Lisa's Reviews > The Firm Of Nucingen

The Firm Of Nucingen by Honoré de Balzac
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's review
Nov 05, 2010

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bookshelves: kindle, c19th, france
Read from November 05 to 06, 2010

** spoiler alert ** Beware: spoilers

Balzac begins this story by alerting the reader to the contrast between it and Cesar Birotteau, but I haven't read that one yet, and alas, there isn't yet a summary of it at BalzacBooks, the web presence of the Yahoo group which is reading the entire La Comedie Humaine by Balzac, I'll try to find time to read it before long.

The narrator paints a most unflattering portrait of the four young men (the Cormorants) who noisily intrude upon his quiet dinner at a restaurant. All self-made men rather than heirs to a family fortune, they've made little progress so far in advancing themselves but are not constrained by this lack of success. . Andoche Finot (a newspaper editor) is happy to grovel to any man who might be useful and will be insolent once he no longer needs him. Emile Blondet, the journalist who featured in A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, A Daughter of Eve and in Another Study of Woman is reckless and indolent, 'treacherous or kind on impulse'. Couture is a speculator, and Bixiou is a 'misanthropic buffoon', who wastes his intellect and bemoans not having profited enough from the Revolution. Unknown to these four, the narrator and his companion overhear their conversation...

The subject of their conversation is malicious gossip about the people they know – notably Eugene Rastignac who featured in Father Goriot as the young student who helped the old man on his deathbed when his daughters had abandoned him. The Firm of Nucingen reveals that it was this event that was the catalyst for his corruption, and he is now determined to take advantage of the temptations of the Parisian lifestyle and make a name for himself – and perhaps a good marriage too. He becomes entangled with the Baron Nucingen through his relationship with his wife Delphine, a relationship which the Baron tacitly condones, for reasons of his own, as the narrator reveals.

In discussing Rastignac's new-found political prospects, the four young men sneer at those who fail to separate sentiment and self-interest. Men who fall in love are lunatics, and Rastignac is a fool for having scruples about taking Delphine's money once he was no longer in love with her. Blondet then goes on to talk about how Nucingen and his crony du Tillet came by their money. Nucingen is not just a banker, he's a war-profiteer and speculator on the stock-market, using other people's money to do it. Du Tillet is small fry by comparison. Sniping at decorum as 'English' they reveal how a wastrel like Godefroid de Beaudenord is lured into investing the remnants of his fortune with Nucingen, and how, when Beaudenord fell in love with Isaure d'Aldrigger, whose father had lost money with Nucingen too, Rastignac encouraged Isaure's sister Malvina to think that it would be a good match so that Nucingen can get his hands on the family's remaining money as well.

Balzac is keen to denounce the behaviour of these four Cormorants but their conversation is witty and urbane. They constantly rag each other, and apart from a few authorial lapses, their cynical and amusing gossip allows Balzac to write his expose without sounding polemical. What The Firm of Nucingen reveals is the activities of powerful banker-speculators who manipulate the stock market, capitalising (literally) on a time of rapid industrialisation and changes in society after the revolution.

Nucingen is able to convince investors to sell their stock cheaply because he uses Rastignac's respectable reputation to help induce panic selling. In this way he manages to improve his own unremarkable fortunes by acquiring shares in a German mining company called Worschin and other businesses. It's a bit complicated to follow but the results of his fraud was that he held in his hands the lives of Desroches, the Matifats, Beaudenord, the Aldriggers and d'Aiglemont and more because he had their investments at his command.

Young Rastignac thinking to outsmart Nucingen, is no match for this cunning man: he uses Eugene mercilessly, so that he becomes utterly compromised. The amazing aspect of all of this is that Nucingen was able to come out of the crash when it came with his hands apparently clean. (He was not however universally successful: he was outwitted by du Tillet - who still admires Nucingen's cunning).

One of the things I found interesting about this story from the man said to be first of the French realists, is the way the story is framed around the narrator and his companion. As we read the story, we forget all about them, sitting breathless and indignant as they listen to these cynical revelations – What we see instead is Balzac railing against government intervention to ban petty gambling while allowing the finance sector to gamble with the lives and money of others. At the end of the Balzac doesn't reveal who they are, finalising his story with the arrogant Bixiou dismissing their presence as of no consequence since 'he must have been drunk.' .

This little story shows whoever the real-life Bixiou was, that the eavesdropper was not!

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by K.D. (new)

K.D. Absolutely Nice review although I did not read everything. I will first read Balzac and go back to your review and read it again. Thanks!

Lisa Thanks, KD, I like the way you trouble to comment, it makes it worthwhile. Don't forget, you can join the Yahoo group if your become really addicted to Balzac!

message 3: by K.D. (new)

K.D. Absolutely It's no trouble for me, Lisa. I always read your reviews. They are very informative and I normally agree with your views. I am really thankful to Judith for leading me to you and your book blogsite.

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