Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Balzac, Le Médecin de campagne (1833)

This unusual Utopian novella is set in the mountains around Grenoble, where a country doctor has taken a community mired in poverty, congenital mental disease, and backwardness and changed it into a thriving and happy town. In part, it is a parable of capitalism, and for me, this the best part of the book.

The effort to upgrade the valley starts with the building of a feeder road, with the establishment of a native basket-making industry, with the improvement of farms, crops, and livestock. We see the steady arrival of blacksmiths, cart makers, masons, an inn, a brickworks, and so on. Steady. decent-paying employment, improved food, and the opportunity to do more than subsistence farming has a large impact on the mental health of community.

The story is carried forth by a series of first-person narratives -- from the doctor himself, from the military man who comes to visits hum, from a old soldier-storyteller who tells tales of crime and the Napoleonic Wars, and so on. What is unusual is that there is no love story, save fondly remembered affairs in the far past. There is a lot of didactic discussion about economy, society, and religion.

At one point, the doctor barrettes his own background -- and this story has a more typical Balzacian shape. It's s the story of a poor medical student, a kind mistress, an illegitimate child, an inheritance, and the student's typical Balzac entry into fast company.
J'eus de ces passions éphémères qui sont la honte des salons de Paris, où chacun va cherchant un amour vrai, se blase à sa poursuite, tombe dans un libertinage de bon ton

I had those ephemeral passions which are the shame of the salons of Paris, where everyone goes searching for a true love, grows blasé from his pursuit, falls back into a high-class libertinism.
He is sobered by the death of first his former mistress then her child. After other disappointments, he finds religion, goes back to practicing medicine and devotes himself to saving this backward community, as far as possible from the whirl of Paris. What little he retains of his fortune, he invests in helping the community and lives himself a Spartan life. On his death, he is reverenced as a saint.

When Balzac turns to the ins-and-out of business, he is always compelling. The political and moral philosophy is a hard slog, however.

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