The Firm of Nucingen

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac Eleventh volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1877) Scenes from Parisian life Picture 1


Short story dedicated by Honoré de Balzac TO ZULMA CARAUD Is it not you, Madame, whose high and probing intelligence is like a treasure for your friends, you who are for me both a whole audience and the most indulgent of sisters, to whom I must dedicate this work? Please accept it as a token of a friendship of which I am proud. You and a few souls as beautiful as yours will understand my thoughts when you read The House Nucingen adjacent to César Birotteau. In this contrast is a whole social lesson? De Balzac Published in La Presse in October and November 1837, this novel was published in volume in 1838 by Werdet. It becomes part of Scènes de la vie parisienne. Initially entitled La Haute Banque, Balzac preferred the title La Maison Nucingen to refer to the haute banque, a handful of bankers who had a monopoly on all the financial markets. Nucingen is a character Balzac would use repeatedly in his novels. The 19th century represented a tremendous advance in science, the arts, photography, technological inventions of all kinds and industrialization in general. The breeding ground created by this dazzling industrial and economic growth saw the emergence of the first major players in the financial speculation of the High Bank. Balzac accurately portrays Baron de Nucingen as one of the greatest “respectable” swindlers of modern times.

Analysis of the work La Maison Nucingen, on the other hand, places us at the very center of the Scènes de la vie parisienne , and makes the means by which the Thirteen’s affianced ensure their careers, or satisfy their fantasies, seem quite romantic and primitive. Why should we attack power and fortune when power and fortune, peacefully tamed, come obediently to the clever? Gone are the days of helping hand, and the history of Parisian society has become the history of fortunes. In La Maison Nucingen, we learn how Rastignac, the poor little student in Père Goriot, was able to endow his sisters and offer his brother a bishopric. This story is far more edifying and far truer than Henri de Marsay’s picturesque beginnings. Picture 2 Old Goriot’s tragic end has educated everyone. La Maison Nucingen is the sequel to Père Goriot. This is how Balzac introduced her to Madame Hanska in March 1835: “You ask me what has become of Madame de Nucingen. She and her husband will be the most comically dramatic characters in Une vue du monde, long heralded by the Revue de Paris. It’s La faillite de Monsieur de Nucingen. The project thus announced was not realized until 1837. At that time, Balzac had just published Les Employés, he had begun César Birotteau , which was completed at the end of the year, and he was correcting the proofs of La Maison Nucingen at the end of October and beginning of November. These three works belong to the same creative movement. They feature a new cast of characters: shopkeepers, bankers, backstage men, straw men – in short, all the real staff of the Scènes de la vie parisienne, the money-handlers. The story of Delphine de Nucingen is not the romance Madame Hanska expected: it’s a situation Balzac describes – that of Madame de Nucingen and Rastignac, both trapped in an affair that will last fifteen years. Rastignac has won his challenge to society. But at what price! He became Delphine’s slave. He’s her “sidekick”, distracting her, accompanying her: and it gets him nowhere. At thirty-five, he’s just an elegant parasite, he complains. He’s also a slave to Nucingen, who relieves him of his marital chores and occasionally employs him to recruit shareholders. There’s a refinement to this device: for Rastignac doesn’t suspect his role as a flirt. Nucingen’s objective was simple: he wanted to turn his bank’s depositors into shareholders, i.e. transform the gold louis entrusted to him into rectangles of paper adorned with inscriptions and his signature. Its tactic is to panic its depositors by making them believe in bankruptcy. Rastignac’s unconscious compérage consists in spreading this panic, and finally devoting himself by offering to save the essential by buying shares before the disaster. Bankruptcy is real or simulated: Nucingen feigns despair, but shows his probity by repaying all his deposits with shares he has created. Rastignac was admirable in this crisis: he consoled Delphine, who was crying over her ruin, and charitably warned the people he was dining with. He is also a shareholder, with founder’s shares given to him free of charge. Everyone’s happy because the shares pay out big dividends, which we take out of the capital. Most comical of all is the outcome: it turns out that Nucingen’s mining shares not only pay fictitious dividends, but also lead and tin. They become a very good bargain. The only families to be ruined are those who did not trust Nucingen and bought annuities instead of keeping their shares. It’s the whole bank, or at least the childhood of the bank. Balzac clearly understood that these transmutations were robberies in which the victim volunteered to be robbed: in short, one of those “hidden crimes” that escape the law and are, he believes, at the root of most great fortunes. He is indignant and calls for authoritarian governments to make the manipulators who have enriched themselves in this way pay the price. He’s not an economist. A disciple of Adam Smith would have explained to him that Nucingen made everyone rich by fighting hoarding. Gobseck is an advocate of the bas de laine, happily fiddling with his thalers and ducats, and his wares rotting in a corner. Nucingen, on the other hand, is a representative of liberalism and the market economy, which makes everyone rich except the fools who cut corners, and a few unlucky ones who operate at cross-purposes. This edifying example is set during a dinner party, in one of those “conversations between eleven and midnight”, in which Balzac’s verve and causticity are given full rein by an astonishing mise-en-scène. La lanterne magique (The Magic Lantern) is a parade of pretty specimens of worldly folk – an Alpine shepherdess, marriageable daughters, a respectable simpleton, a “tiger” and a funeral scene – mercilessly described and judged by journalists, bankers and “doers” who profess a cynicism far more amusing than the ferocity of the “yellow-gloved privateers”, and yet just as effective. These are two of Balzac’s many ways of presenting his tableaux vivants.

The story This story is an edifying analysis of the methods and techniques used on the stock market in an economic period conducive to the lure of gain and rapidly acquired fortunes. In writing his short story, we have every reason to believe that Balzac was inspired by the facts of his time, namely the two bankruptcies consummated by Beer banker Léon Fould, who rebounded a few years later to rank among the most powerful magnates of high finance. Picture 3 At the home of the famous restaurateur Véry, a couple overhear the indiscreet conversation of four men. They include former magazine and newspaper owner Andoche Finot, newspaper editor Emile Blondet, speculator Couture and journalist Jean-Jacques Bixiou. They explain the meteoric rise of Delphine de Nucingen’s former lover, Eugène de Rastignac, who was raised alongside her husband to help him in his business ventures, and who is none other than the famous Nucingen banker. This top financier has no soul except for money, which represents power and might. In order to make colossal fortunes, he engages in risky operations, driving up stock prices and buying them back when they are at their lowest. He even went so far as to use, unbeknownst to them, men well regarded in the Parisian sphere, including Rastignac, to make people believe in his imminent ruin and to feed the psychosis which then enabled him to speculate at astronomical rates. Nucingen works in finance – he’s an expert at faking debacles and dishonest bankruptcies. To achieve this, he uses unscrupulous people eager to get rich quickly, including the Comte des Lupeaux and, as we’ve seen, Rastignac. He soon found himself in possession of huge amounts of capital, and was able to buy back at very low prices the shares he had first overvalued and then driven down. Nucingen was an opportunistic visionary, well-versed in the world of finance, who built his fortune from an early age on social debacles and stock market swindles. It will further increase its financial and real estate assets through three liquidations. His fraudulent bankruptcies, business acumen and sleight-of-hand enabled him to capitalize on colossal fortunes. In addition to the aforementioned Rastignac, the Count des Lupeaux and many other associates were also involved in his shady dealings. The main losers were, of course, small shareholders, merchants, the bourgeoisie and the new rich born of industrialization. Nucingen, this loup-cervier of finance, even went so far as to sacrifice one of his peers, the talented Du Tillet, who had gone from being a perfume clerk at César Birotteau to a successful career in banking. Paris, November 1837

The characters Baron Frédéric de Nucingen: Banker born around 1763. Baroness Delphine de Nucingen: Delphine Goriot, born in 1792, wife of Frédéric de Nucingen. They had a daughter, Augusta, who married Eugène de Rastignac. Emile Blondet: Emile, born in 1800, journalist, then prefect, from his mother’s affair with the prefect of Alençon. Malvina d’Aldrigger: Born in 1801, she was the daughter of Baron Jean-Baptiste d’Aldrigger, a banker born in 1764 and deceased in 1823, and Théodora-Marguerite-Wilhelmine Adolphus. Isaure d’Aldrigger: Born in 1807, she is Malvina’s sister. She married Godefroid de Beaudenord. Godefroid de Beaudenord: Born in 1800, he married Isaure d’Aldrigger, with whom he had four children. Ferdinand Du Tillet: born in 1793, Ferdinand was a foundling who became a clerk, banker and member of parliament. In 1831, he married Marie-Eugénie de Granville, born in 1814. Jean-Jacques Bixiou: Born in 1797, caricaturist Jean-Jacques Bixiou is the grandson of Bixiou, grocer and first husband of Madame Descoings. His father, a colonel, died in 1813. Andoche Finot: Publicist whose father is a hatmaker in César Birotteau. Eugène de Rastignac: Born in 1798, Eugène belonged on his father’s side to a noble Angoumois family, represented by a Baron de Rastignac who lived near Angoulême. The mother is unknown. He goes from student to minister and count. In 1838, he married Augusta de Nucingen. Augusta de Nucingen: Augusta is the daughter of Delphine and Frédéric de Nucingen.  

Source analysis/history: Preface (Volume XII) compiled from the full text of the Comédie Humaine published by France Loisirs 1986 under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac.

Source genealogy of characters: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde” Gallimard. 

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