Review Post 46 – Our Father, who art in Paris…

Once upon a time, a long time ago now, I posted on the perils of reading in a foreign language, and I’d like to revisit that theme to start today’s post.  That time, I was reading a book in German, the foreign language I’m most proficient in, but last week I finally got around to reading Balzac’s classic novel, Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot), in the original French.  In hindsight, starting the book on a packed commuter train on a weary Monday morning was probably not the most intelligent way to ease into it, but then, if I’d been able to think clearly, it wouldn’t have been a Monday morning…

Imagine then, if you will, Tony seated on the 7.37, i-Pod connected, book open, ploughing through the first, incredibly detailed and descriptive, section of the book, when a couple of loud and annoying university students decided to have a conversation about their Japanese homework, proceeding to get their books out and decide to do it together, there and then.  As the desperate duo slowly worked their way through their ten sentences of translation, their feeble attempts at correctly using post-positional particles becoming ever more laughable and grating, I desperately tried to take in Balzac’s minute portrayal of a house in the Parisian suburbs, first outside, then inside, upstairs and down.  And then I started banging my head against the window.

That this post is here for you to read shows you that I did (eventually) overcome that false start, and I’m very glad I did.  Honoré de Balzac is one of France’s literary giants, and Le Père Goriot is considered to be the pivot of his incredible La Comédie Humaine series, an interconnecting collection of more than a hundred works set in the same place and time and recycling thousands of characters.  In this novel, the reader is introduced to several characters who will go on to be mainstays of Balzac’s fiction (Rastignac, one of the major characters, appears in twenty six of his novels) and many who have already made their bow in one of his other books.

From the rather narrow beginning described above, Balzac gradually expands his story, introducing us to a motley collection of people residing in Madame Vauquer’s rather unsalubrious boarding house.  Of the seven residents present at the start of the novel, the story revolves mainly around three: Eugène de Rastignac, a good-hearted young Law student from the provinces; Vautrin, an enigmatic figure with a shady past and an even shadier present; and Old Goriot himself, a retired vermicelli maker, who has been slipping further and further down the social ladder since arriving at Mme Vauquer’s establishment.

The reason for Goriot’s decline is his decision to give away the majority of his fortune to his two daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, on the event of their marriages, followed by his expulsion from their houses by his two sons-in-law owing to his inability to fit in to Parisian high society.  When Rastignac begins to flirt with Delphine, the old man sees an opportunity to reconnect with at least one of his daughters, despite the young student not having enough money to play this high-stakes game.  However, the mysterious and charismatic Vautrin has a plan to help young Rastignac out, involving Mlle Victorine Taillefer (another of the Vauquer boarders), her estranged father and a duel…

As you can tell from this brief description, there’s a lot going on and a lot that Balzac wants to say through his fiction.  One of the foremost ideas is family and the respect owed by the next generation to their fathers, and to underscore this idea, Balzac borrows liberally from Shakespeare, with Anastasie and Delphine taking just as much advantage of Goriot’s foolish generosity as Gonoril and Regan of King Lear when he divided up his kingdom between them.  Sadly, Goriot does not even have the compensation of a Cordelia figure (although Victorine, in a parallel plot, can be seen a Cordelia of sorts), and he lives to regret his impetuous generosity towards his daughters, which threatens to leave him destitute.

The book is also a classic example of a Bildungsroman, providing Rastignac with his baptism of fire in the Parisian haut-monde.  Like many a literary young man before him (Werther, David Copperfield, Johnny Eames, to name but a few), our hero must grow up quickly, beset with temptation all around.  He quickly decides to put his studies to one side in order to concentrate on cementing his place in the city’s social fabric – and in the heart of Delphine de Nucingen.  To do so, he also requires money, and while he manages to get by for a short while thanks to a small loan from his family (which, for them, however, is a more onerous undertaking), funding his Parisian adventure long-term will require more substantial support.  And that’s where we come to Vautrin…

…for the star creation of this novel is undoubtedly the mysterious, scene-stealing jack-of-all-trades, a best-supporting-actor performance if ever there was one (and, in my mind at least, if this role hasn’t been played by Gérard Depardieu, it damn well should be).  Vautrin has an animal magnetism which fascinates and unsettles the boarders at Mme Vauquer’s in equal measure, his mood swinging between barely-concealed menace to delighted bonhomie (and back) in the twinkle of his roguish eye.  He quickly develops a close relationship with Rastignac, becoming both a sort of father figure and a dark angel, tempting the young man by offering to fulfil his financial dreams – in return for a little something, of course.  I won’t say any more about this loveable rogue; I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the book…

As an early 19th-Century novel, Le Père Goriot has a lot in common with the literature coming out of England at the time and may well have been an influence on some of the later Victorian writers.  Anyone familiar with the likes of Dickens and Trollope will see parallels in this novel; however, it is the differences which are more interesting.  When you compare the lively, boisterous atmosphere of Mme Vauquer’s boarding house with the more genteel (though just as downtrodden) establishment run by Mrs. Roper in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, the contrast between the wanton carousing in Paris and the more formal and formulaic events in London is instantly clear.  Another area where the French seemed to be a little more open than their English counterparts of the time is in the treatment of extra-marital affairs.  While these liaisons are hushed up, if not actually hidden, as best as possible in English novels, Balzac’s unhappy couples are fully aware of their partner’s affairs, even arranging their schedules so as to be out of the way.  One example of this is the Viscount de Beauséant, taking his wife in his carriage to meet her lover at the opera, before setting off to meet his own mistress: now that’s a modern marriage for you!

All these elements (and a whole lot more that I, unfortunately, must omit, lest this blog post become a fully-blown thesis) help to make Le Père Goriot one of the most famous works in French literature and (much more importantly) a great book to read.  I can’t wait to acquire a few more of Balzac’s series so that I can follow Rastignac, Vautrin et al. further along their tangled paths.  Next time though, I’ll choose my reading time more carefully (I think I’ll start my books in the comfort of my own home, after the girls have gone to bed) – and if I see any students with Japanese textbooks nearby, I think I’ll be changing carriages in future…

5 thoughts on “Review Post 46 – Our Father, who art in Paris…

  1. Great review! It's always a challenge to read a book in a foreign language and having raucous students nearby is certainly not a help 😀 Well, am glad that did not diminish the enjoyment of the book for you… 🙂


  2. I just read one of the “connective” stories last night, the 1830 “Gobseck”. One of the Goriot daughters is a major character (Anastasie), and the story covers a bit of Père Goriot that I found confusing (the business about the diamonds). Then a later part of the story intersects directly with Splendeurs et Misères des courtisanes!

    I'm not sure “Gobseck” is such a great story by itself, but in the larger context, it's pretty interesting.

    Besides the long Lost Illusions and Splendeurs, which carry on the Vautrin story, “L'Auberge rouge” and “La Maison Nucingen” are great short followups to Goriot.

    I think I'll write a bit about this next week.


  3. Birdy – It was just unfortunate that the first twenty pages required deep concentration with a lot of unfamiliar descriptive vocabulary; non-stop chatter from across the train aisle is not conducive to that 😦

    JoAnn – Thanks! I didn't manage to get to Paris in July, but it's not bad in September either 😉

    Sakura – I love recurring characters, as evidenced by my posts on Trollope's Barchester Chronicles earlier this year. Of course, David Mitchell's another one who likes bringling his favourites back!

    Amateur Reader – I would love to read some of these, but I am loath to read any of them in English; one of the curses of knowing a foreign language is a disinclination to read anything in translation that you might read in the original. The Book Depository has a few more Balzac books in French, but not the ones I really want (the two where Vautrin returns and 'La Maison Nucingen'). Still, I'm sure I'll find them some day…


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