Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Balzac, speculating

In 1847 Honoré de Balzac traveled to the Ukraine in pursuit of the wealthy, elusive Madame de Hanska:

As a composer transmutes an emotion or a mood into music, so Balzac made everything he saw into the basis of a financial calculation. He remained the incorrigible speculator. Before he had even arrived at Wierzchownia, while still travelling through the forests on the estate, he gazed at the magnificent trees with an eye to the profit that their owner might reap. His previous failures to make a large fortune at one stroke were forgotten and he immediately submitted to Count Mniszech a plan for exploiting the inexhaustible stocks of timber and turning them into cash. A railway was being built on the frontiers, and in a short time this would link Russia with France. With impatient pencil Balzac drew on a piece of paper a line connecting the forests of Wierzchownia with the sawmills of France:
There is a demand in France at the present moment for enormous quantities of oak to make railway sleepers, but we haven’t got the oak. I know that oak has almost doubled in price, both for building purposes and for cabinet-making.
Then he began to work out the profit and loss. The freight from Brody to Cracow would have to be considered. From Cracow the railway already ran as far as Paris, though with a number of interruptions, since the River Elbe had not yet been adequately bridged at Magdeburg or the Rhine at Cologne. The Ukrainian sleepers would therefore have to be ferried across these two rivers. “The transport of sixty thousand balks will be no trifling matter,” and it would add very considerably to the cost, but they would endeavour to interest bankers in the project and the directors of the French railway company might be persuaded to reduce their charges if it were proved to them that this would be to their own advantage. If they only made five francs profit on each balk, they would be hundreds of thousands of francs to the good even after deduction of all expenses. “It is worth while thinking the matter over.”

There is, perhaps, no need to record that this final offspring of Balzac’s speculative genius never got further than the stage of preliminary discussion.

Stefan Zweig, Balzac, trans. William and Dorothy Rose (London: Casell, 1947).
Related reading
All OCA Balzac and Zweig posts (Pinboard)

[Balk: “beam, rafter” (Merriam-Webster).]

comments: 3

The Crow said...

Hmmm...if balk means rafter, or beam, what, then does the name Balkans mean, if there be any connection at all?

Michael Leddy said...

Wikipedia traces it to the Turkish for “mountain.” I think though that this is a job for the OED.

Michael Leddy said...

The OED has a Baltic connection for balk: “A roughly squared beam of timber; sometimes used technically to designate Baltic timber, which is roughly dressed before shipment.”