Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gobseck: Usurer or Capitalist?

Gobseck (first published in 1830) is a novella that glimpses into the life of a Parisian usurer. “Papa” Gobseck, whose origin is supposedly Dutch, with hints of Jewishness, is part of a gallery of desiccated old men in Balzac’s early fiction, along with Père Grandet and Père Goriot (all G’s!). Like Grandet, Gobseck is a brilliant calculating businessman, and like him a miser, though of different stripe, a man who combines probity and greed, cynical insight and avarice. And even a little generosity.

This is one of Balzac’s earliest peeks at the seamy side of Paris, the source of the money that floats the incessant consumption. While this book was published before the idea of a Comédie humaine, Balzac later tied it in to the one of the plot lines of Père Goriot itself. The most prominent debtor caught by the usurer is the Countess de Réstaud, Goriot’s daughter, who is supporting the extravagance of her lover, Maxime de Trailles hat dandy appears in the apartment of the moneylender, presenting a letter of credit from his mistress.
Le premier billet, valeur de mille francs présentée par un jeune homme, beau fils à gilets pailletés, à lorgnon, à tilbury, cheval anglais, etc., était signé par l’une des plus jolies femmes de Paris, mariée à quelque riche propriétaire, un comte.

(The first promissory note, valued at a thousand francs, presented by a young man, handsome youth with sequined vests, with a lorgnette, a tilbury, an English horse etc, was signed by one of the prettiest women in Paris, married to some rich landowner, a count.) We later see Goriot pay off one of the notes, from the outside in this eponymous novel, from the inside in Gobseck.

The man plot of the novella involves the financial craft with which the dying count of Réstaud, in cooperation with narrator, a lawyer, and Gobseck, manages to keep his fortune out of the hands of his wife and is lover. The financial trickery, as that in Eugénie Grandet, is suitably hard to follow. But it is significant that it is money and not love that drive the plot of the novella.

What Balzac is the great master of, the innovator in, is in his hard-nosed attitude to money and its importance as the engine of Paris society. And Gobseck, who understands all of this, can philosophize about it. The narrator outlines Gobseck's credo to the Count:

Le papa Gobseck', repris-je, 'est intimement convaincu d’un principe qui domine sa conduite. Selon lui, l’argent est une marchandise que l’on peut, en toute sûreté de conscience, vendre cher ou bon marché, suivant les cas. Un capitaliste est à ses yeux un homme qui entre, par le fort denier qu’il réclame de son argent, comme associé par anticipation dans les entreprises et les spéculations lucratives. A part ses principes financiers et ses observations philosophiques sur la nature humaine qui lui permettent de se conduire en apparence comme un usurier, je suis intimement persuadé que, sorti de ses affaires, il est l’homme le plus délicat et le plus probe qu’il y ait à Paris.

“Papa Gobseck,” I began, “is intimately convinced of the truth of the principle which he takes for a rule of life. In his opinion, money is a commodity which you may sell cheap or dear, according to circumstances, with a clear conscience. A capitalist, by charging a high rate of interest, becomes in his eyes a secured partner by anticipation. Apart from the peculiar philosophical views of human nature and financial principles, which enable him to behave like a usurer, I am fully persuaded that, out of his business, he is the most loyal and upright soul in Paris.”
Gobseck is a combination of the old moneylender and the new investor, usurer and capitalist, in just the time when the lines were getting fuzzy. While his contemporaries were writing about Renaissance princes, amorous poets, and the loves of counts and marquises, Balzac started writing about one of the stark realities that dominated his life (and everyone's life), money.

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