Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Old Goriot - what genuine feelings survive when everything's a transaction?

Honoré de Balzac sets much of his novel, Old Goriot, in a dingy Parisian boardinghouse during the period of the Bourbon Restoration. Madame Vauquer runs the place and might call herself the "mother" of all the tenants - mostly young people who are struggling to make their way in the world (like the law student, Eugène de Rastignac), old people who are probably stuck there for good (like the titular character, Goriot), and maybe one or two others whose finances are a mystery.

The boardinghouse occupants, if one squints, could be seen as a kind of family, dining together and getting in each other's business, but Madame Vauquer isn't a real mother. Her relationship with the boarders is transactional, and the ones who can't afford to pay her much get the worse rooms. It's business.

That said, the actual familial relationships in the book often come to resemble the transactional boardinghouse family - with poorer or more "useless" members shunted away. Old Goriot (and in French, the book is called "Père Goriot") acts on his fatherly love by draining himself of all his savings and possessions to give his daughters every material object they want. Once he slips into poverty, he sees less of them (they sometimes permit him to visit them surreptitiously, so that no one in fashionable society will witness it), but he still wrings every last bit of money out of himself when they enter into financial conflicts with their husbands.

Eugène comes from a poor branch of a noble family and soon abandons his law studies to focus on social climbing. He uses his connections to wealthier parts of his family to gain a foothold among the upper classes, and he starts an affair with one of Goriot's married daughters, Delphine de Nucingen, with his eye toward the same end. He begins to treat Goriot in a friendly way only after discovering the identities of his daughters. Eugène's family out in the country seem a loving bunch and have placed their hopes on his success at law, but the one time we see the contents of his letters to them it's when he requests money.

As he mixes with more of Parisian high society, will Eugène come across genuine emotion that's free from the influence of transactions?

Eugène doesn't want to be cynical. For instance, he initially has some hopes that Delphine is nobler than her sister, and that the love they share may rise above the money and social position they both crave.

At the end of the book, he renders Goriot a service that comes with no expectation of repayment. In this final service, Eugène receives assistance from his friend, Bianchon, a medical student. This is significant, as Bianchon is someone who is comfortable in his own skin and quite open about who he is; he knows that once his studies are over, he'll practice medicine in the country without much of a salary, but he's content with his life and his prospects, unlike Eugène. He represents who Eugène might have been.

(Eugène realizes that instead he could become like his shadowy fellow lodger, Vautrin, whose few genuine feelings are twisted up in criminality and brutal views of the world - "You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon-ball, or slink through like a plague." Or Eugène may end up like his wealthy relation, Madame de Beauséant, who has become knowledgeable and bitter about all the corruption about her, and ultimately retreats from society.)

Even as Eugène renders Goriot that final service at the end of the novel, one that's based on generosity of spirit rather than expectation of reward, he faces further disillusionment about finding anything or anyone genuine in Parisian society. But will that stop him from pursuing his ambitions? Eugène began the novel with some innocence. By the end, he has already headed down a road that may lead to wealth and social desirability, but also corrupts. At least he understands what he's dealing with better, by the end.

I read the Dover Thrift edition of this book, with the translation by Ellen Marriage. It was on my list for the Classics Club Challenge.


Roderick Robinson said...

Yeah, but Old Goriot is memorably about Old Goriot and parental sacrifice taken to ludicrous extremes. At a time when old age was even less fashionable than it is now. Ah the further poignancy, given that OG isn't in any sense lovable.

If you're in a truly vindictive mood, imagine DT reduced to living Chez Vauquer. Niggling about the pennies. Balzac's terrific about small sums of money, often a significant defect in contemporary fiction written on the other side of the Channel.

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book.

I have not read Balzac, but I would like to.

This sounds appealing in a lot of ways. Goriot sounds like a sad figure. He sounds like some folks that I know in real life.

HKatz said...

@ Roderick - I agree about Balzac being terrific with small sums of money and the feel of it getting pinched away bit by bit over every small thing... and Rastignac having to pawn the watch that Delphine gave him to pay for some final expenses at the end...

@ Brian - I really think you'll like this novel.

Lucy said...

Oh gosh, I've not read it in years, and realise reading your review that it's just the thing I want to read right now, to get lost in that world again. In doing this I very soon find Balzac berating me for relaxing in my comfy chair and using it as distraction when it's really all about misery! It seems to me he has to keep telling you how horrible everything is, more than he really should, because it's impossible not to be seduced by the teeming detail and vivid colour, ugliness and cynicism was never so beguiling.

Yes, the domestic economy, one of the things I always remember of it is the theme of carbohydrates! Not even meat, it's basic fuel everyone's worried about. The young lodgers irk Mme Vauquer by eating too much bread, Rastignac's family have more chestnut soup than bread on the table, Père Goriot made his fortune by supplying people with starch in the form of pasta when bread was scarce, which earns him more contempt when really it was an act commonsense and of public service.

I've tried other Balzac novels with less success, but always feel I need to go back to him some time. He's certainly my favourite of the 19th century French novelists.

HKatz said...

"It seems to me he has to keep telling you how horrible everything is, more than he really should, because it's impossible not to be seduced by the teeming detail and vivid colour, ugliness and cynicism was never so beguiling."

This made me laugh, because yes, immersing yourself in the novel is a reading pleasure, but my flesh also began to crawl at the horrible descriptions of everything in the lodging house (I remember his descriptions of the residents' "catarrhal" exhalations...)