Sunday, October 02, 2011

La Comédie humaine

Père Goriot
Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

“A letter is a soul, so faithful an echo of the speaking voice that to the sensitive it is among the richest treasures of love.” ― Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot

Another wonderful translation by Burton Raffel, this is a faithful and readable edition of one of Balzac's most popular novels. It is one of the finest and most characteristic examples of Balzac's longer fictions. It was in the course of writing this novel that he hit upon the idea of reuse of characters invented in earlier stories; he is said to have rushed round to his sister, Laure Surville, to tell her that he was ‘in the process of becoming a genius’.
Eugène de Rastignac, the young man whose adventures and feelings are at the centre of Le Père Goriot, is an episodic character of La Peau de chagrin (1830), and most of the society figures whom he meets in this novel had appeared in earlier stories of Parisian life. After Le Père Goriot, Balzac systematically reused its characters in dozens of other stories and novels, notably in Illusions perdues, where the arch-criminal Vautrin crops up under another disguise. Although history is not central to Le Père Goriot, the post-Napoleonic era serves as an important setting, as is Balzac's use of meticulous detail while he presents a balanced view of human nature. Although the novel is sometimes referred to as "a mystery it is not an example of whodunit or detective fiction. Instead, the central puzzles feature the origins of suffering and the motivations of unusual behavior. Characters appear in fragments, with brief scenes providing small clues about their identity. Vautrin, for example, slips in and out of the story – offering advice to Rastignac, ridiculing Goriot, bribing the housekeeper Christophe to let him in after hours – before he is revealed as a master criminal. Le Père Goriot can also be seen as a bildungsroman, wherein a naive young person matures while learning the ways of the world. Rastignac is tutored by Vautrin, Madame de Beauséant, Goriot, and others about the truth of Parisian society and the coldly dispassionate and brutally realistic strategies required for social success. As an everyman, he is initially repulsed by the gruesome realities beneath society's gilded surfaces; eventually, however, he embraces them. Setting aside his original goal of mastering the law, he pursues money and women as instruments for social climbing. In some ways this mirrors Balzac's own social education, reflecting the distaste he acquired for the law after studying it for three years.
While it is a relatively short novel it seems longer, perhaps due to the fragmentary style. It has been translated many times and I found the translation by Burton Raffel (who also translated Rabelais and others) a beautiful one to read. This is a good novel in which to enter the world of Balzac's "Human Comedy".

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parrish lantern said...

Read this & Rabelais a good few years ago and found it highly enjoyable, have become a bit nostalgic for some of the books I read back then & have just downloaded from Project Gutenberg, Anatole France's Revolt of the Angels for my Kindle.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Rabelais is also a favorite of mine - more so than Balzac though I have read several other of his novels.