Intrigued by the frequency with which 20th-century theorists Bakhtin and Lukacs cite Balzac as the quintessential modern novelist, I decided to read some Balzac at last, and found this translation of Pere Goriot ("Father Goriot") by M.A. Crawford, entitled Old Goriot. I had amazingly missed Balzac altogether in my undergraduate French major. The very name causes a delicious shudder of the Iowa ladies in the musical play Music Man, so perhaps Balzac was too socially radical for my era in the Bible Belt. Curious.
I had a hard time getting started with the book, partly because protracted description of a boarding house in a poor area of Paris in 1819 failed to give me a clear picture or to make me understand why Balzac insisted it was dreary. The other cause of resistance was fear that it would be too pitiful, with innocents suffering either in silence or in page after page of mournful emotions. Somehow, however, I began to trust Balzac, whose authorial voice from the very beginning seems almost contemporary, sensible and serious, and even intimate. He stresses his intention to tell the story truthfully: "All is true!" he avers, writing it in English in the original for emphasis. "Will it be understood outside Paris? One may doubt it. Only between the heights of Montmartre and Montrouge are there people who can appreciate how exactly, with what close observation, it is drawn from life." I finally became enrapt with the story and with the narrator so much that I intend to read more Balzac, even perhaps tackling it in French!
A sketch of the story: young Eugene Rastignac has come to Paris from the provinces to study law and lives on the meagre support of his family who, although poor, have distant connections to nobility, and provide him with an introduction to a pivotal Paris socialite. He becomes dazzled and obsessed with wealth and success and infatuated with its elegant beauties, both the women and the lifestyle. Meanwhile he lives in the aforesaid "dreary boarding house" with an aged man, Goriot, who is "despised by all the others." "There always is such a laughing-stock" in social groups, Balzac observes. "By what chance had the oldest lodger drawn on him this half-spiteful contempt, this half-pitying persecution, this lack of respect for misfortune? Perhaps he had laid himself open to them by those vagaries and eccentricities which the world forgives less easily than vices. These questions go to the root of many social injustices."
When Eugene discovers and discloses that Goriot is, incredibly, the father of two of the most bewitching and extravagant young women Eugene has seen, the boarders change their attitudes toward the impoverished man who they had thought was simply dreary, probably dissolute, and certainly mindless, and the stage is nearly set.
In addition to being a counterpoint to young Eugene's personal ambitions with those same daughters, Goriot's relevance lies precisely in his "fatherhood." I question the translator's decision to call the English version "Old" Goriot: it is not Goriot's age that is at issue, but what the title "Pere" means in full. It means most directly "Father," and Goriot is an absolutely devoted father, his joys only those of his daughters and his personal griefs reduced to theirs also. A joking medical student interested in one of the century's early pseudo-sciences, phrenology, feels Goriot's skull for keys to his personality: "I've had a look at his head," says Bianchon. "There's only one bump on it—the bump of paternity; he will be an Eternal Father"(a joke on "Heavenly Father" as we say it in today's English). Already, when Eugene meets Goriot, the retired merchant had settled his fortune almost completely between the daughters to procure them good marriages, and been reduced by his own consent to living more austerely than any of the other boarders. We can also see "Pere Goriot" as "Pops" Goriot, and thus "Pere" can mean both a kind of old humble fool, as well as being a beatific symbol
As the story unfolds, the characters all take on more personality, and more influence in the plot. A fascinating temptation is laid out for Eugene by another most interesting lodger, a well-spoken rather bold and influential man. This Monsieur Vautrin outlines for him the endless drudgery that awaits Eugene if he should try to work himself up into the freedom and pleasures of the world he sees with such desire, the world of wealth and influence and beauty and leisure. On the other hand, he offers Eugene immediate access to that world, in a wife worth at least a million francs, a fresh young girl who is already half in love with him, if Eugene will only consent to share 200,000 of it, that and consent to the death which Vautrin assures him will instantly befall the only person who stands in the way, a selfish dolt, a simpleton.
What will Eugene choose? What awaits him as he attempts to win the hearts of elegant society beauties, women about whose happiness he is constantly asked by Father Goriot who begs Eugene to recount their social successes at a ball or at the opera, their clothes, their appearances What will become of Father Goriot? When does affection become foolish infatuation? When do principles represent only a shallow naivete?
It's a simple but intricate plot, and even the Countess Anastasie and Baroness Delphine, as well as several of the seemingly "untouchable" nobles, develop complexities of character that I did not expect. In short, this is indeed a "modern novel" and not a melodrama, although suffering is extreme. But the suffering is extreme because the social system is extreme: Eugene early learns that, in Balzac's words, "human beings are packed in strata, layer above layer, in the framework of society." The way these strata relentlessly press, influence, and shape human destiny is Balzac's real subject matter. and it is this "realistic" sense of class that marks Balzac as such an original writer at the time, prefiguring modernism at its full more than naturalism or the realism of mere verisimilitude.
Pere Goriot is one of forty-four Balzac novels published from 1828 until the author's death, in a sequence that Balzac designated in 1842 as "The Human Comedy" ("La Comedie Humaine"). He envisioned the eventual creation of many more with perhaps 4,000 characters in all, and explained this intention in a famous Preface, sketching the way he wanted to portray characters from every aspect of society during his era: from the civil wars of the French Revolution, to Napoleon, and the Restoration. He did not then know about the abortive Parisian Revolution to come in 1850, the year of his death and the year in which all hope of a society of equality for nineteenth-century France finally ended, perhaps. Or was that what killed him?