Balzac's Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau is both a fairy tale of bourgeois virtue and an in-depth look at the details of French bankruptcy law in the nineteenth century.
As so often in Balzac, the minutiae of getting and spending are chronicled in numbers – from the first franc earned from a new cosmetic product to the detailed costs of Birotteau’s ruinous party in his new lodgings. We are led through the economics of the launch of a new hair elixir, with breakdowns of the expenses for supplies and packaging, the publicity costs, and the split between wholesaler and retailer. Above all, we see the brutal details of the repayment made by Birotteau and his family through the sweat of their brow.
This is something new to French literature, I think. You can see something like it in Defoe – this de-sentimentalization of money. In thus book, money is not acquired offstage, it is not just the by-product of some rents or bonds or the result of an inheritance, it is earned coin by coin over the counter of a shop. In fact, Birotteau’s problems start when he starts getting into vast non-tangible speculations, and tries to become a rentier rather than a shopkeeper.
Aside from the complex banking maneuvers. there is a detailed description of the financial ecosystem: usurers, respectable bankers, notaries, straw-men, bankruptcy judges. There a long section the current bankruptcy laws and their insufficiencies – a topic Balzac was personally aware of.
Ob the other side. the basic story is a pure fairy tale: the plucky (and club-footed) prentice/clerk Anselme Popinot, who saves the day and wins Birotteua’s beautiful daughter. is set against the evil and suave former apprentice-turned-banker, Du Tillet, who sets out to ruin the good-natured Birotteau, who knows too much about Du Tillet’s dishonesty.
If César loses his footing when he aimed too high, Popinot’s combination of hard work, careful spending, and a brilliant marketing and sales campaign manages to build a second fortune. It is clear that Balzac sees Popinot as a newer, savvier businesman than his ex-boss.
Incapable de mesurer la portée d'une pareille publicité, Birotteau se contenta de dire à Césarine : " Ce petit Popinot marche sur mes traces ! " sans comprendre la différence des temps, sans apprécier la puissance des nouveaux moyens d'exécution dont la rapidité, l'étendue, embrassaient beaucoup plus promptement qu'autrefois le monde commercial.
Unable to measure the scope of such advertising, Birotteau merely said to Césarine: "This little Popinot is walking in my footsteps!" without understanding the difference in the times, without appreciating the power of new business approaches whose speed and scope were grabbing the workd of commerce more speedily than ever before.