Sunday, August 2, 2015

Father Goriot

Echoing somewhere in the back of my head are fragments of a comedy skit, possibly from one of those ridiculous English TV programs, in which someone keeps shouting "Balzac!" It's a fun word to say, and that's about all I knew about Honore de Balzac until I decided to partake of Father Goriot, his most famous novel.

Father Goriot actually centers on the life of Eugene Rastignac, a law student and ambitious young man living in a boarding house in one of Paris' working class neighborhoods where also lives Father Goriot -- as the boarders call Goriot, a retired businessman whose first name we never learn. It follows Eugene's attempts to establish himself in Parisian society, in which Goriot's two daughters are already prominent members.

Eugene becomes friends with and eventually the protector of Goriot, once a very wealthy man who on retirement had sold his business, used most of his fortune to provide dowries that established his daughters in Paris society, and was living humbly in the seedy boarding house so he could devote himself to his daughters success and happiness.

Eugene is quickly disillusioned by the utter depravity of Paris' upper class, while still being driven to become part of it. He eventually becomes entangled with Goriot and his daughters' lives, one of whom Eugene is having an affair with, as the daughters relentlessly drain the old man financially, emotionally and finally physically.

There are other stories like this, that have as a theme the total lack of morality the upper class lives by, the back stabbing, the debauchery, corruption, greed, that lie behind the glitzy sheen the general public is aware of and that is usually the media's representation of the upper class that, after all, owns and media and pays its bills. It's an engaging story, not on par maybe with some of the great Russian novels to which I'm admittedly prejudiced, but it's engaging. What makes this a delicious novel to me, though, is the writing itself. This, my friends, is literature, and indeed, in Balzac's Wikipedia article it says he's been an inspiration for many famous writers, and it lists some of them.

What turns many people off to 'literature," I've thought, is the belief that it's dry and even boring reading, and maybe lofty ND hard to understand, when actually the opposite is true. The "classics" are good reading; good stories, interesting, characters you can get involved with, and pretty simply told.

What they do have, that what I'll call average writing doesn't have, is what you might call depth. Father Goriot is just dense, for instance, with insightful observation on life and human nature coming from a smart guy who's an excellent observer of human nature. At times Balzac pauses the narrative to expound on something or gives a character a platform to pontificate on something. Anyone can stop the story and give a speech. I'm always reminded of when John Wayne stops The Alamo, his attempt at move making, so he can make one of his corny speeches. They're so clumsily done that you want to laugh, but when that kind of aside flows seamlessly from the narrative and deepens your understanding of the narrative, the ins and outs of human nature playing out in the narrative, it becomes part of the narrative, and if you're engaged in that you're engaged in the aside.

I'll leave it and that and end with a couple of passages I copied from an online copy of Father Goriot at the Gutenburg Project. There are other free online sources for the book, too. I listened to the reading by James Carson, which is entirely sufficient. Librivox recordings are now posted in several formats making for handier playback.

He meant, like all great souls, that his success should be owing entirely to his merits; but his was pre-eminently a southern temperament, the execution of his plans was sure to be marred by the vertigo that seizes on youth when youth sees itself alone in a wide sea, uncertain how to spend its energies, whither to steer its course, how to adapt its sails to the winds. 

What could this old Goriot have been but a splash of mud in his daughters' drawing-rooms? He would only have been in the way, and bored other people, besides being bored himself. And this that happened between father and daughters may happen to the prettiest woman in Paris and the man she loves the best; if her love grows tiresome, he will go; he will descend to the basest trickery to leave her. It is the same with all love and friendship. Our heart is a treasury; if you pour out all its wealth at once, you are bankrupt. We show no more mercy to the affection that reveals its utmost extent than we do to another kind of prodigal who has not a penny left. Their father had given them all he had. For twenty years he had given his whole heart to them; then, one day, he gave them all his fortune too. The lemon was squeezed; the girls left the rest in the gutter."

Note on The Human Comedy

Although it's a complete novel in itself, Father Goriot is one of nearly 100 works Balzac wrote that are considered to be a kind of a series, related in that many have interconnected storylines and recurring characters, known of as The Human Comedy. A Balzac reading group has compiled a Suggested Reading Order of The Human Comedy.


  1. Not sure how cogent this will be, current on the second round of margaritas (see my current post), but...
    Balzac seems to inspire groans in younger people, if they've even heard of him. These cretins have a term for it, TLTR....too long to read. Sad stuff.

    Given when Balzac was writing, and his probable intended audience (the resurgence of the aristocracy in France after they had been given the chop during the Terror) who was still disenchanted with royalty, it makes sense his portrayal of them as the wanton neer-do-well they probably were.

    On a personal level, I can little identify with poor M. Goriot. My daughters are quite different. But his ability as a wordsmith is beyond peerage.

    A side note: He uses the term southern temperament.....that way of looking at people has been used to classify many types of people, or races, as less than ideal.

    Cheers, and blame any typo's on the demon rum, or whatever is in these things.....

  2. Interesting comment, Mike. Thanks.

    I wondered a little about that "southern" thing as I read, but today noticed Balzac was from the south. That may give him leave to some extent, but it's not exactly the way Faulkner talks about the south, I don't think.

    I think Balzac spent Sundays with a table full of liquids and a lady.

  3. Interesting essay. I'm slowly reviving a taste for novels long set aside in my belief of the demise of American literature from the sixties on.... I still love history & biography best though (don't laugh) I even took up with Jane Austen last year...:)

  4. Thanks troutbirder.

    I think there's nothing to apologize for when it comes to history or biography. You'll see critical reviews of biographies in places like The Nation, which has some of the best literary criticism around. Biographies are pretty important in helping us understand not just what someone did but their significance and meaning, and the meaning of their work. And basically a biography is someone's interpretation of all of that; since a complete account of someone's life would fill an encyclopedia, the winnowing process is part of art of writing one. When you get to the point where you can read things like that with a critical eye it's a really new level of enjoyment.

    History is important for pretty much the same reasons. We're still trying to understand how we got here, where we are, who we are, etc. I listen to some podcasts that are interviews with historians who have just come out with new books. It's like reading the Cliff notes of the book, but also they go into how they did the research and why they did the research, what was their interest in it. They're very entertaining.

    Speaking of that, since I committed my opinion about literature to writing, in this post, another thing that occurred to me is that reading classics is filling in some of the gaps in my education. It's the reading I never did in school. A history teacher no doubt understands the importance of doing the outside reading. That's where an education really takes place, I think. You begin to understand that textbooks really are a kind of introduction to a subject. Knowing a subject takes place in the outside reading. When you keep reading things like that you just keep deepening your understanding of, well, everything. Life.

    I of course had to Google Jane Austen's picture. You could do worse.