Gaudissart the Great by Honoré de Balzac

Les Parisiens en province: L’Illustre Gaudissart

Gaudissart the Great

Also translated as The Illustrious Gaudissart


This is a very short story from Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, and perhaps not one of his best.  It features a commercial traveller as the butt of the author’s scorn: ‘a human pyrotechnic, a juggler hoaxed by himself, an unbelieving priest of mysteries and dogmas, which he expounds all the better for his want of faith’.  He’s a know-all, he’s ‘soaked in vices’ and he purports to be the friend of all.  It’s his job to poke into other people’s affairs and guess their habits, interests and financial status – so that he can sell them products they don’t need.

‘To talk’ says Balzac, ‘to make people listen to you, that is seduction in itself’.  This glib character entangles his victims – and of the type, the Gaudissart of the story’s title is the most illustrious. His specialty is fleecing rural people by persuading them to buy stock in illusory projects and useless insurance. He believes that he is invincible and can outwit anyone; he brags indefatigably to his wife Jenny. 

He meets his Waterloo at Vouvray, near Tours. Tourangians, says Balzac, are easy-going and smart, enjoying the fruits of their vineyards and the loveliness of the garden of France in a region never invaded by anyone. Monsieur Vernier the dyer sizes up the salesman immediately and sends him off to flog his dubious insurance to the local lunatic, Margaritis.  Far from succeeding, Gaudissart is persuaded to buy some of Margaritis’s non-existent wine, and the entire village is highly amused.

Gaudissart is furious, and demands a duel, but as a comedy should, all’s well that ends well.

Still, the story didn’t really appeal.  Travelling salesmen have long been the butt of jokes, but the only one I’ve ever known was a lovely fellow.  I couldn’t help thinking of how this story would have offended him!

PS I have since learned that Balzac wrote this story in one night, to meet a publisher’s need for an extra story after a mistake was made in the printing.  So although I still don’t think it’s one of his best, it’s clearly a brilliant effort in one night!

Read it here.

Lisa Hill, November 12th, 2011

One comment on “Gaudissart the Great by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I remember when I read this work I didn’t think that much of it, but it is more interesting to me now that Gaudissart has appeared in many other of Balzac’s works. He does advance in society and even beomces rich – but never makes it to the aristocracy. Saintsbury calls this a ‘slight’ work, but really it does fit the ‘salesman’ character type quite well. Haven’t we all known someone like Gaudissart? I read one article from my library’s literary sources that made a big deal about how this work was important as it showed that commerce must come to the provinces for France to be successful. Not sure about that, interesting idea though. Another article noted that Gaudissart may have been tricked in his country venture, but he wasn’t fleeced. He ended up with 21 new subscriptions and reimbursement for the wine he ‘bought’ but didn’t receive.


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