The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau by Honoré de Balzac

Grandeur et Décadence de César Birotteau
The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau
Also translated as Cesar Birotteau

Part One – Cesar at His Zenith

Chapter 1 – A Domestic Dispute

On a winter night during the quiet lull between the carriages of party-goers and the carts on their way to the Les Halles markets, Mme Birotteau (Constance) awakens from a nightmare in which she saw herself poor and in rags begging from herself behind the shop counter. When she reaches out for her husband and finds his side of the bed cold, her terror intensifies to such an extent that she can’t move. She experiences terrible visions of Cesar ill or committing suicide over financial difficulties. The only thing she’s sure of is that he isn’t away visiting a mistress. As she thinks it can’t be a financial problem, she remembers the cash-box and dreads that Cesar is battling with thieves. At this thought she is able to leap out of bed and call his name.

Constance finds Cesar in his dressing-gown in the next room measuring the air with a yardstick. Cesar tells her he plans to host a ball to celebrate being made a Knight of the Legion of Honor. He mentions the wound he received at Saint-Roch, his judiciary duties and the fact that he is a deputy mayor. He states he must be known to the king as he furnishes the only powder the king uses and also he is the only one with the receipe for the powder used by Marie-Antoinette (who has been dead around a quarter of a century).

Constance is frightened by his plan to invest all their assets plus go into debt on a land speculation near the Madeleine in partnership with Roguin, Ragon, Uncle Pillerault and others. He is sure he can meet the bills when they come due with profits from his new invention, a comagenous oil to rival Macassar Oil. Birotteau mentions various methods of advertising his new hair oil. Balzac realized the value of product promotion.

Constance is sure that the land deal is some kind of a swindle and calls the oil Comatose Oil. She tells him she is against all these schemes and would like to take their money and retire to the country as they had planned. She then adds that as he earned the money, he should do as he pleases with it.

Chapter 2 – Cesar Birotteau’s Antecedents

Cesar is the youngest son of a tenant farmer. He came to Paris at the age of fourteen and, with a recommendation, became an assistant in the shop he now owns. When most of the clerks above him were drafted, Cesar was made a junior clerk and was given a place at the dinner table. Later that year he was trusted with the till.

In October, 1794, Cesar made a trade with the savings from his increased salary. His timing was perfect and he became an avid follower of stocks and public affairs. Now fully in the confidence of his employer Ragon (a Royalist), Cesar learned that La Reine des Roses served as a communication point for the rebel faction in Vendee and Paris. Cesar embraced the cause and had the honor to fight on the steps of Saint-Roch, receiving his battle wound. He made the decision to remain a royalist, but to stay out of politics. The Ragons, despairing of the Royalist cause, also decided to abandon politics.

When the Ragons decided to retire, they offered the shop to Cesar. But he wanted to save some money and return to Touraine to purchase a property he’d coveted for years. Just as Cesar was about to refuse the Ragons, he met the chief assistant at Le Petit Matelot. Her name was Constance and the hard-working Cesar was smitten.

Cesar’s courting is slow but sure and he clandestinely discovers that Constance’s uncle is a hardware merchant named Pillerault who, upon making inquiries, supports Cesar. In May, 1800, this model of a petite bourgeoise agrees to marry Cesar. Constance is eighteen and has eleven thousand francs.

The marriage contract is drawn up by the Ragons’ notary, Roguin, who also advises Cesar not to put Constance’s money against the debt for the purchase of the shop, but to keep it in case a good investment comes along. Cesar, now twenty-one, moves the stock to a new shop near the Place Vendome. The couple are happy and successful in their business, but Cesar realizes it will take twenty years to save the hundred thousand francs he would like for retirement. He rents some buildings and hires a workman to manufacture some of the products he sells. This venture is a failure.

Cesar is dejected by his manufacturing failure. One day while walking on the boulevards, he spots an old yellowed and dusty book for sale for six sous. The book is Abdeker, or the Art of Preserving Beauty. Supposedly written by an Arab, Cesar thinks it has merit and consults a famous chemist, Vauquelin, who shows Cesar a formula and allows him to take credit for inventing it. Since the Orient was all the rage at the time, naming it Sultana’s Cream was a stroke of genius. Cesar, using the promotional system of Constance’s former employer, was the first perfumer to aggressively advertise and since Vauquelin was associated with the Institute, he was able to claim “With the approval of the Institute.” A Prospectus is also published and Constance comes up with the idea of a bulk discount to merchants.

Cesar is very conscientious, as is shown when he is elected a judge of the commerce court. He studies law at night. Because he has a good sense of justice and uses common sense in the cases he settles, asking peers for advise when necessary, Cesar is a very popular judge. Eventually it becomes so time-consuming that Constance has him give up the position.

We now meet, in early 1814, Ferdinand du Tillet. His reputation in the perfumery shops was such that Cesar takes him on as head clerk when he is only twenty-two. He is an orphan whose last name was derived from the town in which he was found. Quarrelsome, but with an ingratiating manner, he’s very fond of going out in society. Cesar doesn’t approve and is frequently shocked. Du Tillet tries to seduce Constance and when that fails he treats her with an impertinence which leads many to believe he succeeded.

Constance advises Cesar to fire du Tillet, but before he does, three thousand francs are missing from the till. There is no evidence as to the thief’s identity until Roguin produces some ancient gold louis while playing bouillotte at the Sunday gathering. Constance recognizes these as the coins with which Mme d’Espard paid for her purchases. Roguin says he won them from du Tillet who doesn’t turn a hair.

After the evening’s festivities, Cesar asks to speak privately with du Tillet who says he borrowed the money but was in a rush and forgot to ask young Popinot to write it against his account as an advance. Cesar covers for him, but apparently with the understanding that he will leave, which he soon does saying that perfumery doesn’t suit him and he desires to go into banking.

A few months later, du Tillet asks Cesar to stand surety for him in the amount of twenty thousand francs so he can invest in a speculation. When Cesar hesitates in surprise, du Tillet makes a scene in front of Matifat and two other business associates of Cesar’s who happen to be present. Cesar, always believing the best of everyone, doesn’t want to injure du Tillet’s reputation and says he is happy to accomodate him. Doing this good deed seems to have earned him an enemy: Du Tillet could not meet his eye, and no doubt vowed to him at that moment the undying hatred which the spirits of darkness feel towards the angels of light.

In the present, Cesar is respected and looked upon as being more intelligent than he actually is. Constance, at thirty-seven, is still such a beauty that she is compared to the Venus de Milo.

Balzac tells us that this book is a poem that no one has thought to write before, a poem to the vicissitudes of bourgeois life.

Chapter 3 – The Seeds of Misfortune

The chapter opens with Cesar sneaking off early in the morning before Constance, his sensible and conservative wife, wakes up.

One of Cesar’s employees, Anselme Popinot, is the nephew of the prior owners of the perfumery. After Anselme’s father dissipated his fortune and died, Anselme was left in the care of Mme Ragon and Judge Popinot. Shy, small and club-footed, Anselme is full of virtuous qualities and is a hard worker. He is also in love with the daughter of the house, Cesarine.

At twenty-one, Anselme is just the age at which Cesar married, giving him all the more reason to speculate on the reason for the unusual request to walk in the Tuileries at this early hour. Anselme realizes that the odds of his marrying Cesarine are small, but he is ever hopeful and his heart leaps when Cesar happens to mention the word love. But, alas, this was not what Cesar had in mind and Anselme is confused when Cesar sees Roguin and goes to talk with him instead of entering the Tuileries.

Roguin is a high liver and it shows in his face. The secret infirmity is another reference to the possibility that he has venereal disease and through this, the very astute Constance had correctly divined the secret of the Roguin household. The Roguins, though still married, are effectively estranged and Roguin has his own separate establishment. It began modestly with grisettes, but for three years he has been being bled dry financially by La Belle Hollandaise (Sarah Gobseck). It turns out that much of this money is actually going to pay the gambling debts of Maxime de Trailles. (Maxime shows up in numerous novels. He is the very one for whom Pere Goriot’s daughter Anastasie de Restaud was so desperate for money.)

Du Tillet, apparently even before he left Cesar’s establishment, saw the situation with the Roguins. He is now well in with both of them plus La Belle and anxious to exact revenge on Cesar for knowing him as a thief.

To support La Belle, Roguin has already embezzled half of his clients’ funds and planned to commit suicide when the funds were totally exhausted. Du Tillet persuaded him that he could assist him to recoup the losses. If that fails, Roguin can go abroad while du Tillet continues to work for their benefit in Paris and send funds monthly to Roguin for living expenses.

Du Tillet is now very well versed in the financial and political scene. He is out to make money and to ruin Cesar. We find out that the Claparon Cesar mentioned to Constance is du Tillet’s straw man and is nothing more than a fast-talking former traveling salesman.

Roguin tells Cesar that the major investors are pressing him to move quickly. Cesar says to take the hundred thousand francs that was set aside for Cesarine’s dowry.

Returning to Anselme, Cesar inquires about the financial situation of his aunt and uncle, the Ragons. He then almost dashes Anselme’s hope of marrying Cesarine and proceeds to tells him about his plan to destroy the market for Macassar Oil with his own invention. Anselme is to be his partner in this venture. They will work hard to make it a great success and Anselme hopes that with success of the Oil will come success with Cesarine.

Since the scientist Vauquelin won’t take any profits, the very kind Cesar has been on the lookout for an engraving that he heard Vauquelin wanted. After two years, one has been found in Germany and is now at Pieri Benard’s.

Cesar tells Anselme to have a coat made for himself for the great ball. As he watches Anselme limp away, he wishes that Cesarine was in love with him, but thinks young girls are such odd creatures. Constance wants their daughter to marry a lawyer. Cesar wants Cesarine to choose for herself.

Chapter 4 – Excessive Expenditure

Cesar is planning renovations to the living quarters and preparations for the grand ball. He has a tentative quote from a young architect, Grindot, of ten to twelve thousand francs excluding new furnishings. He has minimized the cost to Constance.

Cesarine is described as a lovely beauty. She has been well-educated and copies the manners of some elegant women she has seen. She sits down to play the piano while the young architect, who is quite taken with her, is going over the plans and measurements.

Cesar’s also leases a portion of the adjoining building. The landlord of the building, Molineux, who has made a hobby of studying lease laws, gets the better of Cesar who I suspect realizes he is paying too much, although not the extent which he is. Cesar just wants to get everything settled in time for the ball.

Cesar decides to stop at Les Halles on the way home to check on the purchase of nuts. He is sent to the wholesaler, Mme Angelique Madou. She is rather coarse and does no paperwork as she is unable to read or write. Eventually they agree on terms and six thousand pounds of nuts are to be delivered to his factory the next morning. Cesar is so preoccupied with his duel with Macassar Oil that he almost forgets his intention to visit Uncle Pillerault.

Chapter 5 – A True Philosopher and a Great Chemist

Constance’s only remaining relative is her uncle Claude-Joseph Pillerault. A hard worker all his life, the idleness of retirement does not suit him. His apartment reflects his taste and life; it is furnished simply. Pillerault himself is conservative, cautious and smart enough to listen. But, alas, Uncle Pillerault does not save Cesar from investing in the latest scheme of Roguin’s. He says he has no doubts; he is investing and the Ragons are sinking all of their money into it also. He gives Cesar a draft for one hundred thousand francs representing his and the Ragons’ share. They seem to have all the angles figured out so that the only way they could lose their money would be if Roguin embezzled it which they find laughable for such an upright Paris notary.

Cesar and Anselme go to visit the scientist and take him the print as a thank you gift. When asked if they can say the new hair product can be advertised as being approved by the Academy of Sciences, Vauquelin remarks that so many charlatans have used it that it is no longer of any benefit. After the discussion on the properties of various oils and the best ways to extract the hazelnut oil, Cesar invites Vauquelin to the ball. Outside, Cesar is so excited by Vauquelin’s acceptance that he tells Anselme he has forgotten what was said about hair. They plan to begin at seven in the morning.

That evening when Cesar tells Constance of the day’s events, she says that what she sees is a debt of two hundred thousand francs.

Cesarine shows interest and Cesar, closely watching her, mentions that Anselme will be leaving. He sees that Cesarine is also smitten. Cesarine has her parents as a model and recognizing Anselme’s goodess dreams of a happy life doing good deeds.

Back in the shop, Cesar tells his employees of his decoration and issues invitations to the ball. They then happily clear out the first floor to make room for the architect’s work.

Chapter 6 – The Two Stars

Anselme rushes out of the shop to catch Gaudissart while he is in town. It will be a great coup if they can get this extraordinary salesman to promote the new hair oil. Gaudissart is anxious to repay the Popinots because the judge dismissed the charges against him when he foolishly got involved in a political conspiracy. Gaudissart postpones his trip and offers to obtain the services of Andoche Finot to write the prospectus gratis.

The next morning at the factory, Anselme tells Cesar about the good deal he got on 10,000 bottles and tells him of the name Cesarian Oil which came to him in a dream. As soon as the nuts are delivered and they have accumulated a few pounds of oil they take it to Vauquelin who gives them a formula for dilution and scenting.

Meanwhile, renovations are underway and the coming ball is the talk of all the tradespeople. It even rates an announcement in the Journal des Debats.

On Sunday the other investors arrive to complete the agreement. Roguin has drilled Claparon on his behaviour as a banker–he still has to quickly interupt him a few times though. Mortgages are signed, bank drafts turned over and Cesar also gives Roguin 20,000 francs in bills. He receives no receipts.

We now have a description of the oil shop which will be in Anselme’s name. Notwithstanding that it is dark and dreary, Gaudissart treats Anselme and Andoche to a very nice catered dinner. Andoche has brought the prospectus and the name used is Cephalic Oil which they tell Anselme is a much more marketable name. Gaudissart also proposes that since the other hair product developers offer a 30% discount to retailers, they should undercut them and offer 40%.

Having looked over the contracts, Judge Popinot arrives to take Anselme with him to Cesar’s for the signing.

Roguin, standing aside with his clerk Crottat, warns him about marrying Cesarine as the Birotteaus won’t have a crust in six weeks. He advises him to marry the daughter of the house-painter Lourdois who has a dowry of 300,000 francs. He also offers to sell his practice to the clerk for 100,000 francs.

Chapter 7 – The Ball

The day before the ball, Cesar is to be received into the Legion of Honor. He is very proud and tears are in his eyes as Constance gives him gold buckles and a pin before he leaves for the ceremony.

After dinner that evening the Birotteaus are to get the grand tour of their new home. The upholsterer Brashon says they will need one hundred and twenty candles to which Constance exclaims two hundred francs! Brashon has been hinting for an invitation and Cesar makes another enemy by failing to offer one.

The Birotteaus take the grand tour and agree that Grindot has done a magnificent job, elegant yet simple. Constance is happy because when Anselme brought his gift of a painting for Cesar that morning he assured her that all the expenses would be covered within six months by the profits from Cephalic Oil.

Abbe Loraux arrives and is uneasy seeing the magnificence of the decorations. It puts a slight damper on the Birotteaus but it doesn’t last as they each retire for the night in their new rooms.

At the ball, Constance, in the cherry velvet dress which was Cesar’s surprise for her, looks so beautiful that it infuriates Mme Roguin who complains to her husband. Roguin consoles her by saying, “it won’t last long; you will soon bespatter her when you meet her a-foot in the streets, ruined.”

Vauquelin and a colleague arrive which thrills Cesar who introduces Vauquelin as the man to whom he owes his fortune. He is sad when they leave after dinner instead of remaining for the ball.

Anselme, because of his lameness, fears to make a spectacle if he dances, but Cesarine thinks all men are ungainly anyway and opens the ball with Anselme. As Anselme is saying how lucky he is to Gaudissart because Cesarine has given him hope, Constance observes Mlle Lourdois and Alexandre Crottat and, with a pang, gives up the hope of marrying her daughter to a Parisian notary.

The landlord Molineux is present and Cesar shows him through the rooms but is taken aback by Molineux’s remark, “My first floor thus improved will be worth more than three thousand francs to me.” Du Tillet speaks with Molineux and finds out that Cesar has paid his rent in advance.

Claparon is at the card tables where du Tillet hopes he will not attract attention. They pretend to be strangers.

At five o’clock in the morning, the remaining guests, numbering about half of the original party are noisy and raucous. Matifat is dancing around with a woman’s bonnet on his head. Cesar is happy that they are enjoying themselves. Constance hopes they won’t break anything.

At last the three Birotteaus, tired but happy retire to bed. The building, repairs, furnishings and ball expenditures amount to sixty thousand francs.

Part One ends:
Such was the price of the fatal red ribbon fastened by the king to the buttonhole of an honest perfumer. If misfortunes were to overtake Cesar Birotteau, this mad extravagance would be sufficient to arraign him before the criminal courts. A merchant is amenable to the laws if, in the event of bankruptcy, he is shown to have been guilty of “excessive expenditure.”

Part Two – Cesar Grapples with Misfortune

Chapter 8 – Some Shafts of Lightning

A week after the ball, Cesar is worried because business is no longer simple now that he is involved in so many projects. The merchant next door, Cayron, has disappeared and the landlord Molineux has arrived for further signatures on the lease agreement. The architect Grindot arrives and tells Cesar that as he is just starting out in business, he needs his fee. Others also arrive with their bills, including the painter Lourdois.

Ragon and Uncle Pillerault are present and mention to Cesar that they have been discussing the Madeleine project with Judge Popinot who told them they needed to obtain receipts. Lourdois, hearing this, smells more business in the air, and does not press Cesar for payment, saying that he only brought his bill as it is the end of the year. Cesar is so surprised by the amount of the bill that Uncle Pillerault asks him what is wrong. A discussion is held on bankrupts and legislation. Next arrive the bills for the food and other ball expenses which were in addition to the renovation and decoration.

The painter asks the architect to look over and approve his bill since prices were to be agreed upon between the architect and the contractors which so shocks Pillerault that he whispers to Cesar that he is being robbed.

By the end of December, Cesar discovers he owes around sixty thousand francs and everyone is clamoring to be paid. Without telling Constance, Cesar tells Celestin to send invoices to his clients.

Chapter 9 – The Thunderbolt

As the preoccupied Cesar walks along the Rue Saint-Honore, he encounters Crottat who asks if Roguin has given Cesar’s four hundred thousand francs to Claparon. They both are a bit incoherent with Cesar remembering the Judge had advised him to get a receipt and Crottat wondering if Cesar’s long association with Roguin had saved part of his money.

Crottat remarks how Roguin has vanished, leaving a letter for his wife, and taking all the recent “Madeleine” money with him along with Crottat’s one hundred thousand francs for the notary business which owed much more in embezzled funds than it was worth. He also left his mistress high and dry. La Belle Hollandaise owed money and fled to a bawdy-house to escape prosecution where it happened she was murdered by an Army Captain.

Crottat mentions to Cesar how Roguin had told him twenty days ago not to marry Cesarine as she would be penniless and, knowing the scheme was planned all along, calls Roguin a monster.

Cesar is so stunned at the horror and shame of bankruptcy and losing his honor that he becomes almost catatonic. Crottat, not knowing of du Tillet’s perfidy tells Cesar that du Tillet has brains and will aid him. Crottat has to take charge because all Cesar can do is plead that this news be kept from Constance.

Crottat goes here and there, discussing the matter with various officials, and taking the incoherent Cesar with him like a parcel. That evening when he brings Cesar home, he tells Constance that he has suffered an attack of apoplexy. Old Doctor Haudry is sent for and, having had a word from Cesarine, says it was brought on by the damp weather.

After three days, Cesar’s peasant constitution prevails and he comes around. Constance, who never left his side, was curious about his remarks about the furnishings and ramblings about excessive expenditures.

As the exhausted Constance sleeps, Cesar and Cesarine write to Cesar’s brother, Francois Birotteau, requesting he send all the funds possible, including what he is able to borrow.

Lebas arrives and tells Cesar that a usurer called Gigonnet (Bidault) has some of Cesar’s bills/notes which are marked “without guarantee”. Claparon, who passed the bills to Gigonnet now arrives, and with his special brand of rambling dissertation, justifies his action. He had actually come to collect twenty-five thousand francs from Cesar for taxes and expenses involved in the Madeleine property deeds. He babbles about paying three times or five times and receipts and the mistresses of old men in the manner in which he was coached by du Tillet. His analysis gives Cesar heart and it sounds sincere since du Tillet, not trusting Claparon, had given him one hundred thousand francs to give to Roguin which Roguin returned to du Tillet the next day. This left Claparon believing he was another victim of Roguin’s flight. Cesar now hopes to pay all his debts and repair his losses over time.

Chapter 10 – High Finance

Cesar is in such distress that he goes to Uncle Pillerault, hoping for financial aid. Pillerault has heard about Roguin and says he hopes that Cesar did as he told him and went to Claparon for a receipt. Upon receiving a negative answer, Pillerault exclaims, “You are ruined!”

Pillerault holds out no hope. He and the Ragons also lost money. He will turn over two-thirds of his income to the Birotteaus and the Ragons so they will at least be able to eat. He says he knows that Cesar and Constance will both work hard. Cesar begs him not to reveal matters to Constance.

Next Cesar goes to see Derville, hoping the attorney can have the contract annulled. Derville says they can hope for a favorable settlement but it will take three months.

Five days pass. At last Cesar determines to see the famous banker Keller even though their politics differ. He prays for aid during the low mass at Saint-Roch.

Meanwhile Gaudissart and Finot are drenching Paris with advertisements for Cephalic Oil. Anselme knows nothing yet of the financial tragedy since he has been working literally day and night at the factory.

Cesar has never borrowed money before. At the Keller offices, Cesar see Francois Keller, who sends him to speak with his brother Adolphe. Adolphe tells Cesar he must examine the deeds to the Madeleine property before they can proceed. Cesar returns home in good spirits but it is December 29 before he can manage to see Adolphe again and when he does, the blow falls as Adolphe says, “Your business does not suit us.” The phrase struck Birotteau like a branding-iron on the shoulder. Not only does Adolphe turn down Cesar’s application, but he leads him on and laughs at him.

Chapter 11 – A Friend

As Cesar leaves Keller’s in despair, he meets du Tillet who sympathizes with him and calls the Kellers disreputable savages. Du Tillet says he will lend Cesar ten thousand francs on nothing but his name and brings him to his home, slowly leading the way to his study to give Cesar time to be dazzled by the sumptuous furnishings. Cesar’s newly decorated home pales by comparison and Cesar wonders, “Where on earth did he find so many millions.”

When du Tillet rings, a valet appears who is better dressed than Cesar. Cesar is flabbergasted to hear du Tillet send for Adolphe Keller. Cesar, not a very cautious diplomat, keeps inadvertently rubbing du Tillet the wrong way, once by saying, “You have recovered all my esteem,” to which du Tillet answers, “Lost . . . ? Had I lost it?” Cesar tries unsuccessfully to cover.

When Cesar tells du Tillet about the Madeleine property, his former employee commends him on his “perspicacity and foresight” and offers to introduce him to the Nucingen bank. He writes a letter to Baron Nucingen recommending Cesar but does not dot the “i” in his name as a signal that the letter is a ruse to be ignored.

Du Tillet tells Cesar that his funds are tied up just now or he wouldn’t be sending him to Nucingen, and that Nucingen is a friend and will oblige him by loaning Cesar all he requests as he won’t risk offending du Tillet. Cesar leaves in ecstacy, saying the letter is like a guarantee and a good deed is never wasted.

Constance, now that the excitement of the renovations and the ball are over, has been anxious to resume her personal overseeing of the business and when Cesar returns home, he shudders to see her at the counter. She asks him how he can meet the next day’s obligations and Cesar shows her the banknotes and says to mark down a bill for ten thousand francs for du Tillet at the end of March. Constance gasps. At last Cesar confesses the events of the past fortnight. Cesarine says how brave her father was, thinking only of saving her mother from worry. Constance can only think of her fateful dream and how it has come true but determines to be strong.

Cesar is relieved to no longer have to keep the truth from Constance, but the stress of the last few weeks have aged him. He visits the new firm of A. Popinot for the first time since it has been set up. He is very impressed and pats Anselme on the head in front of his employees. This undignified act would have been an insult to anyone but Anselme who knows Cesar so well.

Sunday dinner is held at the Ragons who still have old wines and liqueurs. Their old cook, Jeannette, not only sees personally to these Sunday dinners, but plays the lottery hoping to win something for her employers.

Cesarine, in a splendid toilette, and Anselme are seated together at dinner and afterwards hold a tete-a-tete while the others converse. After Judge Popinot lets a remark slip about Roguin, Constance says she knows all and the conversation now focuses on the financial losses. As Anselme hears a portion of the conversation, he exclaims to Cesarine, “Has Monsieur Roguin absconded?” and adds, “Monsieur said nothing of it to me,–to me who would shed my blood for him–”

On the way home, Constance advises Cesar to see Nucingen on the 8th to make sure they have the funds they will need on the 15th. Cesar tries three times to see Nucingen and is finally given an appointment for the 12th (or 13th). The court-yard of the mansion is crowded with carriages. As he is shown through the sumptuous rooms which are Delphine’s pride, he recalls that Nucingen has been in liquidation twice.

Cesar is surprised that Delphine calls her husband Ferdinand in front of a visitor. When she mentions the ball, Cesar is unable to determine if she is merely giving an empty compliment or ridiculing him. At last they talk business and Cesar is relieved to hear the Baron go into details but then Nucingen rattles on about being invited to Cesar’s next ball as a condition of the loan. Nucingen is purposely making his accentworse so Cesar won’t be able to hold him to anything he says.

Henri de Marsay arrives and Nucingen dashes off to his office with Cesar following. Nucingen tells Cesar to see du Tillet to arrange matters. Cesar, thinking that de Marsay might have some influence with the banker, returns to the dining-room to find that the coffee has been brought but Delphine and de Marsay have vanished. The servant laughs at Cesar’s astonishment.

Cesar now rushes to du Tillet’s where he is told that du Tillet is in the country at Mme Roguin’s. Cesar hires a cab to take him there and is told that they have returned to Paris. As the exhausted Cesar relates his day to Constance, she tells him not to worry.

The next morning Cesar bribes du Tillet’s valet to allow him in the instant du Tillet is awake. Cesar relates the details to du Tillet who is in his dressing-gown and notices that the valet seems to be paying more attention than du Tillet.

Du Tillet says he will give Cesar cash but will not risk bills and having his signature rejected. Cesar says he needs thirty thousand francs and when du Tillet laughs, mistakenly thinks that du Tillet is laughing because the amount is so small. Du Tillet sends for his cashier who arrives after a delay and says there is only twenty thousand francs in the cash box as he was given orders to purchase thirty thousand francs of government funds payable on the 15th.

Now du Tillet asks Cesar if he has an interest in little Popinot’s business and says if Cesar will bring him fifty thousand francs worth of acceptances he will get them discounted by Gobseck who currently has a large sum of money to invest.

Chapter 12 – A Bankrupt’s Last Day

Constance who, unlike Cesar, realizes that it will be impossible to obtain credit, suggests Cesar try to renew the bills. The despondent Cesar falls asleep listening to the soothing music Cesarine plays for him. A tearful Constance admits to their daughter that she can see the business failing. She is willing to sell everything they have and tells Cesarine that she must take her clothing and jewels to Uncle Pillerault’s the next day as she is under no obligations.

Claparon’s rooms are dirty and grungy but show signs of a fancy, intimate meal. Cesar declines the offer to eat left-overs, saying he is there on business which prompts Claparon to a lengthy speech about how busy he is. When asked to renew the bills, Claparon says he is not alone in the business and that the Madeleine property is a small thing compared to other projects. Now Cesar decides to partake of breakfast after all, hoping to find out the names of the associates when Claparon gets drunk. Claparon calls to Victoire, who appears dressed like a fishwife, and tells her not to admit anyone. She replies that no one has called except M Lempereur. After advising Cesar to pay his bills when due, Claparon tells him he should leave off perfumery and go into speculation and how it takes a Cabal working together to get anywhere in the business.

Realizing he is not going to get anything from Claparon, Cesar asks where he can find Gobseck and then has to listen to a tirade against him, followed by an even greater tirade against du Tillet whom he now dislikes because he played a vile trick on him.

Cesar’s next visit is to the landlord Molineux who says that if Cesar needs a bill renewed then he probably won’t be paying his rent either and he can expect a summons on the 16th.

Having nowhere else to turn, Cesar goes to see Anselme and asks him for an advance of fifty thousand francs. Fortuately Judge Popinot was visiting his nephew and advises him. Anselme takes Cesar to his private room and asks if the fifty thousand francs will totally save him or only delay the inevitable. He tells Cesar he would not be able to meet the bills when they came due in ninety days. But when Anselme sees Cesar pale and ashen-faced, he relents and says he will give them if Cesar wishes. Fortunately Cesar doesn’t take him up on the offer, but he does call Anselm ungrateful as he leaves. When Anselme recovers from the shock of Cesar’s last word, he rushes after him, but Cesar is already out of sight. Anselme is haunted by the word and Cesar’s face.

Chapter 13 – A Bankruptcy

Cesar is now in such a state of shock that he wanders along the Seine all the way to Sevres where, senseless with grief, he spends the night. Constance is frantic with worry, but the next morning behaves as if she knows why he is away. When Cesar hasn’t returned by five that evening, she begs Uncle Pillerault to go to the morgue.

Pillerault finds Cesar near the door of a gaming-house and brings him home. Derville arrives that evening with the news that their case is good and they should have a judgement in a month. Constance confides the situation to him and he and Pillerault discuss options for an hour while Cesar sits senseless. Derville announces that the only option is to file bankruptcy and Pillerault agrees.

Meanwhile, Anselme, in anguish over Cesar’s calling him ungrateful has gone to his uncle Popinot. He tells him that he must provide Cesar with the bills he requested even if it means failure for him too. The Judge says he will respect him for being generous but a poor businessman and draws up a contract.

Anselme rushes to the Birotteau house with the bills but Cesar and the women are stunned to see Pillerault rip them up and throw them into the fire. Pillerault hugs the generous boy and kisses his brow. He then explains that they would be able to get twenty thousand at the most on fifty thousand francs worth of bills and when they fell due Popinot’s credit would be ruined for nothing and everyone will say that Cesar set him up in business purposely to draw on the credit. He reminds them that it is Popinot’s business that can save their name, but they must go ahead and declare bankruptcy.

An answer has arrived from Cesar’s brother and once again he thinks he is saved. Francois has sent all he has plus borrowed some to make an amount of only one thousand francs.

Anselme and Pillerault work through the night organizing Cesar’s papers and go in the morning to see Bidault (alias Gigonnet). A description of his lodgings are given. The staircase is very foul-smelling and unsavory. His rooms are a jumble of junk and a few valuable objects. Showing them his bald head, Gigonnet laughs at the thought of lending money to a hair oil establishment.

Abbe Loraux is sent for to be on hand when Cesar is presented with the bankruptcy papers to sign and Cesar gives him his Legion of Honor with the request that it be returned at the time he can wear it without shame. Cesar also resigns his position as deputy mayor prior to signing the bankruptcy papers.

Anselme requests Cesarine in marriage and it is agreed by all that they will wed once the Birotteau debts are paid. Cesar wishes to carry on the perfumery business but Pillerault advises against it, saying it will be better to obtain a position in the royal household.

In the shop, Mother Madou, the crass nut-seller makes a scene and boxes Celestin’s ear when he whispers that she drinks too much. She is appeased when Cesar tells her she will get her money even if he has to work like a galley-slave as a porter in the markets and Pillerault offers to get her a loan at five percent from one of his friends.

That evening, Pillerault gives Cesar a sleeping potion and when Cesar wakes fourteen hours later he is at Pillerault’s home.

Through the influence of various people, it is arranged for Cesar to have a post at the Redemption office as soon as the bankruptcy affair is settled.

As Constance is on her way to see Joseph Lebas about Cesarine she sees Madame Roguin in a fine carriage and thinks that she would never ride in a carriage purchased with the money of others. Lebas finds an excellent position for Cesarine and Constance takes over Anselme’s paperwork. Anselme has his dreary little room outfitted for Constance to live in while he moves to a clerk’s room in the attic. Uncle Pillerault insists that Cesar live with him to save money, so the three Birotteaus all have a home.

Part Two ends:
Resignation is the last stage of man’s misfortune. From this moment Cesar’s downfall was accomplished; he accepted it, and strength returned to him.

Part Three – Cesar in Triumph

Chapter 14 – A General History of Bankruptcy

This chapter describes some of the ins and outs and trials and tribulations of bankruptcy along with some of the absurd laws. There are so many legalistic twists and turns through this labyrinth that even the great Gobseck was once conned and from that day forth he bowed to his debtor with ironical respect.

Du Tillet had planned everything to make the bankruptcy a long and drawn out affair in order to cause the most suffering for Cesar. Molineux, another thorn in Cesar’s side, was appointed trustee and looked forward to making Cesar squirm by threatening him with criminal court. But Uncle Pillerault accompanied Cesar to see him and, having known him socially at the Cafe David for fifteen years, mentioned that surely he wasn’t thinking of criminal court as everyone at the Cafe David would laugh at him. Between the thought of social ostracism and Pillerault’s knowledge and reasoning, Molineux reverts to civility.

Cesar’s worst remaining dread is facing all his creditors at the meeting. The liquidation process shows that all creditors will receive more than 50%. The creditors are impressed with the Birotteaus’ honesty in including their personal belongings, jewelry and momentos in the liquidation and readily agree to give a proxy to their attorneys and not make Cesar face them in person. They meet for the Commercial Court in the office of M. Camusot which happens to be the one formerly occupied by Cesar. Camusot not only avoids the word bankruptcy but suggests that the matter be handled in his office as it is too cold in the Chamber. He mentions that in twenty years this is only the second time he has seen a fallen merchant rise in public esteem. Cesar expresses his plan to work and pay his creditors in full.

After the proceedings, Pillerault, Ragon and Cesar go to Anselme’s establishment. Constance says she is as happy there as if she were with her own son. Anselme tells Cesar how well HIS oil is selling, that they have huge orders throughout France and Gaudissart plans to introduce it into Germany shortly. He has bought a piece of land and is having another factory built.

Chapter 15 – The Finest Example That Anyone Can Offer His Fellow-Men

All three of the Birotteaus have been working hard, denying themselves all luxuries and turning their money over to Uncle Pillerault who has been investing it. Cesar will take no recreation and even works on Sundays with permission from the priest.

In May, 1821, Pillerault announces a country outing and will not let Cesar refuse. Once there he sends Anselme and the Birotteaus for a walk along the path that Cesar and Constance walked twenty years prior. After dinner, Pillerault announces that over the last eighteen months, enough money has been saved to discharge the debt to the Ragons, Lourdois, Mme Madou and some of the other creditors. Ragon tells Abbe Loraux to let Cesar wear his Legion of Honor Ribbon. The next day, Cesar visits some of his creditors to tell them to come to the notary’s chamber for settlement.

The land that du Tillet virtually stole from Cesar is now very valuable but he finds he is unable to profit from it because of the lease on Anselme’s building. Anselme tells him he will take sixty thousand francs for the remainder of his lease, mentioning that with each passing year the cost of replacing the factory will rise by three thousand francs. While they are arguing, Constance comes down the stairs and her changed appearance shocks du Tillet who is horrified by what he had accomplished.

Anselme briefs Constance and du Tillet emphasizes three thousand francs but turns pale and immediately agrees when Constance slowly repeats the amount, leaving Anselme confused. After completing the paperwork Anselme looks for Constance and finds her in her room holding a letter from du Tillet. He is shocked when his eyes catch the tender words it contains.

Anselme explains to Constance how the sixty thousand francs along with profits from Cephalic Oil will be enough to pay the remaining creditors except Pillerault who doesn’t expect anything. He also mentions that he had helped Celestin buy The Queen of Roses with the understanding that the Birotteau apartment was to be left as is for the future occupancy of Anselme and Cesarine.

Constance is thrilled but Anselme is worried about the letter from du Tillet and decides to mention it rather than keep imagining the worst. Constance now relates how du Tillet had tried to seduce her and stole three thousand francs the day he was to be fired but Cesar covered up the theft. She had kept the letters and then forgotten about them until this day when she returned to her room to burn them.

Meanwhile, the King’s private secretary visited the office where Cesar was working and presented him with six thousand francs from the King’s privy purse along with the request that he resume wearing his Legion of Honor Ribbon. The King held Cesar in high esteem due to his honesty and would be offended if the offer was rejected. Cesar decides to use the money to pay du Tillet who is rude and reminds him that he owes a considerable sum to Claparon. Cesar, not knowing what has transpired at Anselm’s factory, says he thinks he will die attempting to pay it.

Cesar is so distracted after leaving du Tillet’s that he walks down the street where his old store is without thinking. He has avoided it in the past because he couldn’t bear to see the site of his former happiness. He sees Constance, Cesarine and Anselme there and flees home to Uncle Pillerault who has been charged with telling Cesar of his financial restoration/rehabilitation. Cesar’s first thought is that Anselme is trying to purchase Cesarine and Pillerault has a difficult time convincing Cesar that it is acceptable to take the money Anselme has accumulated and wrong to refuse and make Cesarine suffer.

Just as Cesar is again speaking of selling his daughter, Cesarine arrives, overhears and interjects that she wants to be bought. Cesarine has arrived with Constance and Anselme after visiting the remaining creditors to tell them to assemble at Crottat’s that evening. Anselme happily says that while the business is being taken care of at Crottat’s, they can also draw up the marriage contract.

Chapter 16 – To Heaven

A month passes while the financial formalities are taken care of and the banns published. Finally it is Cesar’s day in court! Uncle Pillerault has invited some of Ceasar’s supporters to accompany him to the Palais de Justice. There are several speeches including one by the Comte de Granville saying that the bankruptcy was not Cesar’s fault but caused by Roguin’s absconding with funds he was holding for Cesar. The honor and work of all three Birotteaus is mentioned along with the fact that Cesar repaid the full amounts due his creditors with interest. Afterwards, in the anteroom, Cesar places his Legion of Honor Ribbon in his buttonhole.

In the carriage, Cesar expresses his wish to go to the Bourse, that having been prohibited to him as a bankrupt. One of the first persons encountered there is du Tillet and Pillerault sneaks in a sarcastic remark which Lebas smoothes over so as not to upset Cesar on his day of triumph.

Anselme has planned a celebration ball, but on a much less lavish scale than Cesar’s ball, for his wedding feast. Constance and Cesarine wear the ball gowns they wore three years ago at the Great Ball. At four o’clock they anxiously await Cesar’s arrival. When Cesar steps into his old house and sees everyone, Uncle Pillerault who is holding his arm feels him shudder.

Cesar stumbles and calls to Constance that he is unwell. Constance calls for Dr Haudry and Abbe Loraux as she helps Cesar reach his room where he collapses.

“Behold the death of the righteous!” said the Abbe Loraux solemnly . . .


Read it here

Summarized by Dagny, March 2008


3 comments on “The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I have never fully related to Balzac’s fascination with get-rich schemes, which fascinated him in his personal life. These schemes are full of double-crosses and crafty characters and are often hard to follow even with multiple readings. The plots make my eyes glaze over with their many twists and turns and large casts of characters. “Cesar Birotteau” is this type of story, not in my opinion Balzac at his best. Saintsbury recognizes my complaints, commenting on the novel’s “endless retrospective narrations” which “utterly stop the action,” He also points out the “choking bankruptcy” details. But Saintsbury gives Balzac a pass because he sees so much of Balzac the man and his own life story in these stories and claims they show “the throb of personal interest, the pulse of part of life.” Perhaps he has a point as I look back and remember fondly the goodness of Cesar and his family. Still not a favorite with me.


  2. This is one I seem to enjoy more with each reading. I was dreading my first reading after reading the comment that if you wanted to learn about bankruptcy in Balzac’s time to read Cesar Birotteau. Perhaps the “success” of my later readings were because I greatly skimmed over any dreary details, lol.


  3. Gill Price says:

    It’s not one of my favourites either. I had saved the book up and was really looking forward to reading it, but when I started it, it was disappointing. Rather tedious, not Balzac at his best.

    Liked by 1 person

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