Le Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac
1835, 238 pp.
At first glance, Honoré de Balzac is a daunting world to explore. His novel sequence La Comédie humaine comprises some 95 finished works, including novels, novellas, short stories, and essays, as well as about 48 unfinished pieces, ranging from nearly-finished stories to disjointed notes to works that exist only as titles. La Comédie humaine details the lives and experiences of a whole multitude of characters spanning the entire breadth of French society during the Restoration and the July Monarchy (about 1815-1848) as they prosper (or don't), fall in love (or out of it), have children, grow old, and often die. Where does one begin reading something like that? Is it best to read through them chronologically as they are written, or to attempt to follow the chronology of the stories themselves? Do you include the unfinished pieces? Should you simply buy the eighteen-volume Collected Works and plow through them in order? Or should you just skip him entirely and go with Zola instead? I quailed in front of this dilemma for months (Arthur Conan Doyle was apparently utterly defeated by it), but have finally found the solution. Begin with Le Père Goriot.
Goriot was the first novel in which Balzac hit on the idea of bringing back characters from previous stories and having them interact in the same coherent world. It is often called the keystone of La Comédie humaine, and it has been translated into English so many times that Balzac's biographer Graham Robb assures us that it can be safely read in translation without missing much of Balzac's writing. It begins the saga of the career of Eugène de Rastignac, the ambitious social climber who turns up in nineteen of the stories in La Comédie humaine, including as an old man in La Peau de Chagrin, which Freud obsessively read and re-read while dying of oral cancer. It also introduces the devious and dastardly Vautrin, a Moriarty-like criminal mastermind on the run from the police whose nefarious schemes will animate much of the La Comédie humaine. There are apparently 48 characters in the book who recur in other Balzac stories, where they emerge not from a void but from their own busy private lives which the reader only briefly glimpses. Goriot is therefore an excellent place to start, since these major characters will reappear like old friends in most of the other novels, and since it has the benefit of being chronologically early both in terms of the writing and the story. And, perhaps most importantly, it really is quite a good book.
The story concerns Goriot, a wealthy old merchant who sells everything he owns and sinks into abject poverty in order to provide for the expensive whims of his two feckless daughters, each of whom has married a rich man and who operate in very high society. Goriot lives in Maison Vauquer, a poor boarding house in the Latin Quarter, which is famously described in minute detail for about ten solid pages at the opening of the novel. Balzac sums it up like so: “There is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet is has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces." Also in residence is Rastignac, a law student who sets out to make a name for himself in high society, an assortment of mediocrities that allow Balzac to ridicule middle-class Paris, an ingenue who has been unfairly disinherited by her rich father, and Vautrin. The way Balzac handles Vautrin is rather brilliant: at first he is part of the scenery, like the other lodgers, then slowly begins to turn up in surprising places, behaving suspiciously. He reveals himself to Rastignac to be a ruthless social climber, and proposes a scheme of murder and manipulation to get Rastignac his fortune. Rastignac is ambitious and a trifle ruthless himself, but has a conscience (though he grapples with it) and rejects Vautrin's plan. It is not until about two thirds of the way into the book that we learn who Vautrin really is, and the revelation nearly prompted me to start the book all over in search of clues Balzac may have layered into his earlier appearances. At any rate, having rejected Vautrin, Rastignac meets and ingratiates himself with Goriot's two selfish, capricious daughters and begins his social climb.
Ridiculing high society seems to have been a requirement to be a novelist in the nineteenth century, and with good reason. Flaubert drew quite a few influences from Balzac (indeed, Rastignac is mentioned by name in The Sentimental Education) and I think there is profit to be gained by a comparison between their two styles. In my review of The Sentimental Education, I argued that Flaubert writes in the prose equivalent of the deep-focus lens. If the reader will humor me the extension of the cinema metaphor, Balzac writes in a tight, focused closeup which he slides in long, unbroken takes over people and places. Consider the opening shot in Hitchcock's Rear Window. The camera, in a reasonably tight closeup, pans across the walls of James Stewart's apartment, across his desk, and finally takes in the entire room. In doing so, we draw information from the pictures on the wall, the objects on the desk, the newspaper clippings. By the end of the shot we can construct quite a lot of information about his character and his character's recent past. Balzac uses the same technique with his conscientious descriptions, particularly of the Maison Vauquer. Flaubert seized on telling details from several simultaneous actions to draw them all into the same sharp focus; Balzac holds only one thing in his camera at a time, though in great detail and in context with what has come before and what will come after. He also has a sharp and cutting way with a crushing observation. Of the proprietress of the Maison Vauquer, he writes: "It is one of the most detestable habits of a Lilliputian mind to credit other people with its own malignant pettiness." I imagined Gore Vidal deploying this line over a cocktail.
Goriot is a relatively short book, with no wasted scenes, characters, or developments. It is therefore quite effective, and although Balzac is not shy with the melodrama, the closing scenes are emotionally gripping: old Goriot lies dying in poverty without even a penny to buy firewood while his daughters attend a fancy party wearing dresses he spent his retirement savings on, and Rastignac realizes the depth of self-centered cruelty on which high society as a whole is predicated. “Eugene did not wish to see too clearly," Balzac writes. "He was ready to sacrifice his conscience for his mistress…This woman was his, and Eugene recognized that till then he had only desired her, he did not love her till he had gained his happiness; perhaps love is only gratitude for pleasure.” But the price is too high, and Rastignac ends the book (and begins his career in La Comédie humaine) scarred by his introduction to the heartless ways of the bourgeoisie, but determined to succeed in Paris on his own terms, in his own way. It was a solid conclusion to a well-structured, efficient and effective book, populated by memorable characters in a fully realized simulacra of the real world, and it left me strongly considering that eighteen-volume purchase.