Le Père Goriot [1835/1991] – ★★★★★
This is my fourth Balzac (after Lost Illusions, The Black Sheep & Cousin Bette) and it is probably the best of the other novels I have read so far. Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot or Old Goriot) centres on one young man from France’s provinces, Eugène de Rastignac, who has just settled in Paris and set his sights on becoming a lawyer. He desires to climb the social ladder fast and his impatience for money, status and power soon makes him cross paths with one impoverished father of two daughters (old Goriot) who selflessly devotes his remaining time to them (or, more accurately, to the memory of them). From richly-decorated Parisian drawing-rooms to the bedlam that reigns in a poverty-stricken lodging house, the result of this crossing of the paths is a thrilling head-to-head collision of reality and illusion, youth and old age, ruthless selfishness and selfless devotion, all happening at the very heart of turbulent and exploitative Paris of 1819.
The novel begins with this line: “Mme. Vauquer…is an elderly person, who for the past forty years has kept a lodging-house in the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve” [Balzac/Marriage, 1835/1991: 3]. Inside this establishment, there is a menagerie of oddball characters who somehow manage to fit into the small space allotted to them and live together in the “ugliest quarter of Paris” [1835/1991: 5]. This caricaturish ensemble in Mme. Vauquer’s house comprises of: “rich” Mme. Couture, schoolgirl Victorine Taillefer, a man of dubious origin Poiret, a shady character M. Vautrin, an unmarried elderly woman Mlle. Michonneau, a retired manufacturer of vermicelli M. Goriot, and a student of law M. de Rastignac. Alongside Charles Dickens, Balzac is a true master when it comes to descriptions. Their vividness pulls you into the narrative, and Balzac’s very own exaggerated sarcasm is a delight to read. To that effect, we read of one depressing place “where the sound of wheels creates a sensation”, and where there a feeling of “a jail about those high garden walls” [1835/1991: 5]. The characters inside the house are presented as colourfully, or, rather as one depressingly colourful troupe: “their cold, hard faces were worn like coins that have been withdrawn from circulation” and, though “the routine of existence kept them in contact…they were parts of a mechanism which wanted oil” [1835/1991: 14, 20]. It is this people’s individual and group psychology, including their hidden assumptions about each other and misunderstandings that flow from these, that soon results in one peculiar drama.
Among these characters, an elderly man known as “Old Goriot” stands out. He is a pitiful figure and “the butt of all jokes” [Balzac/Marriage, 1835/1991: 21]. There is something instantly pathetic about Goriot because he is a “retired manufacturer of vermicelli”. Still deep in his images of flour and bread quality, and out-of-touch when it comes to worldly affairs, he immediately presents a stark contrast to Eugène de Rastignac, a young and vigorous force who remains au courant, and generally eager to bypass hard-work and jump over any moral qualms to reach his goal of societal success. This dichotomy between old and young, experience and inexperience, a person supported and a person who supports others, is at the forefront of the drama. In no other classic literature the power of contrasts is as present as in Balzac’s novels.
“Do you know how a man makes his way here? By brilliant genius or by skilful corruption. You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon-ball, or slink through like a plague. Honesty is nothing to the purpose. Men bow before the power of genius; they hate it, and try to slander it, because genius does not divide the spoil; but if genius persists, they bow before it. To sump it all up in a phrase, if they fail to smother genius in the mud, they fall on their knees and worship it. Corruption is a great power in the world and talent is scarce. So corruption is the weapon of superfluous mediocrity; you will be made to feel the point of it everywhere” [Balzac/Marriage, 1835/1991: 126].
Whether young protagonists are sharks or prey in Balzac’s world, every true human warmth and compassionate spark is designed to be extinguished because that is how the society operates, with those possessing natural cunningness, selfishness, coldness and acting ability bound to succeed in the ocean of intrigue and deception which is called the high society. So, when Rastignac is received by beautiful and rich Mme. de Restaud, he thinks he is on a sure path to secure himself a wealthy protectress who will dote on him and ease his mind of any money trouble – “between Mme. De Restaud’s blue boudoir and Mme. De Beauseant’s rose-coloured drawing room he had made a three years’ advance in a kind of law which is not a recognised study in Paris, although it is a sort of higher jurisprudence, and, when well understood, is high road to success of every kind” [Balzac/Marriage: 1835/1991: 84]. However, Rastignac’s way come other temptations to make even quicker monetary and societal gains, such as through his other neighbour Vautrin and through Mme. de Restaud’s sister. He soon finds himself torn by different enviable prospects. It is precisely by making Rastignac so ordinary and neutral (he has family pressure after all) that his later eschewing of morality is so intriguing to explore. Rastignac does not realise that it is precisely another person’s blind love, devotion and ultimate self-sacrifice that ensure the sustainment of the riches, prestige and beauty that he so admires in one Madame. Interestingly, it is blind hope that Goriot and Rastignac have in common, and which ultimately leads to fatal outcomes.
In Le Père Goriot, all of Balzac’s characters are placed ingenuously as though pawns on a chessboard of the story, ready to play out the drama of life. Balzac is a master of fine prose and is capable of elevating even the most commonplace drama to some exquisite form. He does nothing short of that in this story, and handles delicately the intrigues and entrapments of various personages who are all forced to play by la règle du jeu or by the rules of the game to ensure a favourable-to-the-society outcome. As Rastignac gets to know the true price of rapid success (“for life in Paris is one continual battle” [1835/1991: 99]), father Goriot, in turn, also ponders on his wasted time and comes to other certain realisations. Then, a gut-wrenching, thought-provoking ending comes out as almost too perfect.
Balzac’s Le Père Goriot is a literary treat like no other. This is a tale of extraordinary ambitions, societal pitfalls and prejudice where Balzac takes a penetrating look into the human nature, concocting a powerful and nuanced drama of parental love, blind hope and the limits of the human drive to succeed.