Here we have perhaps Balzac’s best short work, named simply (after the title character) Gobseck. The story begins as a flashback, in which the family lawyer Derville explains to the daughter of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu why she should not disdain the advances of the young Comte de Restaud.
This Count is the son of the Comtesse Anastasie de Restaud, whom we have met in Pere Goriot as one of the two spendthrift daughters of old Goriot (the other being Delphine de Nucingen).
Derville starts his story with a sketch of his former neighbor, the infamous usurer Jean-Esther Van Gobseck. Because Derville, as a young student law clerk had ably assisted him in some legal matters, Gobseck opens his kimono — so to speak — to show him a look into his strange crepuscular world. Gobseck has reduced all of human society to one word: GOLD. “The first step to my door,” he says “means that a man is desperately hard up; that the news of his failure will soon come out; and, most of all, it means that he has been everywhere else first. The stag is always at bay when I see him, and a pack of creditors are hard upon his track.”
Gobseck describes one day in which he visited two very different creditors, the first being Anastasie de Restaud, and the other a pretty young shopkeeper named Fanny Malvaut.
When he visits the Restaud mansion, the usurer deliberately tracks mud the carpet: “I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet.”
He is unimpressed by the countess: “And — beneath all the luxury and disorder, beauty and incongruity — I saw Misery crouching in wait for her or for her adorer, Misery rearing its head, for the Countess had begun to feel the edge of those fangs. Her tired face was an epitome of the room strewn with relics of past festival. The scattered gew-gaws, pitiable this morning, when gathered together and coherent, had turned heads the night before.”
To himself, Gobseck grins and thinks: “But for you who lie in silk, under silken coverlets, there is remorse and grinding of teeth beneath a smile, and those fantastical lions’ jaws are gaping to set their fangs in your heart.”
As her husband the Count begins to show too much interest in the dealings of his wife with such a shady character, Anastasie surreptitiously hands Gobseck a diamond worth twelve hundred francs.
Gobseck and his fellow usurers see themselves as a powerful secret society very similar to The Thirteen. “There are ten of us in Paris, silent, unknown kings, the arbiters of your destinies. What is life but a machine set in motion by money? . . . “
Some time passes, and young Derville graduates from law clerk to being a licentiate and then an advocate. But, to his chagrin, the principal of his firm enters upon hard times. This drives Derville back to Gobseck to ask for a loan: he wants to buy his boss out.
The old moneylender immediately divines the reason for the young man’s visit, surprising Derville considerably, as he did not think that the word had gotten out. But Gobseck hears him out and seems willing to go along with the deal. He warns Derville that he often makes between fifty percent and five hundred percent on his loans, which makes the lawyer turn pale. When he lowers the rate to thirteen percent, afterward bumping it up to fifteen, Derville agrees. There are conditions: the moneylender will continue to request free legal help from time to time, twice weekly meetings to discuss business, payment to be made within ten years, and Derville to get over his scruples of fleecing his clients to help raise the funds. Oh, and Derville must show the old man his birth certificate. No, Gobseck was not a “birther,” he just didn’t trust anyone over the age of thirty to be honest with him. Derville was only twenty-five.
Derville mentions in passing that he has married Fanny Malvaux, the hardworking shopkeeper to whom he was introduced by none other than Gobseck.
One day, Derville is approached by Maxime de Trailles, one of the infamous Thirteen, who invites the lawyer to a bachelor’s breakfast party. Balzac’s description of the event is a fascinating character study.
It appears that Derville gets slighty tipsy, and Maxime strikes. He gets Derville to act as an intermediary between him and Gobseck to help a young noblewoman who needs to get fifty thousand francs in the course of the morning.
Maxime de Trailles has convinced Derville to take him to Gobseck’s lair on behalf on the Comtesse de Restaud.
He does so, but says a few things sotto voce to the moneylender regarding his own propensity to mistrust the notorious dandy. Nonetheless, Gobseck listens intently. De Trailles summarizes his own assets as follows:
“Am I not on intimate terms with the Ronquerolles, the Marsays, the Franchessinis, the two Vandenesses, the Ajuda-Pintos, — all the most fashionable young men in Paris, in short? A prince and an ambassador (you know them both) are my partners at play. I draw my revenues from London, and Carlsbad and Baden and Bath. Is this not the most brilliant of all industries?”
Curiously, Gobseck agrees. De Trailles continues: “If there were no spendthrifts, what would become of you? The pair of us are like soul and body.” The moneylender agrees to this.
At this point, Gobseck interjects that de Trailles is deep in hock to his fellow members of The Ten, who are offering his bills at a deep discount.
Maxime has one ace up his sleeve. He claims to have security.
Here Gobseck brightens, because if the security is good, he is one up on his colleagues in the moneylending fraternity. “If he has good security, you have saved my life.”
The security is the Comtesse de Restaud, with the family jewels in hand. Gobseck takes these and is mightily impressed at their quality, which in times past would easily have fetched 300,000 francs. But now the new Brazilian diamonds have become a glut on the market, though they are no wise as good as the Asian gems which the Comtesse has brought him. In the end, he offers 80,000. But then, as Derville points out, “this woman is under her husband’s control; the agreement would be void in law.”
Gobseck twinkles as he changes his offer to 50,000 francs. He writes her a check for 50,000 francs and takes possession of the diamonds.
Maxime de Trailles is less than happy at this turn of events. He insults Gobseck by calling him a scoundrel, at which point Gobseck offers to fight him in a duel — at which he can be quite formidable. De Trailles is disgusted and fades at this point from the story. Later, we hear that he has decamped to England under pressure from his French moneylenders.
Not long after de Trailles and the Comtesse leave, there is another knock at the moneylender’s door. It is the Comte de Restaud, who has a very good idea of what his wife is up to. There is a bit of verbal sparring between the two, which is magnified by the fact that the Comte is feeling outraged. He knows that she brought the moneylender the family diamonds.
Derville, still with Gobseck, interjects at this point that the Comte could sue, as his wife is in her husband’s power (according to French law of the time), but there is little chance that he would win. Derville says “in my opinion, it would be unwise to dispute the legality of the sale, especially as the goods are not readily recognizable. In equity your contention would lie, in law it would collapse.” He urges the Comte to come to an arrangement with Gobseck.
And Gobseck in turn chimes in with a suggestion: “I know your story by heart. The woman is a fiend, but perhaps you love her still; I can well believe it; she made an impression on me. Perhaps, too, you would rather save your fortune, and keep it for one or two of your children? Well, fling yourself into the whirlpool of society, lose that fortune at play, come to Gobseck pretty often. The world will say that I am a Jew, a Tartar, a usurer, a pirate, will say that I have ruined you! I snap my fingers at them! If anyone insults me, I lay my man out; nobody is a surer shot or handles a rapier better than your servant. And everyone knows it. Then, have a friend — if you can find one — and make over your property to him by a fictitious sale. You call that a fidei commissum, don’t you?”
The Comte agrees and promises to pay Gobseck for his own diamonds. He meets with Derville alone the next day and asks him more about his mentor. In answer, the lawyer describes him as both a miser and a philosopher and suggests that he name the moneylender as guardian of his estate.
Time has passed. Gobseck meets with Derville for dinner and describes his philosophy to his protegé: “Life is a craft, a profession; every man must take the trouble to learn that business. When he has learned what life is by dint of painful experiences, the fiber of him is toughened, and acquires a certain elasticity, so that he has his sensibilities under his own control; he disciplines himself till his nerves are like steel springs, which always bend, but never break; given a sound digestion, and a man in such training ought to live as long as the cedars of Lebanon….”
We now come to the last act of the story: The Comte is dying, and his wife wants to get what she thinks is coming to her. They no longer even speak to each other, communicating only by way of the son and heir, who is under his mother’s control. Having heard of the Comte’s illness, Derville pays a visit but is refused admittance by the wife.
Finally, the Comte dies. His wife ransacks all the papers, but still does not find what she wants. Around this time, Gobseck, too, passes on, proving himself, however strong, no cedar of Lebanon. Derville immediately sends the servant to call in the justice of the peace so that seals could be put on Gobseck’s property. But he finds treasures beyond belief, including the moneys required to protect the next generation of Restauds, and even the Comtesse, which would make young Ernest a very wealthy man (to return to the present) and an excellent candidate for marriage to Camille, daughter of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu.
Summary by Jim, August 2009