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.
Summaried by Jim, November 2010