Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Elegant parricide

Old Goriot is the first Honoré de Balzac novel I've read and through it my commitment to my French literature project has been both revived in my heart and confirmed as a brilliant idea, for this is an amazing novel.

I do reveal plot details
Old Goriot is well-written (and translated, I think) and the plot extremely compelling. But just as compelling as the plot is Balzac's way of telling it. This is a bitter, cynical book that has at its heart William Shakespeare's King Lear - a story tragic and horrifying enough as it stands - but it's a retelling that is missing the tale's only source of possible redemption:
"They have cast off their father," Eugene [said].
"Yes, indeed, their own father," replied the Viscountess, "the father, a father, a good father, who, they say, gave each of them five or six hundred francs to ensure their happiness by marrying them well, and kept only eight or ten thousand livres a year for himself, believing that his daughters would remain his daughters, that in their new lives he had created two new existences for himself, gained two houses where he would be made much of and adored. Within two years his sons-in-law had banished him from their company as if he were the lowest of social outcasts." (p. 92)
The blame doesn't belong solely with the sons-in-law, however; their wives are as uninterested in remaining connected to their uneducated father as they. Old Goriot loves Delphine and Anastasie like Lear loves Cordelia - utterly and irrationally.  But in this tale, there is no Cordelia, only two daughters, whose vanity, ruthlessness, and selfishness are all Goneril and Regan. Père Goriot is lost not only for placing his entire being, both physical and metaphysical in his monstrous daughers' hands, but also for having no Fool to stick near and alternately tell him the truth and comfort him. His only friend is the young Eugène, a naive young provincial come to Paris to study but soon turned toward the shallow beauty of "society", particularly as populated by Goriot's Delphine.

Eugène is torn between this new addiction to luxury and his natural feelings directed at the suffering old man. In the end, what he chooses is not clear. Having buried Goriot without the help, financial or otherwise, of his daughters, Eugène looks out at Paris from the vantage point of the graveyard. He declares, while looking at this city which continues to both draw and repulse him, "It's war between us now!" (p. 354), meaning, presumably, between himself and society generally, and with the sisters he worships specifically.

Yet, the French line is ambiguous (according to my thesis supervisor, with whom I recently had tea), stating only something to the effect of "Now it's war!" The translator of my copy of the book made a decision, then, as I suspect all translators must do at some point, to clarify; yet, that Eugène leaves Goriot's pauper's grave to go dine with one of the very daughters who allowed her father to die mostly alone and with no help maintains the ambiguity I believe Balzac intended, no matter what the translator thought they were illuminating. There may be a war acomin' but whether Eugène's fight is against the corruption that so disgusts him or against the social opposition he still needs to overcome to complete his rise to the top is not clear.

Balzac's cynicism and ambiguity are so complete as to seem to question literature itself. This novel both relies on a literary past (primarily through its basis in Shakespeare's play but also through various and multiple references to other authors and works), and at the same time to deny the possibility that reading can accomplish anything the shallow enjoyment of the sorts of people he eviscerates. Near the beginning of the novel, our narrator takes close aim at his readers and their lives of easy and unchallenged pleasure. Describing the sort of people living in the quarter where Old Goriot molders away in exile from his beloved children, Balzac writes:
They live in a valley of crumbling stucco and gutters black with mud, a valley full of real suffering and often deceptive joys, and they are so used to sensation that it takes something outrageous to produce a lasting impression. Yet now and then in some overwhelming tragedy evil and good are so strangely mixed that these selfish and self-centred people are forced to pause in their restless pursuit of their own affairs, and their hearts are momentarily touched; but the impression made on them is fleeting, it vanishes as quickly as a delicious fruit melts in the mouth. The chariot of civilization, like the chariot of Juggernaut, is scarcely halted by a heart less easily crushed than the others in its path. It soon breaks this hindrance to its wheel and continues its triumphant course.

And you will show the same insensibility, as you hold this book in your white hand, lying back in a softly cushioned armchair, and saying to yourself, "Perhaps this one is amusing." When you have read of the secret sorrows of Old Goriot you will dine with unimpaired appetite, blaming the author for your callousness, taxing him with exaggeration, accusing him of having given wings to his imagination. But you may be certain that this drama is neither fiction nor romance. All is true, so true that everyone can recognize the elements of the tragedy in his own household, in his own heart perhaps (pp. 1-2).
If the ambiguity of whether or not Eugène's dinner at the end of the book will be a parley or an attack is unclear, this initial reference to how dinner will be eaten without scruple by its readers, no matter what horrors are visited in this novel, increases it. As Balzac insists his readers can recognize his subjects in themselves he at the same time implies that they will not do so; they will refuse self-recognition as easily as Goriot's daughters fail to acknowledge their duty to him.

This may be taken as a challenge, certainly, yet Balzac himself continually suggests the impossibility of literature as a medium through which the world may be accurately described and therefore understood. The story of King Lear is one that ought to be known by his characters, and yet the parallels between his story and Goriot's are drawn only by those outside the story. The lesson cannot be learned by the characters. Further, in the midst of his most intense struggle with his warring duties and inclinations, Eugène (the character most capable of moral decision-making, whether or not he realizes that potential) insists on both his own inability to escape and the impossibility of describing what it is that entraps him: "Believe whatever evil you may hear about the world, it's all true! No Juvenal could adequately paint its gilded and bejewelled horror" (p. 320).

Yet, I believe Balzac is being cynical and ironic about this as well, for he more than adequately conveys the social and familial sacrifices made in favour of establishing and maintaining one's graceful and celebrated place in the world. The failure remains with the readers who do not recognize themselves in his portraits and his characters who see nothing clearly except how to grasp at the sordid baubles they so wretchedly require. Invoking references to literary works and their authors who display humanity in all its hideous lack of goodness and glory is not meant, I believe, to ultimately question the ability of literature to reveal human truths. Rather, it's meant to increase the sense of horror that ought to be inherent in readers not taking such truths personally, by contrasting his characters' spectacular failings and blindnesses against the wisdom and penetration of literature's brightest stars - and the latter includes Balzac, as far as I'm concerned, whether he intended to include himself or not.


raych said...

Oooh, I just re-read Lear and was delighted and horrified all over again. I'll have to take this plunge, methinks.

Tony said...

I have just totally skipped your whole review because I have meaning to read this book for about the last two years. I will get to it eventually. In French. Possibly.

heidenkind said...

Love Balzac as a historic personality--he really is fascinating. His writing, on the other hand, is way too cynical for me. It's like trying to swallow a bitter pill.

Amateur Reader said...

Because of Balzac's system of recurring characters, as we read through Balzac we find out what happens to Rastignac, without, ironically, resolving the ambiguity of the end of Père Goriot at all.

heidenkind - Balzac is a Big Writer who does more than one thing. Eugénie Grandet is not cynical. Ursule Mirouet is not cynical, not remotely - it's even sweet. I could go on.

Stefanie said...

I've not read Balzac. I really must get to him someday. I love the book cover. That's some eyebrow!

Colleen said...

raych: I love King Lear. It's just so gruesome. "Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods - they kill us for their sport!"

Tony: That's a perfect reason to skip an entire review.

heidenkind: I guess I think bitter pills are delicious!

Amateur Reader: Where is Rastignac's story picked up?

Stefanie: I like the eyebrow too. My husband sometimes has eyebrows like that.

Amateur Reader said...

Where is Rastignac's story picked up?

Where is it not? Rastignac is one of the most-mentioned characters. He pops up constantly, sometimes with new information attached, sometimes not. He's in plenty of stories that I have not read - some of those may have details I don't know about.

"The House of Nucingen" is a good place to follow him. It's a story that fits right in with Père Goriot.

verbivore said...

I have this Balzac waiting for me, and I am tempted to dive right in, but I'll be reading Modeste Mignon first for my book group this month.
I'm so glad you loved this book! Balzac is just too good.

Tony said...

Finally read and reviewed this (and I'm now reading 'King Lear' to get the whole effect!). From what I recall, the original last line doesn't actually mention war, it goes something like "It's just us two now", implying Rastignac's challenge to Paris and its social scene.

I must check that when I get home...

Tony said...

P.S. Rastignac appears in twenty six of Balzac's novels!!!