The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 3: Pere Goriot

Le Pere Goriot. Honore de Balzac. 1835. (Oxford World’s Classics, 1999)

In the course of its short lifespan this blog has already sampled of the delights of French literature. Whilst The Lost Estate was its author’s only novel, and Alain-Fournier exists very much on the periphery of any discussion concerning the country’s canon of writers, today by contrast, we find ourselves dead centre in that canon. Honore de Balzac’s Comedie Humaine contains an exhaustive 91 completed works and on his death a whole host of others remained unfinished. An influence on Flaubert and Zola in his homeland, and luminaries such as Dickens, James and Dostoyevsky abroad, Balzac should, in theory, be required reading even today. Yet he seems if not neglected, then supremely overshadowed, at least as far as current reading habits are concerned.

Part of this is surely the nature of his oeuvre. Multi-volume, sprawling uber-series, such as La Comedie Humaine can seem totally inaccessible, or at best severely daunting to modern readers and a far remove from the majority of serials, contemporary or otherwise, reliant on linear and sequential, plot-driven frameworks. Whilst the individual works reputedly stand alone, it’s alienating to suspect that the characters, settings and plotlines exist in a wider, concrete frame of reference which a one-volume reader can only half-inhabit and semi-comprehend. This might go some way to explaining why, of the three giants of French literature mentioned above, it is Flaubert, the author of a magnificently self-contained gem of a novel, who is by some distance the more popularly known and more widely read today than Balzac or Zola, the two masters of the exhaustive ‘cycle’. Such a reductive argument can only tell us so much and assuredly there are many other factors at work here, but it is not illogical or unreasonable to suggest that such comprehensiveness rarely breeds an inviting atmosphere.

Pere Goriot, as well as dealing with the shortcomings that go with existing alongside 90 inter-weaving siblings, has its own problems to contend with. The subject matter, centring as it does on an ambitious social climber, falls into what has always been a well-stocked category. From Bel-Ami to Becky Sharp, 19th century literature in particular abounded with the successes and failures of myriad devious parvenus and surely Pere Goriot’s protagonist Rastignac runs the risk of getting lost in the crowd, especially when we take into account that the fireworks that accompany the explosive likes of Thackeray’s anti-heroine are, (so far), absent from Rastingnac’s adventures. Sure he vacillates over Vautrin’s offer of a scandalous compact and causes some ripples in the Parisian social scene, disturbing a number of relationships along the way, but otherwise his progress is remarkably placid in its fruition.

The evolution of this success also creates problems. At the start we are dealing with an impressionable and naïve young man and everything we experience through him at this early stage is sharp, vivid and fresh. Rastignac’s first meetings with Madames de Restaud and de Beauseant are electrified by his irrepressible nervous anxiety. Every inch of the entrance halls and receiving rooms we find ourselves taken to radiate energy as a result. His first meeting with Delphine de Nuncingen however, whom he meets last of all, lacks some of this sparkle and their subsequent meetings quickly become commonplaces, both to ourselves and to Rastignac. This is, of course, to be expected. His easy complacency brilliantly highlights how successful Eugene has been in making this world his own, not to mention the fact that such bright-eyed wonderment as was displayed in his early ventures would get tiresome and illogical fast were it a lasting feature. There is also a good chance that the desire to climb even further and to transcend this monotony will be what actually pushes our protagonist into Vautrin’s grasp. Yet realistic and narratively necessary as this is, we can’t escape from the fact that the pacing of the plot, towards the middle of the novel, is sacrificed as a result.

This is not to fail to recognise that Pere Goriot is an exquisitely written text. The characters, even those we meet but rarely, are given their own depth of personality which stops the broader individuals, such as the slumlord Madame Vauquer or the charismatic villain Vautrin, from slipping into caricature. That Balzac has such success here is in part because he is not afraid to pause to paint in the finer details of a scene. This goes for the setting as much as the people who inhabit it. Our introduction to Maison Vauquer is so thorough that we are from the outset intimately connected to that place and imbued with its atmosphere, whilst the commitment and feeling poured into this description by the narrator means we are never fatigued by such a level of detail. Surprisingly, Paris itself is conspicuously low-key throughout, which is actually quite refreshing. We are not given lingering vistas of the city or rambling descriptions of its wonders but rather the metropolis exists as a backdrop, occasionally referenced. Its nature suffuses every inch of the text, no doubt, but with a masterly subtlety. Having explored the travails of the multi-volume work it’s nice to end on one of its upsides. The sheer length of La Comedie Humaine allows Balzac to share his love and knowledge of his city as an easy familiarity. If you want to experience 19th century Paris there can surely be no better way than viewing his world through the little windows that novels such as Pere Goriot afford us.

1/2 Way Rating: 7/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 6/10