This short novella reports an overheard conversation. The author and friends are quietly sitting in a private room at a restaurant, when the room next door fills up with four loud merry makers, easily overheard through the thin walls. The four turn out to be among the most cynical and malicious dandies in Paris, characters that all appear in other Balzac works.
They speak in a racy, allusive jargon, full of semi-private jokes and calumnies about friends and foes alike. Thanks to the reproduction of their dialogues, this is much more difficult than other Balzac works to fully comprehend.
1. Realistic fiction is basically about sex and money: who is sleeping (or not sleeping) with whom, and how did so-and-so get (or lose) his money. In this case, the big question is about money: how did Eugène de Rastignac, who we saw as penniless at the end of Père Goriot and is the most central character of the Comédie Humaine, become a wealthy man and a leader in French society?
2. As relevant today as in the time of Louis-Philippe, the answer is – through insider trading. The narrative details the machinations of the Baron de Nucigen, the Alsatian banker and husband of Delphine, who is Rastignac’s lover and the daughter of Goriot. Worse than with modern-day financial skullduggery, getting my brain around the actual machinery of 19th century French speculation is near impossible.
3. The narrative technique is very unusual. The four young dandies constantly tease, joke, and digress. The main thread, Rastignac’s fortune, gets lost constantly, so much so that the other characters keep expressing their frustration with Bixiou, the principal source of the secret in question, The rather simple story of Nucigen using Rastignac to pull off the sharp deal and rewarding him for his help is eclipsed by the story of the marriage of one of the big losers from the stock swindle.
4. Balzac, himself a serial failure in terms of financial schemes, is bitterly cynical about the unpunished criminality of the financial system:
prenez cinq mille francs dans mon secrétaire, vous allez au Bagne. Mais avec le piment d’un gain à faire habilement mis dans la gueule de mille boursiers, vous les forcez à prendre les rentes de je ne sais quelle république ou monarchie en faillite, émises … pour payer les intérêts de ces mêmes rentes : personne ne peut se plaindre. Voilà les vrais principes de l’âge d’or où nous vivons !Add the word “derivatives”, and it sounds so 21st century.
Take five thousand francs from my desk, you’ll go to jail. But if you cleverly feed a thousand investors with the spicy prospect of a big gain, you force them to take the bonds of some republic or monarchy or other in bankruptcy, issued … to pay off the interest on these very bonds: nobody can complain. These are the true principles of the golden age in which we live.