The Best of Balzac: Père Goriot

penguin-old-goriotDuring my Balzac phase in 2013, I loved Père Goriot(The title of the Penguin is Old Goriot.)  I experienced the thrill of falling into a  spellbinding story and recognizing a tour de force. Père Goriot is said to be one of the best books in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a cycle of approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories portraying 19th-century French society during the period of Restoration and July Monarchy.

Recently I had to read Père Goriot in two different translations for the usual reason:  my old Modern Library paperback fell apart.  Yes, the tape could no longer hold it together, so I hustled to get a replacement copy.   The Modern Library edition (translated by E. K. Brown,  1946) is out-of-print, so I switched to the Penguin (translated by Marion Ayton Crawford, 1951).

pere-goriot-and-old-goriotObviously there was a call for translations of Old Goriot in the mid-twentieth century, with two translations for two different publishers.

Albert Lynch's illustration of the boarding house.

Albert Lynch’s illustration of the boarding house.

Much of the book is set in a boarding house.  I am fascinated by tales of boarding houses–I did rent a room in college, as did most of my impoverished friends. (We had to feed ourselves in the attic kitchen, though:  no landlady made sloppy meals.) In this stunning classic, Eugene Rastignac, a poor law student who rooms in Madame Vauquer’s shoddy boarding house in the Latin quarter of Paris, becomes obsessed with luxury and women.  After attending a party at his cousin Madame Claire de Beauséant’s house, he wants what the rich have.  He borrows the savings of his mother and sisters so he can attain this ambition. Will he be able to pay them back?  In the glittering upper-class society, he finds incomprehensible social barriers, debts, and infidelity. He plans to use his new connections–but how?  And he goes home at the end of the night to his bare room.

He does not realize that Pere Goriot, one of his more eccentric fellow lodgers, has links to high society.  When Eugene sees Goriot leaving the beautiful married Countess de Restaud’s house by the back stairs, he tells her that Goriot lives at Madame Vauquer’s.   Turns out Pere Goriot is her father and she is ashamed of him. So she bars Eugene from her house, and, as an act of minor revenge, he courts her sister, Baroness Delphine de Nucingen, a banker’s wife who is also ashamed of her father.  They have an affair.

The boarders play a big part in Eugene’s life.  A strange man named Monsieur Vautrin advises Eugene to claw his way up through society by marrying a fellow boarder named Victorine, a disinherited heiress who he promises will soon be rich.  Vautrin has an evil plot…I He tells Eugene he will never rise unless he is ruthless.  Eugene is terrified.

On the other hand, Goriot is delighted with Eugene’s dallying with his daughter Delphine. He wants any news of his daughters, and Eugene can tell him about their clothes and parties.  Goriot used to be rich, but has given his daughters almost all his money.

Even in translation, the power of Balzac’s writing comes through.  And both translations are powerful, though I slightly prefer the lushly written translation by E. K. Brown in the Modern Library edition.  Here’s a sample paragraph of the Brown near the beginning.

The chariot of civilization, like Juggernaut’s, is barely delayed by  some heart which does not break as easily as others, and holds back its wheels; soon the heart is shattered, and the chariot continues its glorious march.  And you will do the same you who hold this volume in a white hand, and, sinking back in a soft armchair, say to yourself:  “Perhaps this book is going to entertain me.”  After you have read of the hidden sorrows of Pere Goriot, you will dine with a keen appetite and blame the author for your insensibility, accusing him of poetic exaggeration.  Oh, you may be sure that this drama is no work of fiction, no mere novel!  It is all true, so true that everyone may recognize its element within himself, perhaps in his very heart.

Here is Crawford’s translation.

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 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.

They are very close, aren’t they? But Brown is more vivid and elegant.  At first Crawford seemed awkward to me, but I didn’t notice after a while.

Translation, translation, translation!  I depend entirely on translations for French. Which is better? The Brown reads better.  The Crawford is what I have now.

The same few Balzacs are translated again and again, and I do wish there were new translations of the others.

What are your favorite Balzacs?   The original 19th-century translations are available free online, if you want to try them.

“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.