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