Well, it took me 3 attempts, but finally I read and finished Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac. I say 3 attempts, the first 2 really were pathetic. I had tried reading it in-between reading Emile Zola novels last year, but barely got started, because truth be told, I was totally in Zola mode, and didn’t give many other authors an opportunity.
The other reason I didn’t last long with reading the novel last year, is because the translation I was reading (an old one by Marion Ayton Crawford) just didn’t flow for me. There were no sections or chapters either, and that always makes it difficult for me. I know it shouldn’t be a big thing, but I think there is something unconscious about having chapters, that makes it easier for the brain to understand and read.
On this 3rd attempt, I read the Oxford World’s Classics translation by A.J. Krailsheimer. This splits the novel into 4 sections, as apparently Balzac intended, and reads much better.
Père Goriot is probably the best known novel by Balzac and is often referred to as the cornerstone of his famous collection of works known as La Comedie Humaine. I am not very familiar with Balzac’s works to give a great overview of La Comedie Humaine, but suffice to say, there are many recurring characters over several novels and short stories, that Balzac wrote in the last 20 years of his life.
It is often recommended to begin La Comedie Humaine with Père Goriot, as this was the first work in the series to feature recurring characters to a great extent. It was written in 1834-5 roughly 5 years after what Balzac considered the first work in La Comedie Humaine The Chouans.
So what is it all about? Well, the premise is this – It is the year 1819, and there is this boarding house in a dodgy part of Paris called Maison Vauquer. The boarding house has been run for 30 years by Madame Vauquer and she currently has a number of lodgers staying at the Maison. The most notable are Eugéne de Rastignac, a student from the south of France, hoping to make his way into high Parisian society, Monsieur Vautrin, a cheerful but fearful character, and Pére Goriot, an elderly boarder, who had made a fortune in the Vermicelli (a type of pasta – you probably knew that, I didn’t) trade. There is also a young girl named Victorine Taillefer, who is being looked after by Madame Couture, as her Dad wants nothing to do with her. Victorine is a very important cog of the story, but I won’t say why here.
What people see at face value and what people actually are, is very hard to tell at the beginning of the story. Vautrin has a secret (ok, a few). Père Goriot has a secret. Rastignac doesn’t really have a secret, but has connections. His ambitions to make it on the Paris social scene would have made a great reality TV series, but this was set a long time before people became famous for not having anything worth being famous for. His connections are important though. They help him get close to people. People that are close to Père Goriot. And this leads Vautrin to spot an opportunity that could exploit the whole situation.
A major theme of the story is the pursuit of ambition and the lust for money. People try to solve everything with money. But we learn how that ends up turning out for some people. It is also a story of family, and how family can be exploited and sacrificed for personal ambition. The blurb on the back of the novel describes it as a tragic story, but I think that is too simplistic. Whereas some Shakespeare plays were called problem plays, because they were so hard to define, I think this is in a way a problem novel. There are some very emotional moments indeed, but there is also lots of great humour and joyful action.
One of the elements I really admired was the philosophising that occurs throughout the novel. I always enjoy a novel more when there is great wisdom spoken during the events, and Balzac excels at this in this novel. It often comes from the character Vautrin, and although pessimistic on his belief on achieving success in Paris, it’s wonderful to read:
[speaking to Rastignac]
Do you know the way to get on here? Through brilliant intelligence or skilful corruption. Either plough into the mass of mankind like a cannonball, or infiltrate them like a plague. It’s no good being honest. Men yield to the power of intelligence, though they hate it and try to decry it, because it takes but does not share. But they yield if it persistent.
The above passage I think sums up many of the character’s own approach to life, whether they realise it or not.
Rastignac also receives advice from his cousin Madame de Beausésant on advancing his social status in Paris:
In Paris success is everything, it is the key to power. If women believe you to have wit and talent, so will men, unless you disillusion them. Then you can set your heart on anything, every door will be open to you.
It is a very fine novel, and though I was not blown away like I was when I recently read Germinal by Emile Zola, it has made me want to read more of La Comedie Humaine. The characters are very well developed for a relatively short novel, and the scenes are intriguing and very often emotional.
I was not expecting to be taken to the high life of Paris at the beginning of the novel, but there I was reading many great scenes set in the grand houses, in the finest districts in Paris, and then transported back to the struggle of life at the Maison Vauquer. There is a wonderful contrast between the high life and the not so high life within the novel, but it is an enjoyment to be at every scene the reader is placed.
Sometimes I think these ‘Thoughts On’ blog posts are short and don’t really do the books a great service, but these are not designed to be essays on the novels, just my thoughts after reading them. I am offering a taster for the book if you will, and I hope a good one. I never want to spoil what happens in the story, so that perhaps means not being as extensive about the book as one could be.
Nevertheless, I would read Père Goriot again. Perhaps not immediately, but I am sure as I often am after reading a classic (and I don’t read a lot else), that there is much more to it than what you get from the first reading. More than anything else, as I said, it has made me want to read more Balzac, and I look forward to reading more of his great novels.
Père Goriot Quotes
“I want to work with honour, and integrity! I want to work day and night, owing my success solely to my own efforts. Success will come very slowly that way, but every day I will be able to lay my head on my pillow with a clear conscience.”
“To remain faithful to virtue, martyr to a sublime cause! Bah! Everyone believes in virtue, but who is virtuous? Nations set up liberty as an idol, but what nation on earth is free?”
“Young people do not dare look into the mirror of their consciences when they are being tempted to do wrong, while those of riper years have already seen themselves reflected there; therein lies the difference between the two periods of human life.”
“The education on which he had embarked had already borne fruit. He already loved selfishly. An innate sense had enabled him to recognise the nature of her heart. He intuitively that she was quite capable of treading on her father’s body in order to go the ball; he was not forceful enough to make her listen to reason, not brave enough to displease her, not principled enough to leaver her.”