The Firm of Nucingen by Honoré de Balzac

La Maison Nucingen
The Firm of Nucingen
Also translated as The House of Nucingen
Also translated as Nucingen & Co, Bankers

Picture to yourself a private dining room in a restaurant divided in two by a flimsy partition. The diners in one partition can hear everything that is said in the other. In one partition, the first to be occupied, sits the narrator (Balzac?) along with an unnamed friend.

At eight o’clock, as the narrator’s dinner has wound down, we hear the other partition being occupied by four “cormorants” (think voraciously hungry seabirds) known to the narrator. They are Andoche Finot, now a newspaper editor whom we had seen in a number of Balzac stories; Emile Blondet, journalist, ditto; Couture, a financier-journalist of dubious reputation; and Jean-Jacques Bixiou, another Balzac Boulevardier.

Their subject? How was it that Eugene de Rastignac got rich? The short answer is via Delphine de Nucingen of Pere Goriot fame. Bixiou describes a fiendish plot by Baron Nucingen to pull off a third suspension of payments in his career. He feels he needs an accomplice to deflect attention from him while he attempts to indemnify his creditors with worthless paper. And Rastignac was the man for the job.

“From the year 1820 he thought, like the Baron, that honesty was a question of appearances; he looked upon the world as a mixture of corruption and rascality of every sort. If he admitted exceptions, he condemned the mass; he put no belief in any virtue – men did right or wrong, as circumstances decided. His worldly wisdom was the work of a moment; he learned his lesson at the summit of Père-Lachaise one day when he buried a poor, good man there [a famous scene from Pere Goriot]; it was his Delphine’s father, who died devastated by his daughters and their husbands, a dupe of our society and of the truest affection. Rastignac then and there resolved to exploit this world, to wear the full dress of virtue, honesty, and fine manners. He was empanoplied in selfishness. When the young scion of nobility discovered that Nucingen wore the same armor, he respected him much as some knight mounted upon a barb and arrayed in damascened steel would have respected an adversary equally well horsed and equipped at a tournament in the Middle Ages.”

If we were to turn our eyes from 1830s France and look at our own day, Rastignac would have been as thick as thieves (to use an expression) with Bernie Madoff and the executives of Enron. Except in Balzac’s day, Madoff, Jeff Skilling, and Bernie Lay would have been rewarded for their crimes rather than trundled off to a Federal prison.

Nucingen and Rastignac come off smelling like roses, while many of the other characters are either swept away like trash in the gutter after a sudden downpour, as with Beaudenord and the d’Aldriggers, accept charity from the master thieves.

I am convinced that The Firm of Nucingen is one of the keystones of the Comédie Humaine. Those ghostly voices of Bixiou and his friends through the paper-thin partition are expressing one of Balzac’s main themes, even though they do it in the most maddeningly dilatory way possible. Although The Firm of Nucingen is technically flawed, it is critical to the reader’s understanding of the whole superstructure of financial finagling that cuts across Balzac’s work as a whole.

Read it here

Summaried by Jim, November 2010

6 comments on “The Firm of Nucingen by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is more of a Balzac background story, one that can be most appreciated if already familiar with the principal characters – our old friends Eguene, Emile, etc. Jim, who wrote the summary, got it right – it is a cornerstone of a main theme of the financial dealings which pervade the entire body of work of “The Human Comedy.”


  2. Richard Melson says:

    Does Balzac have intuitions on what we now call globalization?

    Was that in the air even then?

    What about national/international financial panics?



    Cambridge Forecast Group


    • Tarnmoor says:

      Insofar as I can recall, all of Balzac’s descriptions of financial finagling — of which there are many — are based solely in France. He occasionally shows us rich English milords and miladies, but seems to have little idea of how their wealth was attained. In the end, he married a rich Polish Countess based in the Ukraine, but he does not deal with the Hanski family wealth either directly or obliquely in his fiction.


  3. Lars says:

    Good introduction to the novel, thanks. I was a bit confused by the ‘tigre irlandais’ in the novel but just read in Robb’s biography about the subtle homoeroticism of these master/groom relationships in Balzac’s own life.


  4. mark says:

    On the globalization point, in fact Nucingen has to complete his liquidation before a ship arrives from overseas that covers his liabilities. The key to the alleged impending failure was that his capital was secretly deployed abroad.


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