“Post Balzac” & Our “Deconstructed” Edition of Pere Goriot

"Post Balzac," cast bronze and stone, by Judith Shea, American artist, 1990

“Post Balzac,” a sculpture by Judith Shea (1990)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everybody photographs everybody else standing beside Judith Shea’s sculpture, “Post Balzac,” at the sculpture park in Des Moines.

Shea’s sculpture is based on Rodin’s 1898 “Monument to Balzac,” but they are very different.  While Rodin shows Balzac wrapped in his coat, Shea reveals an empty coat.

Rodin's Monument to Balzac

Rodin’s Monument to Balzac

Shea said in an interview that she contemplated Rodin’s monument, a turn-of-the-century marker of modernism in sculpture, as she thought about how to bring the figure back after a century of post-modern abstractions.  She said of her “Post-Balzac”: “The coat is hollow–a metaphor of the condition of the spirit, for emptiness.”

Seeing the sculpture made me think about Balzac, the brilliant pioneer of realism who, with an inexhaustible attention to detail, portrayed the manners, history, philosophy, and social structure of 19th-century France in his novels.

Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) is a cycle of approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories portraying French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.  In the late 19th century, Ellen Marriage translated most of them into English for a project edited by George Saintsbury.  Although perhaps a dozen  are available in modern translations, we must still depend for the majority on Marriage’s translations.

IMG_2292Probably most of you have a copy of Pere Goriot (or Father Goriot, or Old Man Goriot).

I thought mine was in the back room, but I couldn’t find it.

Our book database said we had no Balzac.

It turned out Balzac’s books were catalogued under de Balzac.  I’m sure that’s proper, but I just call him Balzac.

I started reading Pere Goriot Saturday night, and by Sunday night it had been deconstructed.

That may mean semiotic analysis to some of you.  To me it simply means that the cover fell off.

Pere Goriot Deconstructed

Pere Goriot Deconstructed

In this stunning, disturbing novel, we meet the widow Madame Vauquer and her seven lodgers at a cheap boarding house in a poor neighborhood in Paris.  At first glance they are an unexceptional lot, but all have complicated pasts and financial problems:  the best apartment is inhabited by Madame Couture, the kind widow of a commissary-general, and her ward, Victorine Taillefer, a schoolgirl whose father has disinherited her.  In two suites on the third floor live Poiret, a colorless, dull old man, and Monsieur Vautrin, a brilliant, blunt, greedy middle-aged man who claims to be a retired merchant.  On the fourth floor are a shrewd spinster, Mademoiselle Michionneau; Pere Goriot, a retired vermicelli manufacturer; and Eugene de Rastignac, a law student.

Overnight, the charming Eugene becomes obsessed with luxury and women.  In the glittering upper-class society he suddenly aspires to, he finds incomprehensible social barriers, debts, and infidelity.  He is infatuated with Countess de Restaud, a beautiful married woman whose manner changes after he mentions that he saw his fellow lodger Pere Goriot leaving her house on a private staircase.

He has no idea what he said to alienate the Restauds.  He goes to his wealthy cousin, the Viscountess de Beauseant, and begs her to be his tutor in society.

“Yes, indeed.  I am such an ignoramus that I will set everyone against me, unless you will help me.  I believe it must be terribly hard to meet in this city any young, beautiful, rich, and elegant woman whose heart is free.  I need someone to explain for me what you women understand so well:  Life.”

The Viscountess explains that Goriot is the father of the Countess, who married “up,” and that her husband will not permit her to “receive” him.  Pere Goriot’s other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen,  also married up:  her husband is a banker, and she, too, stays away from her father unless she wants money.

At the lodging house, people joke that Goriot has two mistresses:  no one believed him when he said  the well-dressed women who visited him were his daughters until Eugene interceded and confirmed it.  Pere Goriot is so besotted with his daughters that he lives in dire poverty so he can pay their debts for diamonds and gold lame dresses.

On the Viscountess’s advice, Eugene pursues the beautiful Delphine de Nucingen amorously to break into Parisian society.  When his fellow lodger, Monsieur Vautrin, proposes a horrifying financial scheme that will help Eugene but send him over the edge from immorality into criminality, Eugene staunchly tries to refuse.

Eventually he understands the true horrors of society in the form of Goriot’s two daughters’ exploitation of their father.

Near the end, Eugene says:

“I am in hell, and I must stay where I am.  Whatever evil you hear of society, believe it; there is no one, not even a Juvenal, who could paint the horror of it, covered though it be with gold and precious stones.”

Such a great book:  I loved E. K. Brown’s translation.  And there is, I am afraid, lots to shock us even in the 21st century.

Balzac was hyper-realistic.

5 thoughts on ““Post Balzac” & Our “Deconstructed” Edition of Pere Goriot

  1. Hanging my head in shame, I have to admit that I have read no Balzac. After some terrible experiences with real awful translations I’ve tended to fight sht of books I can’t read in the original language. Is Pere Goriot a good place to start?


  2. Kat, I am laughing at your ‘deconstructed’ novel – without cover.

    This is one of the novels I started to read when I was going through one of my many “I must read French novels’ periods. I didn’t make it too far into the action. Oh, there is no action, you say? I remember an endless description of the boardinghouse and yard. Maybe I will give it another try now.

    I do love the sculptures. I have seen the ‘full’ one but didn’t know until now about the ’empty’ one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s