I knew that I wanted to read Balzac, but where to start?
I knew that his great work, La Comedie Humaine, was a vast collection of loosely linked novels that he wrote to portray each and every level of French society. I knew that with more than forty books this wasn’t a series I was going to read in its entirety; and so, because I had copies of several books, I gave each one of them careful consideration before I decided which looked the most interesting.
My choice was ‘Le Père Goriot’, a book from the middle of Balzac’s writing career, and a book which is said by many to be his greatest work.
My decision may have been influenced by the fact that the story is set in a boarding house – I have always loved boarding house novels – and the story begins with wonderfully precisie description of the Maison Vaquer, a poor but respectable establishment, and its inhabitants.
Only once the scene is properly set, can the story can begin.
At first I was very aware of the narrator. He was articulate, he was engaging, but I was a little concerned that he was interrupting the story he has to tell to reinforce points. They were good points, but I wanted them to come from the story and the characters. In time they did, and in time the narrator faded into the background; he was doing is job so well that I forgot he was there.
The newest resident of the boarding house was Eugene de Rastignac who had recently arrived from the country, carrying all of the hopes of his family, to study law. His plan had been to throw himself into work and study, but it wasn’t long before he saw that he needed to make connections and be well placed in society if he was to succeed; and it was his great good luck to was blessed with a cousin who was well placed to introduce him to some of ‘the right people’.
He was amiable, he had a natural charm, and he was well liked at the Maison Vaquer.
Father Goriot was less well liked. When he had first arrived at the boarding house he had taken one of the best rooms, he had furnished it with lovely things, and his landlady had set her cap at him. When he didn’t respond, when those lovely things began to disappear and Father Goriot moved to one of her cheapest rooms, she treated him with disdain. Still he didn’t respond, and the other boarders considered him to be a rather foolish – maybe rather simple – old man.
Eugene didn’t pay much attention to the situation, until the day he saw something that piqued his interest
His cousin had introduced Rastignac to the beautiful Comtesse de Restaud, and he was smitten. He visited her home, and, while he was waiting for her to appear, he looked out of the window and saw her with Goriot at the back of the house. His visit went well until he mentioned that he knew the old man. As soon as the words were out of his mouth his visit was summarily ended; the next time he visited the Comtesse was ‘not at home’, and it was conveyed to him that she would never be ‘at home’ to him again.
He couldn’t understand what had happened, and he turned to his cousin for advice. She explained a little; she told him that Goriot was the Comtesse’s father …
Goriot had been a wealthy tradesman, and very blissfully happy with his beloved wife and their two lovely two daughters. When his wife died, he gave all of the love he had to his daughters; and he used almost all of his fortune to provide them with sizable dowries, so that they might marry rich and powerful men.
They did just that, and he hoped that he might live with one or the other of them, and that the three of them would always be close. His hopes were dashed, because those rich and powerful men had no time for a humble tradesman. They would not welcome him into their homes, they would not even acknowledge him in public, and their wives followed suit.
That was why Goriot moved into the Maison Vaquer, living off the little capital that he had kept for himself. His capital quickly diminished, because even though his daughters wanted him to keep his distance, they came to him whenever that had a bill to pay that their husband would not like, or that they would rather he did not know about.
They took his love for granted, he could refuse them nothing, and so he was only one step away from destitution.
When his cousin suggested that Eugene should woo Madame Delphine de Nucingen, Goriot’s other daughter, he saw many possibilities. It would it serve as revenge against her sister- the two sisters were bitterly competitive – it could be his stepping stone into society – and it could give him a chance to help the old man he had come to like very much.
He followed her suggestion.
Father Goriot was delighted that his young friend was moving in the same circles as his daughters, that he was able to bring him news of them. He was delighted with the smallest crumb; he thought nothing of himself, all of his care and concern was for them.
Eugene could do nothing more for the old man. His daughters continued to take his love for granted, and it seemed that love had made them utterly selfish.
His coming of age, his rise through society was set against Goriot’s fall.
The story would end with his funeral; with only Eugene, the house boy who had always liked the old man who was kind to him, and two empty carriages sent by his sons-in-law in attendance.
It took a little while for the story to get its hooks into me, but once it did I was caught, completely and utterly, to the very last page.
The characters were complex and intriguing; and I couldn’t help responding to them. Nothing was black and white, but I saw so many shades of grey. I could understand why it was said that Goriot was a foolish old man – and I have to say that he was a fool for the best of reasons, that the world would be a better place if there were more fools like him.
The story sets the world of the rich and powerful against the world of work and poverty very effectively. It was distinctive, it was uncontrived, and it illuminated similarities and differences. There was corruption and wrongdoing in both worlds, but the underlying causes were different. Some were keeping up appearances and expected much, while others were concerned with survival and advancement …
It was told though a wonderful combination of descriptive passages and dialogues that made the characters, the era they lived in and the city that was home to them live and breathe.
The boarding house and the salons were so well evoked that I might have been there.
The old man’s downfall broke my heart, but the young man’s progress gave me hope for the future.