Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How do you say “crazy,
harebrained scheme” in French?

In 1837 Honoré de Balzac bought a piece of land in the Ville d'Avray at Sèvres upon which to build a house. But his plans grew larger:

Balzac never regarded expenditure as money actually laid out so long as it was still in the form of a debt. He revelled in the early delights of ownership, and before his new house was built he refused to worry about how he was to pay for it. What was his pen for, anyway, that magic instrument which could so swiftly turn blank paper into thousand-franc notes? Moreover, the fruit-trees which he intended to plant on the still virgin soil would alone bring in a fortune. Suppose he were to lay down a pineapple plantation? Nobody in France had yet hit upon the idea of growing pineapples in glasshouses instead of shipping them from distant parts. If it was set about in the right way, so he confided to his friend Théophile Gautier, he could make a profit of a hundred thousand francs, or three times as much as his new house would cost him. As a matter of fact, it would cost him nothing at all, since he had persuaded the Viscontis to join him in this brilliant venture. While he was building his new house they were going to fit up the old cottage for their own use, and would pay him a suitable rent. So what was there to worry about?

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

comments: 5

The Arthurian said...

Balzac may be a special case; I won't deny it. But the economy in his time was different from that of our time, just as "before 2008" differs from "since 2008". James R. Crotty writes:

Keynes argues that nineteenth-century capitalism differed in institutional and class structure as well as in agent behavior patterns from post World War I capitalism. Because of these institutional differences, nineteenth-century capitalism exhibited impressive economic growth and stability, whereas twentieth-century capitalism was prone to stagnation-depression as well as to bouts of extreme instability.
Keynes asserted that while freedom of trade and of capital flows brought peace and prosperity in the nineteenth century, the same international system produced imperialism, war, and depression in the twentieth century
Later in the book he commented on "the exuberance of the greatest age of the inducement to invest" in nineteenth-century England. And in the Economic Consequences of the Peace he argued that before World War I, "Europe was so organized socially and economically as to secure the maximum of capital accumulation [with] some continuous improvement in the daily conditions of life of the mass of the population" ...

The differences summarized by Crotty surely account for a good part of what seems to us the strangeness of Balzac's view.

James R. Crotty, Keynes on the Stages of Development of the Capitalist Economy: The Institutional Foundation of Keynes's Methodology

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for adding a context, Art. As you say, Balzac may be a special case. I think there’s more than a touch of mania in his schemes, which he hatched as he accumulated greater and greater debt. One involved extracting silver from ancient Roman mines in Sardinia. Another involve importing oak from the Ukraine. In France, pineapple is still, as far as I can tell, an import. :)

Stefan said...

All of this reminds me of the speaker in Lewis Carroll's "Resolution and Independence" parody, "The Aged, Aged Man," who can scarcely hear the old man because his own head is filled with foolish schemes:

I heard him then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep the Menai bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.

Michael Leddy said...

Wine made from the Balzac Vineyards!

Elaine said...

I read the account and all along wondered, "What year did he go bankrupt?"