On New Year’s Eve after a couple of wines I regaled a friend with the opinion that Balzac has everything, so why bother reading anything modern? It’s all right there – in Balzac’s characters, their intrigues and the truths that come out of their mouths. In the cold light of day, I have to say, this still holds. Although, instead of saying ‘just’ Balzac, I would add a legion of old writers. Modern stuff has no interest – not because it is ‘modern’ but because I don’t think it is very good. In our ‘Late Capitalist Realism‘ all that matters is plot and for something to be written in a snappy way, because units have to be shifted and that’s what the ‘real’ world demands, isn’t it?
In Balzac’s Gobseck there is plot, hinted at back-stories, intrigue, fantastic characterisation and real psychological insights brought about by all these elements. There is a truth in the words – not just craft and a desire to sell books. This truth is sometimes not altogether clear – it is equivocal. But, when something is not stated plainly then you start to consider it and the questions become internalised. I have spent the days after reading Gobseck thinking about Gobseck himself. It is true he had a desire for wealth, but he was also an adventurer and lived against the grain and he had an integrity about him, a purity of purpose. So, why then do we find his actions distasteful at the end? It’s a short novel and in the public domain so it should be read and I won’t give anything else away. I believe Gobseck to have had many positive attributes, as the early relationship between he and Derville shows. But, then, is there one small action that changes his path? Is this moment even in the novel? There are so many quotable lines from this story – here is one:
“I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet; it is not petty spite; I like to make them feel a touch of the claws of necessity.”