Like so many English people, I enjoy going to France and experiencing a country very different to my own. I live near a ferry port and often see ships sailing off to cross the Channel and I always experience a touch of yearning to be sailing to the land of good wine and different (I won’t say “better”) food.
My nostalgia for France is fed when I turn to Guy Savage’s book blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy has a love of French literature and has read far more Balzac, de Maupassant and Zola than most readers. Being conscious of a Balzac-shaped gap in my reading I decided on Guy’s recommendation to begin with Père Goriot. Guy reviewed this himself but I have not reminded myself of what he wrote and will only go back to re-read his review when I have finished my own – such is my fear of being influenced by someone who knows far more about Balzac’s books than I do.
Père Goriot forms part of Balzac’s life-work, La Comédie humaine, and he placed it in the section Scenes of Private Life. It tells the story of Eugène de Rastignac, a young man who comes to Paris to study law. His widowed mother has gone out of her way to provide his means of support at great cost to herself and his two sisters, and it is her hope that Eugène will make his way in the world and restore their fortune.
I enjoyed Balzac’s description of Eugène’s new home, the Maison Vacquer, a cheap boarding house, where Eugène and a small cast of other key characters live in a near-penury only mitigated by the communal breakfasts and dinners where a semblance of polite society is maintained (along with a sprinkling of back-biting and sarcasm).
The walls (of the dining room) are lined with sticky sideboards bearing chipped and tarnished decanters, tinplate discs with a shimmery finish, piles of thick china plates with blue borders made in Tournai. In one corner stands a box with numbered pigeon-holes in which are kept the boarder’s table napkins, stained with food or wine. There you fill find those indestructible furnishings which everyone else throws out, but which finish up here like the rejects of civilization at the Hospital for Incurables.
A charming place indeed, and a perfect setting for the unfolding dramas to come. One of the residents of the Maison Vacquer is an elderly, retired vermicelli-maker, Père Goriot, who has spent his wealth in launching his two daughters into society. At least his expenditure has partly achieved its aim, for one of the daughters, Delphine, is married to a wealthy German banker and the other, Anastasie, is now the Countess de Restaud. Unfortunately, the two women now wish to have almost nothing to do with their father, their husbands having rejected him and they being far too occupied with their own concerns to trouble themselves about the old man’s predicament.
Balzac excels at describing the two daughter’s condescending attitude to their father and his complete failure to see their disdain for him and their lack of concern about the conditions in which he lives:
Eugène, who had not been in in Père Goriot’s room before, could not conceal his astonishment at the sight of the squalid conditions in which the father lived, so soon after his daughter’s finery had excited his admiration. There were no curtains at the window; the wallpaper was peeling off in several places because of the damp, and, where it curled up, revealed plaster stained yellow with smoke. The old man lay on a wretched bed covered only by a thin blanket and a patchwork quilt composed of the better scraps saved from Madame Vauquer’s old dresses.
Goriot goes on to described to Eugène how his whole life is “all in his two daughters”. “If they enjoy themsevles, if they are happy and finely dressed, if they have carpets to walk on, what does it matter what clothes I wear or what sort of bedroom I have? I don’t feel cold if they are warm. I never feel sad if they are laughing. My only sorrows are theirs”. He is reduced to waiting on street corners where their carriages may pass in order to catch a glimpse of them, but fails to see their selfishness and unconcern.
Having come back to this book a month after reading it in order to write this review, I am struck by how quickly I got absorbed again in Balzac’s story of hopeless paternal longing and the ability of his children to get so involved in their own lives that they forget how beholden they are to the old man. Goriot is pathetic in the true sense of the word, “arousing pity through misery or sadness”. So blind is he to his daughters shortcomings that he sells off the very last of the family silver to feed the whims of his girls.
Balzac weaves several themes into the book. Eugène is almost as self-absorbed as Goriot’s two daughters and when he sees opportunities to enter society himself he has no hesitation in writing home to his mother requesting 1200 francs to pay for the clothes and accessories he will need. Even his two sisters receive letters asking them to send him their life-savings. The only surprise to the reader is the joy with which they respond; pride in their brother’s progress in the great city overcoming any personal problems arising from their financial sacrifice.
Eugène gets increasingly involved with the Goriot girls, neglects his studies and goes through various joys and sorrows. The other characters who lodge in Maison Vacquer form a backdrop to the story, each with their own stories, providing comedy and drama as the story progresses. Madame Vacquer’s downfall is only what she deserves and Eugène’s confidante and mentor Vautrin gets his own well-deserved come-uppance, and the two daughters experience the consequences of seeing the last of their father’s money disappear into the bottomless well of their debts and high-spending.
In reading Père Goriot I have been reminded that there is a vast world of books that predate the modern age while exceeding in quality the vast majority of books published today. I found myself totally absorbed in reading Père Goriot which says much about the quality of the writing and Balzac’s knowledge of plot developement and characterisation.
And while not quite the same as getting on board one of those cross-Channel ferries, I enjoyed being immersed in French culture and stories set in Balzac’s Paris.
I am going to read Don Quixote over the next ten weeks at the rate of 92 pages a week along with Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog. The book has been on my shelves for some years now and I’ve never managed to finish it before. Hopefully I’ll do better this time. All are welcome to join in so why not sign up on Stu’s blog now.