Saturday, May 22, 2010

Balzac’s “L’illustre Gaudissart” (1834)

"L'illistre Guadissart" id a pretty slight anecdote in the tradition of the country rubes putting one over on the city slicker. The master travelling salesman Gaudissart who can sell anything to anyone, it seems, makes the mistake of wandering into the countryside around Tours, Balzac’s home town. The Tourangeaux, we are assured, are famous for their love of practical jokes and their disdain for Parisians. And Gaudissart is persuaded to sell subscriptions to a left-wing journal, to a certain landowner, who, if he can be won over, it is claimed, will be imitated by everyone else in the region. The sale almost seems too easy to the smooth-talking Gaudissart, who also agrees to take some wine off the landowner at a good price.

He is informed by his laughing innkeeper that the landowner is in fact the village lunatic. Furious, he winds up challenging the man who fooled him, all of which ends in a comical duel and reconciliation.

Just a few observations: Gaudissart represents a truly new man, whose presence in life and in fiction will expand exponentially with the advent of the railroad. The growth of the middle-class, the expansion of the products, culture, and ideas of Paris and its luxuries, and the at-least partial invasion of both modern capitalism and socialism ]into the provinces are all major engines of the century. The fast-talking salesman is the harbinger of these changes.

And Balzac describes the traveling salesman a veritable Prometheus,
Le Commis-Voyageur n'est-il pas aux idées ce que nos diligences sont aux choses et aux hommes ? il les voiture, les met en mouvement, les fait se choquer les unes aux autres ; il prend, dans le centre lumineux, sa charge de rayons et les sème à travers les populations endormies. Ce pyrophore humain est un savant ignorant, un mystificateur mystifié, un prêtre incrédule qui n'en parle que mieux de ses mystères et de ses dogmes.

(The commercial traveler! Is he not to the realm of ideas what our stagecoaches are to men and things? He is their vehicle; he sets them going, carries them along, rubs them up with one another. He takes from the luminous centre a handful of light, and scatters it broadcast among the drowsy populations of the duller regions. This human fire-bearer is a scholar without learning, a juggler hoaxed by himself, an unbelieving priest of mysteries and dogmas, which he expounds all the better for his want of faith.)
Second, critical to the story is the conflict between the natural conservatism of the countryside and the radical Saint-Simonism of Paris. Henri de Saint-Simon, even in the reactionary years of the Bourbon restoration, publish his socialistic crutique of society, most notably in Le Nouveau Christianisme (1825). By 1830, the cult of Saint-Simonism was at its height, and it is the Globe of that griup that Gaudisssart, who sees it as just another product to sell in place of stockings, more profitable for his superior salesmanship,.

Finally, outwitting the city-slickers is a also big part of Eugénie Grandet, located in the same area. Père Grandet’s a financial whiz, but play-acts deafness and obtuseness, and use steh vanity of his sophisticated adversaries to trick them. Peasant cunning figures in Zola. in Maupassant, in Stendhal, where country folk play dumber than they are, to trick the self-important.
L'Illustre Gaudissart devait rencontrer là, dans Vouvray, l'un de ces railleurs indigènes dont les moqueries ne sont offensives que par la perfection même de la moquerie, et avec lequel il eut à soutenir une cruelle lutte. A tort ou à raison, les Tourangeaux aiment beaucoup à hériter de leurs parents. Or, la doctrine de Saint-Simon y était alors particulièrement prise en haine et vilipendée ; mais comme on prend en haine, comme on vilipende en Touraine, avec un dédain et une supériorité de plaisanterie digne du pays des bons contes et des tours joués aux voisins, esprit qui s'en va de jour en jour devant ce que lord Byron a nommé le cant anglais.

(The illustrious Gaudissart was fated to encounter here in Vouvray one of those indigenous jesters whose jests are not intolerable solely because they have reached the perfection of the mocking art. Right or wrong, the Tourangians are fond of inheriting from their parents. Consequently the doctrines of Saint-Simon were especially hated and villified among them. In Touraine hatred and villification take the form of superb disdain and witty maliciousness worthy of the land of good stories and practical jokes,—a spirit which, alas! is yielding, day by day, to that other spirit which Lord Byron has characterized.)

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