Monday, February 29, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LE PERE GORIOT” by Honore de Balzac (first published 1835). (Usually translated into English as “OLD GORIOT”)
On this blog, the devoted Balzacian in me has already opined that, of the novels of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), his late masterpiece Le Cousin Pons is his best-structured novel, La Rabouilleuse is his most gripping story, and La Cousine Bette is his most gregarious and chattery tale. But often, when critics seek to establish Balzac’s credentials as a Great Novelist, it is to Le Pere Goriot (Old Goriot) that they turn. I understand, too, that Le Pere Goriot shares with the small-town tragedy Eugenie Grandet the distinction of being the Balzac novel most often taught in French high schools.
Why has Le Pere Goriot attained this distinction? Partly, I think, because, in Eugene de Rastignac, it has such a strong central character, who really does undergo a major change in the course of the narrative. And partly because, like Le Cousin Pons, it is one of Balzac’s more tightly-structured works.
Like so many of Balzac’s works Le Pere Goriot, though written in the “liberal monarchy” era of Louis Philippe, is set in the earlier Restoration period. The main action takes place in 1819-20.
Innocent young law student from the provinces Eugene de Rastignac (he is 22 when the novel opens) has come to Paris and stays at the boarding house run by Madame Vauquer. He observes, at first with a quizzical eye, and gradually with a more jaundiced one, the lives of his fellow boarders.
One strand of plot involves him with the stately Madame Couture, widow of a republican official, and her ward, the virtuous, beauteous, consumptive Victorine Taillefer, who has been disinherited by her cruel father. Impressionable Eugene de Rastignac falls in love with Victorine. He is urged by another boarder – the witty, worldly, garrulous Vautrin – to marry her after, by various turns of the plot which I will not relate, Vautrin has contrived to have Victorine’s inheritance restored to her. But Eugene virtuously refuses this suggestion, believing that an opportunist marriage to an heiress would make him an immoral fortune-hunter. In the midst of all this, Vautrin gives Eugene much pungent and worldly advice (about twelve straight pages of it) – before Vautrin himself is revealed to be Jacques Collin, a master criminal wanted by the police. (Vautrin, like much of the cast of Le Pere Goriot, is a recurring character who appears in many of Balzac’s novels and in later works spends much of his time trying to corrupt Lucien de Rubempre.)
A second strand of plot concerns Eugene’s relationship with his distant cousin, the Vicomtesse de Beauseant, who educates him in the fashionable ways of high society. Eugene and (by implication) Balzac see the Vicomtesse de Beauseant as the epitome of decorum, and also as a slightly tragic figure. When she is jilted by the man she hoped to marry, there is a sad scene where fashionable people come to gloat at her grief at a ball she throws. Yet for this reader at least, Balzac’s favourable view of her rings a little false. To me, the viscountess seems simply somebody who plays the same society games as other affluent people in the novel, except with a little more discretion and taste.
Much as they open up the novel’s social perspective, however, these two strands of plot are secondary to the strand which gives the novel its title.
“Le pere” Goriot (“old” Goriot), aged about 70, is a retired vermicelli maker and miser who lives in increasingly straitened circumstances at Mme. Vauquer’s boarding house. Taciturn and secretive, he is a source of mystery to other boarders, especially as he is sometimes seen to be visited by two beauteous and well-dressed women of fashion. Eugene de Rastignac spies on him, and soon discovers that the two fashionable women are in reality the miser’s daughters. One is Anastasie de Restaud, wife of the Comte de Restaud. The other is Delphine de Nucigen, wife of the fabulously wealthy Alsatian banker Baron de Nucigen. This central strand of plot really shows Eugene de Rastignac’s sour education in how the demands of society and fashion often override filial piety and family ties. For old Jean-Joachim Goriot sacrifices everything for his daughters, with an obsessive, monomaniacal love, while his daughters regard him with scorn and simply make greater and greater demands upon him. Eugene is nevertheless fascinated by both father and daughters, and old Goriot comes to regard Eugene as a kind of substitute “son”, if only because Eugene’s own entrée into high society allows him to report to the old man on the daughters’ appearances at balls, levees and banquets from which the old man is barred.
It is clear that the marriages of the two daughters were both entirely mercenary (both husbands married them solely for their father’s wealth). Both daughters have taken lovers, with whom each has had a stormy relationship. One daughter is jealous of the slightly higher social station of the other, and their attitude towards each other is as catty as their attitude towards their father is contemptuous. There are episodes in the novel in which Eugene de Rastignac is impressed by one of the daughters – Delphine – imagines he loves her and becomes her “escort”. But he is eventually disillusioned in her. When Old Goriot dies, neither daughter bothers to be present at his deathbed and the old man is buried in a pauper’s grave at Eugene de Rastignac’s expense. Symbolically, it is the empty carriages of the two daughters which, purely for form’s sake, follow the funeral procession.
With the motif of two thankless daughters taking everything from their father, it is inevitable that Le Pere Goriot has sometimes been compared with King Lear, even if there is no redemptive Cordelia to offset the Goneril and Regan. The comparison can lead to the fruitful reflection that, like Lear, Old Goriot has given his love in the hope of getting something in return. Goriot may be mistreated by his daughters, but his original conception of parental love was a flawed one. The relationship of Eugene de Rastignac with the criminal Vautrin, who teaches him much, also put me in mind of the relationship of Pip and the criminal Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations, where the young man is taught about the unity of society by discovering his own dependence, as a gentlemen, on an outcast. Eugene de Rastignac, however, draws a much more pragmatic lesson from Vautrin’s teaching (and his experience of Paris society) than the one Pip draws.
Rastignac, remarks Balzac about thirty pages before the end of the novel [which is not divided into chapters]:
“had seen society in its three great aspects: Obedience, Struggle and Revolt; or in other words, the Family, the World and Vautrin; and the necessity of choosing one of them dismayed him. Obedience was boring, Revolt impossible and Struggle hazardous. His thoughts carried him back to his home and his family. He remembered the pure happiness of his life there…”
But returning to that pure provincial happiness is simply impossible for the young newcomer to Paris. The novel has shown a young man’s initiation into the world. Ostensibly it shows the disastrous effects of the shattering of the most sacred bonds of the family (Goriot and his daughters; Victorine Taillefer and her father). But Eugene does not recoil from this world, much as the behaviour of Goriot’s daughters may disgust him. Instead he accepts that if Paris is a social battlefield, he will join the battle and win, using society’s rules to his own advantage. Calculation has entered the young provincial’s soul and clearly, when he “throws the gauntlet down to society” on the last page, he is going to proceed to a life of looking after Number One. The image of the virtuous, stabilising family has been reduced to a mere sentimental dream. On the last page, having discovered how heartless society can be, how thankless family members are to one another, how mercenary and self-interested all “successful” people really are, Eugene de Rastignac stands gazing over the city of Paris and vows to declare war on its society. But he will not preach against it. He will beat it at its own game.
Is this, then, the novel of a young man’s education, or of his corruption?
Despite the three interwoven plots, I still see Le Pere Goriot as one of Balzac’s most concentrated and carefully organised novels. The whole action takes place in the space of three or four months, and by having Rastignac come in to witness the story of Goriot and his two daughters after most of their fraught relationship has already been played out, Balzac is in a way adopting the technique of classical tragedy in arranging his story around its crisis.
The seediness of the boarding house is conveyed vividly, with the cheating of the servants; as is its bustling nature with the high-spirited nonsense and gossip and punnery of the younger boarders in contrast with the fixed eccentricities and quiet fastidiousness of the older boarders. Of course there is a degree of melodrama. This is Balzac, after all. That Eugene de Rastignac can hear, through thin walls, every word of angry conferences between Goriot and his daughters is simply a convention that we have to accept. One is also in the world of those “titanic” characters that Balzac liked to create – Vautrin, not only in his long, oratorical advice to Eugene; but also in his heroic defiance when he is facing arrest. Goriot declaring to Anastasie “I wish I were God so that I could throw the universe at your feet.” He is a man deformed by a dominant passion and therefore more vulnerable to the calculations of less exalted, but more cunning, people. One could also note that – as Dickens was later to do – Balzac enjoys attaching a physical “prop” or tic to his characters: the red wig glued, as a disguise, to Vautrin’s skull; Goriot's dinner-table habit of sniffing the bread etc.
To point to the flaws of Le Pere Goriot, however, is merely to point out that the best novels have their flaws. I rate Le Cousin Pons more highly as a literary work, and La Rabouilleuse more intriguing as a story, but Le Pere Goriot is still up there with Balzac’s best.
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A sort of footnote for fastidious readers:
I am fully aware that, among literary critics, Balzac is despised as often as he is admired. For many years (especially in the 1940s and 1950s), the foremost critic of French literature for British readers was Martin Turnell (1908-79). He wrote admiring works about classical French dramatists (Corneille, Racine, Moliere) and about Flaubert, Baudelaire and others. But he hated Balzac, and joined the chorus of those who condemned Balzac for being melodramatic, puerile, primitive in his psychology and limited in his ideas. (Bet if he was criticising Eng. Lit. he’d be the type of chap who did his rag at Dickens while praising George Eliot). In his 1950 tome The Novel in France, Turnell spends a chapter turning his guns on Balzac and ripping apart four of the master’s best – Le Pere Goriot, Le Cure de Tours, Eugenie Grandet and La Cousine Bette.
Le Pere Goriot seems to anger him most because it has often been called a masterpiece, whereas according to Turnell “it is mainly interesting as an illustration of [Balzac’s] most characteristic vices as a novelist…. The chief reason for examining it in detail is to try to correct some of the exaggerated estimates of previous writers.” Turnell proceeds to “correct” our view by quoting passages which he doesn’t like and which he sees as crude in the way they present Balzac’s themes or emphasise melodrama. Oh yes, and Balzac was vulgar enough to share some of the stylistic vices of those who (ugh!) write ‘detective stories’. (Yes, dear reader, Turnell does enclose ‘detective stories’ in quotation marks as if he is donning rubber gloves to pick up a piece of greasy rubbish.)
And what does Turnell achieve by his rant? Nothing, actually. He thinks he is showing how far Balzac falls beneath the standards of the best classical French prose. But all he is really telling us is that Balzac’s Romantic-era prose is not to his taste. This often happens with over-fastidious and academic critics. They think that by displaying their tastes they have proven something objectively.
“What an unappreciative twit”, I think, as I close Turnell’s dyspeptic chapter and consider once again what a satisfying and thoughtful novel Le Pere Goriot is.