Balzac’s Goriot.

I was hard on Balzac after I read La Peau de chagrin (see this post), but marie-lucie and others insisted I give him another chance, and they were right. Since then I’ve read Eugénie Grandet and Le père Goriot (which I just finished), and my opinion of him is much higher. I agree with Amateur Reader (Tom) that Eugénie Grandet is an extraordinarily artful novel, and I suspect I’d agree with him that it’s Balzac’s best even if I’d read a great deal more Balzac than I have, but I didn’t find any reason to post about it here. I don’t think Le père Goriot is up to that level — it gets too wildly melodramatic for my taste — but it’s a great read, and very satisfying to my intense desire to know the minutiae of pre-Haussmann Paris (I spent quite a bit of time happily investigating the long-gone rue de Jérusalem on the Île de la Cité, which was once the metonym for the Paris police the way quai des Orfèvres is today; here‘s a nice view of it from the quai, and here‘s an actual photograph: you can practically smell the effluvia). One LH-worthy feature of the book is Balzac’s attention to the linguistic usages of various subgroups, notably the criminal classes. At one point he has a cop use a couple of (helpfully italicized) words he’s picked up from the lowlifes he deals with:

— Vous vous trompez, répondit il, Collin est la sorbonne la plus dangereuse qui jamais se soit trouvée du côté des voleurs. Voilà tout. Les coquins le savent bien, il est leur drapeau, leur soutien, leur Bonaparte enfin, et ils l’aiment tous. Ce drôle ne nous laissera jamais sa tronche en place de Grève(1). Il nous joue.

And he provides this footnote explaining the terms (a sorbonne is a living head, a tronche a dead one):

Sorbonne et Tronche sont deux énergiques expressions du langage des voleurs, qui les premiers ont senti la nécessité de considérer la tête humaine sous deux aspects. La Sorbonne est la tête de l’homme vivant, son conseil, sa pensée. La Tronche est un mot de mépris destiné à exprimer combien la tête devient peu de chose quand elle est coupée.

And later on he has the fearsome Collin say “Ne soyez pas embarrassé, je sais faire mes recouvremens. L’on me craint trop pour me flouer, moi!” and promptly explains that this jargon is the result of the conditions of hard labor (le bagne):

Le bagne avec ses mœurs et son langage, avec ses brusques transitions du plaisant à l’horrible, son épouvantable grandeur, sa familiarité, sa bassesse, fut tout à coup représenté dans cette interpellation et par cet homme, qui ne fut plus un homme mais le type de toute une nation dégénérée, d’un peuple sauvage et logique, brutal et souple. En un moment Collin devint un poème infernal […]

The last (truncated) sentence about how the criminal became an infernal poem is the kind of thing that made me roll my eyes. One huge difference between Balzac and later realist writers is that Balzac can’t resist buttonholing the reader and making speeches about what it all means; Proust says more about the dehumanizing effects of wealth in one short scene than Balzac does in pages and pages devoted to the subject here. But I gobbled it all up, and I can see why he (like Dickens) is a great novelist, for all the things that put me off.


  1. John Emerson says

    Like a lot of other 19th C. authors, French and other, Balzac was a kind of spiritualist. If it was him who said that he could tell a family’s whole story after looking in their front room for ten seconds, but he did seem to have some belief in more than rational intuition. I have always wondered how, writing all the time and dying young, he could know everything he knew. I have considered the possibility that he was winging it quite a bit of the time.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with this post. At times, I can almost hear Jean-Louis Barrault emoting Balzac. With Proust, there’s no sense of watching a film. It’s just Proust.

  3. If you want to see Balzac try to formalize the ideas John Emerson discusses, it is on display in the nouvelle Louis Lambert. The story is not what I would call good – the philosophizing is just laid out in slabs – but it was helpful for my understanding of Balzac. It is also an early example of the “boys in boarding school” genre.

  4. “The story is not what I would call good – the philosophizing is just laid out in slabs ”

    The first thing i ever noticed I really liked about Chekhov – a long time and many other things ago – was the way he had that feckless uncle in the Cherry Orchard phiosophizing all the time, as a form of characterization. It seemed like gentle mockery.That struck me because pompous philosophizing is like a nervous tic with a lot of characters in Russian novels, some of it interesting, some of it eye-rollingly lame even to the high school student reading it, but this was the first time I had ever seen anyone make fun of it.

  5. John Emerson says

    Speaking of the devil, Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” pokes fun at Russian-novel philosophy.

  6. Quotes here.

  7. Try La cousine Bette next.

  8. LH, if you read several of Balzac’s novels you will encounter some of the same characters, at different ages, or in different social positions, or in minor roles in one novel and major roles in another, etc, so you get a different perspective on them and the society they live in. This does not mean that the works need to be read in a particular order.

  9. la tronche

    This is still a slang word, not limited to the criminal world, a derogatory word for ‘head’ or ‘face’.

  10. I’ve now read Eugenie Grandet (in English, from PG) and I’m about halfway through Father Goriot (likewise from PG, different translator). My general feeling about EG is that it’s not actually realism at all. The characters are humors, and indeed I would even call it a fairy-tale, though without the happy ending. Nobody grows or changes, they merely work out their own damnation individually, like so many automata.

    Oddly, I enjoyed it anyway.

  11. Actually, the Dean says “silly cuckoos”, in reference to her students. There is a Miss Gubbins at the Gaudy, however (Miss Lydgate, Harriet’s former tutor in English Literature, is speaking):

    “[Miss de Vine] ought really to have a professorship, but I doubt if she could stand the tutorial side of it. The fewer distractions she has, the better, because she’s one of the real scholars. There she is, over there — and, oh, dear! I’m afraid she’s been caught by Miss Gubbins. You remember Miss Gubbins?”

    “Vaguely,” said Phoebe [a friend of Harriet’s]. “She was Third Year when we were freshers. An excellent soul, but rather earnest, and an appalling bore at College Meetings.”

    “She is a very conscientious person,” said Miss Lydgate, “but she has rather an unfortunate knack of making any subject sound dull. It’s a great pity, because she is exceptionally sound and dependable. However, that doesn’t greatly matter in her present appointment; she holds a librarianship somewhere […].”

  12. Oops. Hat, please move the above comment to “Gubbins” and delete this one. Thanks.

  13. JC: I’m about halfway through Father Goriot

    Given the title, you probably don’t have the best translation. Le Père Goriot can mean (1) Old Goriot or Old Man Goriot, which it does here (although Goriot had once been well-to-do, he has now fallen way down the social ladder); or (2) Father Goriot, a type of senior priest or monk having no special responsibilities (eg not a parish priest, abbot, bishop, etc but known for having intellectual and moral influence). In France at Easter major Caholic churches try to engage such a person to preach the Easter sermon, the most important one of the year, usually attended by many persons, even those who might not be very observant the rest of the year. I think that the English title Father Goriot gives the mistaken impression that the central character will be some sort of clergyman.

  14. Oh, I’m sure the translation is none too good. However, having now finished the book, I would now interpret the title as Goriot the Father, since it is about a man who defines himself entirely through his daughters.

  15. John Emerson says

    “My general feeling about EG is that it’s not actually realism at all. ”

    That’s the conclusion I came to about all the realists and naturalists. They spill out their guts via stories about imaginary people, and they like striking details, especially if they make the imaginary people seem awful or at least depressingly mediocre.

  16. marie-lucie says

    JC: I would now interpret the title as Goriot the Father, since it is about a man who defines himself entirely through his daughters.

    But that would not be correct. “Goriot the Father” (as opposed to a potential son) would be Goriot père (as for instance in Alexandre Dumas père, the elder A. Dumas). Le père X is a way of referring to an old man (whether a father or not), with the slightly derogatory connotation of “poor old X”. This is the way that the people who know him in the boarding house refer to him, not as Monsieur Goriot which would be respectful and also indicate his middle-class position.

  17. Sure. But you can’t capture all that in English. Saying “Old Man Goriot”, or just “Goriot” (as opposed to “Mr. Goriot”) tells you his social position, but loses the additional meaning that Balzac surely intended (given the explicitly punning title of Le Peau de chagrin and perhaps other novels), that his fatherhood is the most significant thing about him. I used the word interpret (rather than translate) in the sense of literary criticism.

    As for realism in EG and PG (which I have now finished), it is the realism of things rather than psychological realism. If EG is representative of Balzac’s general style, then his literary successor is David Drake, in whose Honor Harrington series the ships and the missiles they fire are described in infinite detail, while the human figures are mere caricatures (not even archetypes).

  18. John Emerson says

    A visual-description bias is characteristic of the realists and naturalists, and oddly enough also the Parnassian poets. Many of them were amateur painters or failed painters.

    The opening paragraph of Zola’s Therese Raquin is the physical description of a dingy alley. In a half page paragraph he uses something like a dozen color words, and almost all of them have the derogatory suffix -atre / “ish”: greenish, blueish, yellowish, etc. The crapiness of the alley’s color scheme proves the baseness of the local inhabitants right off at the beginning.

    “Derogatory” isn’t quite the right word for “-atre”, except here.

  19. But you can’t capture all that in English.

    No, so you have to capture the main thing, which is that it’s an ordinary, disrespectful way to refer to a man. “Old Goriot” does that; “Father Goriot” does not, and is misleading to boot. Sorry, but some nuances have to go by the board, and the “father” theme is that nuance here. As you know, it’s made crystal-clear by the text itself — no need to pound it in every time he’s mentioned.

  20. Thank you, LH.

    Balzac is not one given to puns or double entendre. A French person does not see a second meaning in le père Goriot, nor in La peau de chagrin which is a technical term among people dealing with skins and leather: the skin in question is a piece of expensive leather. The title is surprising if you don’t know the meaning of chagrin ‘shagreen’, but I don’t think that Balzac intended a pun.

  21. Hat: When you are translating the title, yes, “Old Man Goriot” is definitely best. When you are making an interpretation of the whole book, the ‘father’ interpretation is being hammered in, even if francophones don’t notice it on the conscious level.

    m-l: I find it hard to swallow that Balzac didn’t intend the double sense. Certainly it is routinely pointed out in English-language criticism of the book, intended for anglophones who wouldn’t see it for themselves.

  22. marie-lucie says

    JC, if Balzac was routinely making puns, and they were found scattered here and there in his work as a feature of his style, those interpretations might make sense, but he does not. I am far from having read a lot of Balzac, but his titles are quite straightforward. The only one I can think of where there is a pun is Le cabinet des antiques, but the pun is not in the title as such, the phrase is what a group of older characters call themselves ironically in the novel – having grown up before the Revolution, forty or fifty-odd years later they are now as quaint and irrelevant as museum specimens.

    You say that the double sense is “routinely pointed out in English-language criticism”, but is it also considered a major clue to the book in French-language criticism of the work? (The article which summarizes the book does not even mention it: the magic skin represents the hero’s life, not specifically his sorrows).

  23. Yeah, I was going to point out that “English-language criticism of the book” is hardly definitive. English-speakers say a lot of foolish things about foreign literature (as well, of course, as wise ones).

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