, not a “humour” of stinginess. He is s skinflint in the home, true, measuring out the use of coffee, firewood, and candles, and he does like to count and handle his money– all what you might expect.

But there is so much more. He enjoys manipulating others (the greedy bourgeoisie of Saumur), so that they end up working for him without pay. He knows how to emulate generosity, so that his nephew thinks he is being helped, not swindled. He is what is now called a locavore, getting his vegetables, game, firewood, and other products from his tenant-farmers for free, a kind of twisted Robinson Crusoe of self-sustenance.

Perhaps the most brilliant stroke is Grandet’s tactic of deliberately stuttering when doing business, a ruse we are told, he picked up from a Jewish merchant, in the only ca where he himself had been outdone in a business deal. Stuttering, as we learn, motivates others to complete your sentences, turning rivals into unthinking advocates for the stutterer, making them end up acting against their own best interests. And we see Grandet use this ruse (and we too get impatient reading these passages).

Grandet is a horrible, obsessive man, but in a society where no one but the innocent Eugénie is at all admirable, Grandet is no more of a knave than those he is cheating, and is devilishly fun to see in action. The analogue to his character is not Harpagon but Volpone.

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