[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Honoré de Balzac

Easton Press, Famous Editions, 1993; translated by Ellen Marriage; illustrated by Renee Ben Sussan; bound in grey leather with gold embossing and label, and humped spine; gold leaf pages; moiré end papers and ribbon.

Goriot had raised the two girls to the level of angels; and, quite naturally, he himself was left beneath them.  Poor man!  He loved them even for the pain that they gave him.

This volume on the shelf is a wonderful presentation of a wickedly good book.

Stories about ungrateful daughters and ugly sisters go back thousands of years in Europe and Asia.  In the Mahabharata in India, there are stories about good and bad children’s treatment of aged parents.  In Grimm, we have the story of the Goose-girl Princess who told her father that she ‘loved him like salt’.  The most famous example in Europe is the story from Celtic legend that we know as King Lear.  An aging king decided to give away his kingdom to his three daughters.  His good daughter is too honest to feign the protestations of love of her two sisters.  In a fit of anger that leads him to madness and his kingdom to destruction, Lear gives all to the two bad daughters.

The old father in Père Goriot (that we know as Old Goriot) of Balzac has at least three things in common with King Lear – he gives everything to his daughters (just two for Goriot); they repay him with ingratitude and they reject him; and in so doing they kill him.

Old Goriot is about the forty-first of ninety four novels that Balzac labelled La Comédie Humaine.  It is set in Paris in 1819, just thirty years after the fall of the Bastille, and four years after the fall of Napoleon.  France had been turned upside down – first they had killed their King; then they had killed their God.  Where would they find bedrock?  The answer of Balzac in this novel is: Nowhere.  Balzac was to say: ‘Reading those dry and rebarbative listings of facts called histories, who has not noticed that writers have forgotten, in all ages, in Egypt, in Persia, in Greece, and in Rome, to give us a history of how life is lived?’

Almost all of the action is set either in a boarding house (a pension bourgeoise) of Madame Vouquer on the Rue Neuve Saint-Geneviève in the Latin Quarter, or in a salon of a hôtel (home) of titled ladies.  The first setting is emphatically lower middle class, with a dingy smell that might never leave you.  The salons are on the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the Chausée d’Antin.  The first is the more elevated, and occupants of the second will do anything to be invited into the first – anything.  The salons might be represented today by the townhouses of merchant bankers in Knightsbridge, and their motto would be the same.  Greed is good; success is all; in truth, as one character says, ‘success is virtue’.

The pension, like the ship The Indomitable in Billy Budd, is a world of its own.  The author says there ‘is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty…’

When his wife died, Goriot transferred all his love to his daughters, Anastasie and Delphine.  He spoiled them in every sense of the word ‘spoiled’.  He allowed them to marry the men they wanted to marry – they therefore went for money and titles and their husbands, having taken the dowries, insisted on keeping old Goriot out of sight ‑ in the name of God, he represented trade.  Then the girls take everything from Goriot and his standing with Madame Vouquer and others becomes contemptible.  If a daughter is seen near him, she is thought to be the fancy of a dirty old man.

Eugène de Rastignac comes from a respectable family in the South.  He comes to Paris to study law.  He is young and good looking.  He gets seduced by Paris and by titled money.  Vautrin is a striking figure of mystery with a dyed beard and a hairpiece, and an evidently strong frame.  In some ways he is like the hero of Les Misérables because he is an ex-convict.  But Vautrin is an escaped convict.  He has a gaze that can both pierce and defile.  He is, unlike Claggart, a truly satanic figure.  He holds charms for the motley.  It is he who will tempt young Rastignac.  .

The author is comfortable in discussing the whole gamut of human relations.  This is how he describes how Goriot made his money.

It was during these years [1789] that citizen Goriot made the money which, at a later time, was to give him all the advantage of the great capitalist over the small buyer; he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him.  He excited no one’s envy

When Goriot is telling Eugène what he is feels for his daughters, Balzac gives him these unforgettable lines:

Well, then, since I have been a father, I have come to understand God.  He is everywhere in the world, because the whole world comes from Him.  And it is just the same with my children, Monsieur, only I love my daughters better than God loves the world, for the world is not so beautiful as God Himself is, but my children are more beautiful than I am.

It is a remarkable passage.  The entrapped Goriot, like Lear, only lives to strangle himself.  His vision is so distorted, he is near madness.

Eugène is sickened by the stony-hearted bitch, Delphine, this worthless moll of a daughter.  He could see that Delphine was ‘capable of stepping over her father’s corpse to go to a ball’, but Eugène cannot help himself.  He just goes along with her, as he had with Vautrin:

… Eugene was too horror stricken by this elegant parricide to resist … The world of Paris was like an ocean of mud for him just then; and it seemed that whoever set foot in that black mire must needs sink into it up to the chin.

Now that Eugène has seen the sewer in the form of this ‘elegant parricide’ he sees ‘society in its three great phases: Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’.  Eugène and a medical student, Bianchon, arrange for the burial of old Goriot, having been cheated on the price of the shroud by Madame Vouquer.  The daughters send their two carriages with their armorial bearings.  Eugène is obliged to borrow five francs from the errand boy, Christophe, to pay the grave diggers taking part in a third class funeral at Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

The ending of this novel comes upon us like a cataract, a bravura point d’exclamation of the entire Romantic Movement.

It was growing dusk, the damp twilight fretted his nerves; he gazed down into the grave, and the tears he shed were drawn from him by the sacred emotion, a single‑hearted sorrow.  When such tears fall on earth, their radiance reaches Heaven.  And with that tear that fell on old Goriot’s grave, Eugène de Rastignac’s youth ended.  He folded his arms and gazed at the clouded sky.  And Christophe, after a glance at him, turned and went – although Rastignac was left alone.

He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river.  His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendôme and Cupola of the Invalides.  There lay a great world that he had longed to penetrate.  He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently: ‘We’ll fight this out, you and I.’ 

Then, as a first challenge to society, Rastignac went to dine with Madame Nucinen.  (Delphine)

There is, therefore, no place for God in The Human Comedy.  Every teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is first mocked and then violated.  We are left with hell on earth, and our young hero can see no way out.  The medical student, Bianchon, was later in the series to become a great physician, and it is said that Balzac cried out for Bianchon during his own death agony.  Well, Balzac was not, like Lear or Goriot, reduced to the ‘thing itself’, ‘unaccommodated man’.  We are left in Old Goriot with what Geoffrey Bullough in his Introduction to King Lear described as ‘the tragedy of Machiavellian atheism’ and ‘pathos too deep to analyse’.

As Eugène grows into manhood and acquires knowledge, Goriot slips into dotage and oblivion, and his lights go out.  His daughters prey on Goriot for his money, but Rastignac does exactly the same to his sisters and his mother – and any piece of upper-class Parisienne skirt he can lay his hands on.  The glitter of the final ball blazes beside the emptiness of the garret in which the squeezed lemon peel has been left.  We are left with what T.S. Elliot called The Waste Land.  By its end Anastasie and Delphine are consumed by a loathing for themselves and each other that is almost as corrosive as that felt by Goneril and Regan.

Goriot leaves the world not so much like Lear, but more like Othello – ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’.  Rastignac is down at the end – he has to pawn the Bréguet watch given to him by his moll to pay for the funeral – but we know that he will rise again, at least according to his own lights, in further instalments of The Human Comedy.  This novel is in large part about the education of young Rastignac.  It is far from being a sentimental education.  This indictment of the bourgeoisie is every bit as coruscating as the plays of Henrik Ibsen such as The Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler.

In his book Ten Novels and their Authors, Somerset Maugham said of Balzac, ‘It is generally conceded that he wrote badly… Balzac was a vulgar man… and his prose was vulgar.  It was prolix, portentous and too often incorrect.’  Of Balzac himself, Maugham said that ‘I think it better to admit that he was selfish, unscrupulous, and dishonest’.  He also had a voracious appetite for food and women.  But Maugham began on Old Goriot by saying, ‘Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world, Balzac is to my mind the greatest.  He is the only one to whom I would without hesitation ascribe genius’.  All of those remarks are borne out by the wonderful novel that is Old Goriot.  It is a novel of a genius in his prime.  It is as good a read as I have on this shelf.



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