Saturday, June 18, 2011

Birotteau and the theater of high finance

When Balzac lays out the nature of a bankruptcy proceeding and, by extension, of all of the activities of high finance, he likens it to a theatrical performance.
Comme toutes les pièces de théâtre il offre un double spectacle : il a sa mise en scène pour le public et ses moyens cachés, il y a la représentation vue du parterre et la représentation vue des coulisses.

Like all theater pieces, it offers a double spectacle: there is a shoe aimed at the public and another show that is hidden, there is the performance seen from the front of the house and the performance seen from backstage.
In other words, there is a ritual performance for the consumption of the general public; the real insiders know that the reality is quite different, with special rules and a not easily apparent distribution of power. Woe to those like César Birotteau who might be tempted to believe that the performance is real. Fortunately, he has friends who know how the system works, and can guide him through the realities, make deals with the people with real power and observe the forms for the rest.

In a larger sense, the whole financial world is presented as a carnival show to lure the gullible. The apparently random chances in the money market are, Balzac repeatedly shows, the result of the backstage manipulations of the real masters, the bankers and the usurers. The show of probity and respectability from the financiers is just a show, while backstage ruthless greed reigns.

Du Tillet, the principal villain of César Birotteau, stage-manages the ruination of the perfumer by setting up a tempting but disastrous investment, while remaining out of sight. When he does encounter Birotteau, it is with the greatest feigned sympathy and the offer of financial aid, along with even more ruinous advice that is aimed at grabbing the one saving play for the perfumer, Anselme Popinot’s hair tonic business. He plays the part so well that Birotteau never really understand the cause of his ruin.

Birotteau goes to borrow to among others to the brothers Keller, the heads of a major Paris bank. The one brother, the onstage performer for the firm, is all smiles, encouragement, and graciousness, in his beautiful office. Birotteau is sent to the backstage brother, the one who runs the real operations of the bank, who, in a cramped dark office in the bowels of the building, is mean and uncompromising. Again front-of-house versus backstage

The idea of the dual realities is a forerunner of the theories of the 20th-century Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman, whose Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) elaborates a whole theory of the dramaturgy of social interactions. While the theatrical metaphor is commonplace, Goffman stresses several unique issues: One is the importance of the stage set (such as Keller and Du Tillet’s elegant furniture and trappings), and this concept of becoming successful by looking successful is a constant in Balzac, and well suited to his keen eye for superficial detail. For example, is so bowled over by Du Tillet’s surroundings that he is unable to analyze what is happening.

Another key is the near for teamwork among the performers to keep the illusion alive. The wolves the financial troupe in Balzac, whatever their individual relations, are happy to keep up the illusion, and not let outsiders into the game. More specifically, Du Tillet has to give lessons to his talkative front man for the swindle, in order to keep his performance credible and avoid over acting.

In awiser sense, most of Balzac’s Paris novels are based on the tension between an apparent reality of glamour and comfort, and an ugly reality – death, penury, debasement– lurking just beneath it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Balzac, César Birotteau (1837)

Balzac's Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau is both a fairy tale of bourgeois virtue and an in-depth look at the details of French bankruptcy law in the nineteenth century.

As so often in Balzac, the minutiae of getting and spending are chronicled in numbers – from the first franc earned from a new cosmetic product to the detailed costs of Birotteau’s ruinous party in his new lodgings. We are led through the economics of the launch of a new hair elixir, with breakdowns of the expenses for supplies and packaging, the publicity costs, and the split between wholesaler and retailer. Above all, we see the brutal details of the repayment made by Birotteau and his family through the sweat of their brow.

This is something new to French literature, I think. You can see something like it in Defoe – this de-sentimentalization of money. In thus book, money is not acquired offstage, it is not just the by-product of some rents or bonds or the result of an inheritance, it is earned coin by coin over the counter of a shop. In fact, Birotteau’s problems start when he starts getting into vast non-tangible speculations, and tries to become a rentier rather than a shopkeeper.

Aside from the complex banking maneuvers. there is a detailed description of the financial ecosystem: usurers, respectable bankers, notaries, straw-men, bankruptcy judges. There a long section the current bankruptcy laws and their insufficiencies – a topic Balzac was personally aware of.

Ob the other side. the basic story is a pure fairy tale: the plucky (and club-footed) prentice/clerk Anselme Popinot, who saves the day and wins Birotteua’s beautiful daughter. is set against the evil and suave former apprentice-turned-banker, Du Tillet, who sets out to ruin the good-natured Birotteau, who knows too much about Du Tillet’s dishonesty.

If César loses his footing when he aimed too high, Popinot’s combination of hard work, careful spending, and a brilliant marketing and sales campaign manages to build a second fortune. It is clear that Balzac sees Popinot as a newer, savvier businesman than his ex-boss.

Incapable de mesurer la portée d'une pareille publicité, Birotteau se contenta de dire à Césarine : " Ce petit Popinot marche sur mes traces ! " sans comprendre la différence des temps, sans apprécier la puissance des nouveaux moyens d'exécution dont la rapidité, l'étendue, embrassaient beaucoup plus promptement qu'autrefois le monde commercial.

Unable to measure the scope of such advertising, Birotteau merely said to Césarine: "This little Popinot is walking in my footsteps!" without understanding the difference in the times, without appreciating the power of new business approaches whose speed and scope were grabbing the workd of commerce more speedily than ever before.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Balzac, La Vielle Fille (1836)

Les gens de province possèdent au plus haut degré l’art de distiller les cancans.
People from the provinces possess at the highest degree the art of distilling gossip.

This tale of a provincial marriage is set in Alençon, a sleepy, reactionary town sitting between Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley. The pursuit of the old maid in question, an ignorant, silly, but well-off heiress takes the form of a political struggle. One of the two main suitors is an impoverished and graceful old-fashioned member of the old gentry, in good favor with the Royalist party of the Bourbon restoration. The other is a brash man of low birth who made his money supplying Napoleon’s armies while in Paris (and, we are lead to belive, conning it), and seeks to become the spokesman for the Liberal cause in a heretofore conservative town, dominated by the ci-devant nobility and the Church.

Several days each week, the old maid maintains a salon in her richly appointed mansion, a salon that is a time=capsule of pre-Revolutionary manners. She is the darling of the conservatives, being the most utter example of provincialism:
car elle s’était encroûtée dans les habitudes de la province, elle n’en était jamais sortie, elle en avait les préjugés, elle en épousait les intérêts, elle l’adorait.
for she was encrusted in the habits of the province, she still had never left it, she shared its prejudices, she espoused its interests, she adored it.
The two men duel for advantage, and the liberal takes possession through a combination of great timing and a horrid embarrasment for the old maid. Upon their marriage, he basically usurps her fortunes. redecorates the hosue (the latest bad taste from Paris replaces the old-fashioned bad taste), reduces her independence, takes a mistress. and climbs to power in the prefecrure. Ub rge oisusruve side, he revives the city’s clothtarde, insituting a spinning factory and reviving the moribund economy.

Marriage as so often in Balzac is a business deal, and a deal that an unworldly and sentimental woman is certain to lose at. Such deals often end up squandering carefully built-up fortunes, on the other hand they are a major engine of economic growth, or at least shakeup. Money in Balzac is always in circulation, and the strategies of prudence and even miserliness always end up fueling a maelstrom of new spending and redistribution.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Balzac, “Facino Cane” (1836)

This short story is a Venetian fantasy, reminiscent of the history of Casanova and not unlike Balzac's own Sarrasine (1831). at least in its heightened Italian setting. The narrator hears the story of the life of blind musician, who claims to be a Venetian nobleman with an infallible nose for gold, the hero of adulterous adventures, stolen fortunes, a prison escape, and sudden blindness.

Several points of interest: the escape from an impregnable prison is a trope of Romantic fiction, Casanova's famous escape over the roof (leads) of the Venetian prison may be the immediate inspiration. But the patient digging away with a primitive tool reminds me of that pan-European Gothic blockbuster, Charles Henry Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), a book that Balzac had recently written a sequel to (Melmoth reconcié, 1835). Of course, Dumas's subsequent Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846) is the most famous of the digging-out-of-prison stories, and such prison escapes or near-escapes are a staple in Dumas (La Dame de Monsureau, La Reine Margot, and L'Homme au masque de fer.)

The unusual device here is that the hero is clued into his (dead) predecessors' nearly-completed excavations by his ability to read Arabic graffiti left by a former cell occupant, a skill the hero picked up as the scion of a merchant family in the Mediterranean.

The nameless narrator is a poor middle-class intellectual, a scientist who lives among the working classes of the Marais. blending in well enough to be able to closely observe the working classes, which he does "scientifically".

Une seule passion m'entraînait en dehors de mes habitudes studieuses ; mais n'était-ce pas encore de l'étude ? j'allais observer les mœurs du faubourg, ses habitants et leurs caractères. Aussi mal vêtu que les ouvriers, indifférent au décorum, je ne les mettais point en garde contre moi ; je pouvais me mêler à leurs groupes, les voir concluant leurs marchés, et se disputant à l'heure où ils quittent le travail. Chez moi l'observation était déjà devenue intuitivel

A single passion pulled be away from my studious habits, but wasn't it even more study? I observed the manners of the faubourg, its inhabitants and their characters. As badly dressed as the workers, indifferent to decorum, I did not put them on guard against me; I could join in their groups, see them conduct business, and argue at quitting time. In me, observation had already become intuitive.
The scientific analysis of the working classes by a sympathetic intellectual -- this is the revolution of nineteenth century literature. He tells us at one point that the story of the blind Venetian is just one among many that the has gathered. Like Balzac himself, who could blend in with al ranks of society – as portrayed by literal invisibility in La Canne de M. de Balzac (also 1836) –, the narrator acts as a kind of "nobleman in disguise" figure, another staple of romantic tale-telling.