Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Père Goriot - the center of Paris, the center of Balzac - Perhaps this may amuse me

I briefly considered writing up my Balzac Top 10, and then counting down the hits for two weeks. Père Goriot (1835) would have had to wait until the beginning of next week, coming in at #4, perhaps, but for many readers it would be his obvious #1 greatest hit, for understandable reasons. Père Goriot is the purest Balzac, the most Balzackish Balzac. It's the center of Balzac's works, it's his greatest portrait, or really vision, of Paris, and it's the root of the Human Comedy.

The novel begins with a hilariously mean attack on its readers. This is funny stuff:

"And you, too, will do the like; you who with this book in your white hand will sink back among the cushions of your armchair, and say to yourself, 'Perhaps this may amuse me.' You will read the story of Father Goriot's secret woes, and, dining thereafter with an unspoiled appetite, will lay the blame of your insensibility upon the writer, and accuse him of exaggeration, of writing romances. Ah! once for all, this drama is neither a fiction nor a romance! All is true,--so true, that everyone can discern the elements of the tragedy in his own house, perhaps in his own heart."

Then we get one of Balzac's best passages, the description of the rundown Latin Quarter boarding house where most of the novel's characters reside:

"Here you see that indestructible furniture never met with elsewhere, which finds its way into lodging-houses much as the wrecks of our civilization drift into hospitals for incurables. You expect in such places as these to find the weather-house whence a Capuchin issues on wet days; you look to find the execrable engravings which spoil your appetite, framed every one in a black varnished frame, with a gilt beading round it; you know the sort of tortoise-shell clock-case, inlaid with brass; the green stove, the Argand lamps, covered with oil and dust, have met your eyes before."

The engravings which actually spoil your appetite! Note the attention to the frames, one of Balzac's career-long obsessions. One of my little knocks against Père Goriot is that the descriptive writing is not as good anywhere else in the book as it is in this opening passage.

One of the boarders is the law student Rastignac. He gets a taste of the good life, and that's it for him. He wants it - money, women, Paris - now, rather than later. A common theme in Balzac - not just ambition, but haste. Another boarder, Goriot, has impoverished himself, continues to impoverish himself, for the sake of his two heartless daughters. Rastignac becomes tangled up with the daughters. These are the two plots of the book.

This is a novel where knowing the ending may pique a readers interest more than knowing the story - how does Rastignac get from that boarding house to here:

"He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently:

'Henceforth there is war between us.'

And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen."

Rastignac standing in Pere-Lachaise cemetery, overlooking Paris, vowing to conquer it - now that is Balzac.

Translations are again from the old-timey Gutenberg.org version, by Ellen Marriage. But try to get the Norton Critical Edition, which has, among other curious items, a map of Paris that I found extremely useful.


  1. Great post thanks. Prompted me to go back to my notes on the novel...and dig these gems out:

    "She lacked what revitalizes a woman, pretty clothes and love letters."

    If you wish to be successful, said the Viscountess in a low voice, you must first learn not to show your feelings so unrestrainedly.

  2. Yeah, Balzac is full of great lines. He blows smoke with the best of them, sometimes, but for such a sloppy, sprawling sort of writer he gets off a lot of good ones.

    When I read those two quotes, I realize that I remember exactly to which characters they apply, so they're not just aphorisms for their own sake. They're really woven into the novel.

  3. So, for someone who has never read a Balzac novel, would Pere Goriot be the one to read first?

  4. stefanie, this is a good question that slipped my mind. I think I'll defer right now, and extend the Balzac Blowout by an extra day. It turns out that I can greatly complicate this issue.

  5. I read this when I was a student in Paris and loved being able to see (or at least imagine better) the places Balzac was writing about.
    I will definitely reread this one and Grandet this Christmas - perhaps before a quick hop to Paris for the weekend!

  6. It seems to me that the Latin Quarter setting of Père Goriot survived Haussmann's renovation, so the actual neighborhood is still evocative of the novel. The parts of Cousin Bette or Cousin Pons that might theoretically be recognizable are all gone.

    I think this is right, but I - we all - need more time in Paris to consider the issue.