While stepping into this year, I realized that I haven’t read a lot of French literature. This thought was born when I read ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ by Julian Barnes and it intensified over the past few weeks. So, I thought I will read more French books this year – do a sort of French themed reading this year – in addition to reading my regular favourites, English, American and German books. So, I looked at my bookshelf and took out books which were written by French authors. They were not that many when compared to the English books I have, but there were a surprisingly good number of them. Then I did some research, asked some friends, asked some fellow book bloggers about French literature and got more books. Finally I decided on my first French book of the year. It was ‘Le Père Goriot’ by Honoré de Balzac. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘Le Père Goriot’ is set in a boarding house in a not-so-sophisticated district in early 19th century Paris. The story follows the lives of some of the boarders in the boarding house. There are two main stories that the book focuses on, however. One is that of an old man who loves his daughters so much that he is ready to do anything to make them happy. He helps them get married to rich men, gives away all his wealth to them, and even after his daughters ignore him when they realize that he doesn’t have anything, he goes on loving them and helping them whenever they are in trouble. The other main story is about a young man Eugène Rastignac, who comes to Paris to study law and who sees the glamour and flamboyance of Parisian society through the help of his distant cousin Madame de Beauséant. Madame de Beauséant helps him in getting introduced to Madame de Nucingen and Eugène promptly falls in love with her. But Parisian society extracts its own price from Eugene as he ignores his studies and his condition oscillates between having a lot of money in his pocket and being in the company of fashionable Parisians and being in deep debt. Eugène also discovers that Madame de Nucingen is Goriot’s daughter. What comes of Goriot’s love for his daughters and Eugène’s love for Madame de Nucingen form the rest of the story.
‘Le Père Goriot’ was my first Balzac and so I was really excited about it. I am glad to have picked it up because I loved the book. The story of Goriot had shades of ‘King Lear’ and the ending was tragic as expected. But the more interesting story strand for me was that of Eugène Rastignac, who comes from a village to Paris to study and hoping to make a living there. There is something romantic about a small town man trying to make it big in the city. There is also something tragic about how he loses his innocence, succumbs to the temptations of the city and its ways and it is painful to watch him go through crises of conscience at the end of which most times he makes the decision which is practical but which more or less kills his simple, innocent provincial self. It is fascinating to read what happens to Eugène Rastignac. If we strip away the specifics – early 19th century Paris, the salon culture, the balls and the parties – and move the story to the 21st century world of today, it still works, it is still powerful and it still makes one think. That, I think, is the genius of Balzac. I also loved Balzac’s prose – I have to digress a little bit here. When we say we love a writer’s prose, we probably mean one or more of these things – the wordplay, the images described, the similes and the metaphors and the insights provided by the writer in which we are able to see ourselves or our own world. I am not sure about the wordplay in this book, because a lot of it is lost in translation, but I loved the other three aspects of Balzac’s prose.
My favourite characters in the story were Eugène Rastignac, Madame de Nucingen (she is alternately noble and selfish, which makes her a really fascinating character) and Vautrin. Vautrin is, supposedly, the villain of the story. Interestingly, he speaks some of the most powerful lines in the story. I liked Vautrin very much for his wise words, for his confidence and for his loyalty to friends.
After reading ‘Le Père Goriot’, I read an essay on the book and on Balzac by Somerset Maugham (it is featured in the book ‘Ten Novels and their Authors’). Most of the essay was about Balzac and a little bit of it was about the book. Maugham says interesting things about Balzac, things like these :
- Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world, Balzac is to my mind the greatest. He is the only one to whom I would without hesitation ascribe genius.
- Like all novelists, he wrote of the wicked more successfully than of the good.
- It is generally conceded the he wrote badly…Balzac had no feeling for the elegance of his native tongue.
- He was not a novelist for nothing; every experience, even the most humiliating, was grist to his mill;
Some of the above observations look contradictory (Balzac fans will definitely dispute the claim that he wrote badly and had no feel for the elegance of his native language), but when read in context in the Maugham essay, they ring true.
I also read a little bit about Balzac’s project of combining all his work into one project called ‘La Comédie humaine’ with the result that many of the characters in one book make appearances in other books. This was probably the origin of the modern serialized story – one story followed by multiple sequels. Though I am guessing that Balzac didn’t plan them as sequels but as stories which depicted the lives of people in the Paris of that time and though some characters make appearances in multiple books, the main characters in different books are different.
I have to also say something else about Balzac. One of the first things I read about Balzac was his love for coffee. I read this in Anne Fadiman’s essay called ‘Coffee’ (featured in her essay collection, ‘At Large and At Small’). This is what the essay said.
But in the realm of twitching eyeballs, even Stewart Lee Allen can’t hold a candle to Honoré de Balzac, the model for every espresso-swilling writer who has followed in his jittery footsteps. What hashish was to Baudelaire, opium to Coleridge, cocaine to Robert Louis Stevenson, nitrous oxide to Robert Southey, mescaline to Aldous Huxley, and Benzedrine to Jack Kerouac, caffeine was to Balzac. The habit started early. Like a preppie with an expensive connection, he ran up alarming debts with a concierge who, for a price, was willing to sneak contraband coffee beans into Balzac’s boarding school. As an adult, grinding out novels eighteen hours a day while listening for the rap of creditors at the door, Balzac observed the addict’s classic regimen, boosting his doses as his tolerance mounted. First he drank one cup a day, then a few cups, then many cups, then forty cups. Finally, by using less and less water, he increased the concentration of each fix until he was eating dry coffee grounds : “a horrible, rather brutal method,” he wrote, “that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.” Although the recipe was hell on the stomach, it dispatched caffeine to the brain with exquisite efficiency.
From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink.
Could that passage have been written on decaf?
Balzac’s coffeepot is displayed at 47 rue Raynouard in Paris, where he lived for much of his miserable last decade, writing La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons, losing his health, and escaping bill collectors through a secret door. My friend Adam (who likes his espresso strong but with sugar) visited the house a few years ago. “The coffeepot is red and white china,” he wrote me, “and bears Balzac’s monogram. It’s an elegant, neat little thing, almost nautical in appearance. I can imagine it reigning serenely over the otherwise-general squalor of his later life, a small pharos of caffeine amid the gloom.”
We are all coffee lovers at home and so when I first read this passage, I thought I will read it aloud to my mother. When she heard it she said that she did exactly what Balzac did to make the coffee strong! Both of us started laughing J
I am glad that I read my first Balzac. I loved the experience. I can’t wait to read more. The other three Balzac books I have in my collection are ‘Lost Illusions’ (at around 700 pages, it is a mini-chunkster), ‘Droll Stories’ and ‘The Girl with the Golden Eyes’ (novella). I am hoping to get to them soon.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
“The world is loathsome and wicked. As soon as some misfortune befalls us there is always a friend ready to come and tell us about it, probing our heart with a dagger while inviting us to admire the handle.”
Like many people bored with life, almost the only pleasure left for Monsieur de Beauséant to enjoy was eating well.
“Our heart is a treasure chest, and if you suddenly empty it out you are ruined. We don’t forgive someone for revealing the full depth of their feelings, any more than someone without a penny of his own. This father had given away all he had. For twenty years he had given his whole heart, his love, he had given away his whole fortune in a single day. When they had squeezed the lemon dry his daughters flung the peel into the gutter.”
…she was like so many people who mistrust those close to them and confide in the first stranger they meet. A curious, but true fact about behaviour whose origin is readily identifiable in the human heart. Perhaps certain people have nothing more to gain from those with whom they live; once they have revealed to them their inner emptiness they feel that they are being secretly judged with well-deserved severity, but, desperately craving the compliments they need, or obsessed with the desire to look as though they possess qualities which they do not, they hope to win by surprise the esteem or affection of strangers, at the risk of one day forfeiting it. There are also individuals who are born mercenary and do nothing to benefit their nearest and dearest, just because that is their duty, whereas by rendering some service to strangers they feel better pleased with themselves. The closer the circle of their friends or relatives is to them the less they like them, the wider the circle extends the more obliging they are. Madame Vauquer no doubt had something of both these natural types, essentially mean, false and detestable.
Have you read ‘Le Père Goriot’? What do you think about it?