Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Among the Grandest of Them All: Reflections on Balzac's Eugenie Grandet

I have never forced myself to write a top 10 list of all-time favorite books.  But if I had one, it would look different today: something would have to give way for Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet.

Since no class ever assigned me to read Balzac and since he’s hardly one to come up in everyday conversation, you might wonder how I decided to read EG.  The “recommendation” came to me through Percy Lubbock’s book The Craft of Fiction, in which Lubbock points out Balzac’s ability to make a pictorial impression carry the novel’s weight and set the stage for a compelling, dramatic scene. 

Let me explain what that means.  Writing classes are famous for giving the advice, “Show, don’t tell.”  My MFA education was no exception: I was taught to put as much of my fiction as possible into scene—in other words, to dramatize it.  The opposite of scene is exposition—text in which the narrator is reporting information. 

But I’ve come to realize that this emphasis on scene-making—on showing, not telling—is analogous to telling children they should never start a sentence with “And” or “But.”  The intention of such advice is good: who doesn’t want a quick way of eliminating sentence fragments?  But, as this paragraph demonstrates, you can write a perfectly complete sentence that begins with “and” or “but”; you just have to know when such words are appropriate for stylistic effect and when they are in error.  But let’s face it: it’s difficult for us to cease seeing the “rules” we learned in our formative education as rules

Likewise, I’m just beginning to crawl out from under the influence of scene-making and into the art of picture-making.   By picture-making, I mean what Percy Lubbock calls an author’s panoramic vision—that is, the ability to give an overall impression of what life is like at a particular time in a particular place, and to do this through the broad strokes of exposition rather than the minute tedium of scene. 

No doubt scene carries good fiction.  No doubt it should.  But I am becoming increasingly aware of how the balance between the scenic and the pictorial—whether perfectly struck or purposely skewed—is the crux of a novel’s art. 

So, when Percy Lubbock extolled Balzac’s ability to give such a clear, pictorial impression of a particular life that he could afford to write the phrase “five years passed” and we would know exactly how those five years passed and wouldn’t feel cheated a lick that we didn’t actually see them acted out in scene, I knew I had to read Eugenie Grandet before I went any farther in writing my own novel.

And I wasn’t disappointed.  Lubbock was absolutely right.  Even better, I found that Balzac’s mastery of craft is only one of many, many reasons to read Eugenie Grandet.  Here are a few:
-        The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition suggested that EG might be read as Balzac’s sermon on money.  Although my friend and teacher (also a fine novelist) Steve Goodwin pointed out a couple recent titles that deal with money, it seems to me few books so directly, fully, and movingly portray money-bred corruption as EG does.  While the money-crazed era Balzac portrays is an afterproduct of the French Revolution, it seems wonderfully pertinent for a contemporary era mired in financial crisis.
-        Balzac is every bit as good at subtle satire as Austen.  (What’s that you say?  You mean The Honore de Balzac Book Club WON’T be playing in a theater near me soon?  Ah, it must really be the love story and not the satire the moneymakers are after…I’m sorry, did I say moneymakers?  I meant moviemakers.)
-        The town, the Grandet family household, and the characters are so well drawn, you won’t be able to put the book down.  That, and there are no chapters, which also make the book difficult to put down.

Well, I could go on quite a bit more, but I realize blogs aren’t necessarily the place for a novelist to “go long.”  If anyone has further questions, please ask in the comment section.  I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and I haven’t even explained my theory of how Eugenie is used by everyone including the narrator.  But that’s a topic to discuss once some of you have read it.

Check back on Thursday for a featured passage!  ‘Til then…

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