A quick note before I get started: am I the only one whose primary association with Balzac is the Hermione Gingold character in The Music Man? I used to love the way she pronounced the word with such disgusted relish. DIRTY BOOKS!
And now, on with the dirty books.
Wikipedia tells me I am hardly the first person to notice the similarity, but as I read Balzac's 1934 novel Père Goriot (translated by Burton Raffel) I couldn't help thinking of it as an early-19th-century French reworking of Shakespeare's King Lear. In the title role is Monsieur (or disrespectfully Père, meaning something like "old" or "Gramps," but also literally "father") Goriot, successful but retired pasta manufacturer who dotes shamelessly and selflessly on his two shallow daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, to whom he can refuse nothing and who have been gradually bleeding him dry for decades. In a sort of combined Kent/Cordelia role is the novel's main character, Eugène Rastignac, a young man recently relocated from the country who aspires to the cutthroat world of Paris high society, meets Goriot in the process, and becomes his somewhat-unlikely champion. An Edmund-like turncoat is present as well in the form of Vautrin, a shady but seductive character who lodges in the same dump as Goriot and Rastignac.
Balzac's Comédie humaine (1799-1850) was apparently one of the first instances of the "roman fleuve": a set of linked novels which share a fictional world (think William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or Louise Erdrich's North Dakotan Ojibwe reservations), and in which readers encounter the same or interrelated characters in multiple novels, from multiple perspectives. In my opinion, several of the most interesting things about Père Goriot, which comes mid-way through the cycle both in terms of composition and chronology, were related to it being part of a larger endeavor. To take one example, Balzac's treatment of Rastignac: it would be easy to write Eugène as either the young naif who becomes utterly self-involved and ends up jilting everyone he used to love (à la Pip in the middle part of Great Expectations), or as the only character pure of heart, who rejects or remains immune to the corruption of Paris society (à la Dobbin and Amelia in Vanity Fair). To his credit, Balzac does neither. Instead, he has Eugène feel the heady thrill of being wealthy in Paris, and lets him pursue that goal in a pretty cold-blooded manner, while simultaneously retaining some sense of principle and self (he doesn't give in to Vautrin's promises of easy money, nor abandon Goriot when it would be convenient to do so). There is a level of ambiguity here, an acknowledgment that people can act and feel in contradictory ways simultaneously, that impressed me.
Balzac even sets up some situations that seem obvious signposts to mark Eugène's fall into debauchery: Rastignac borrows money from his mother and sisters, for example, in order to finance his impersonation of a wealthy young gadabout, and I was sure we would see him gamble all his sisters' pocket money away and disappoint his mother by applying for ever more funds. Instead he pays them back almost immediately, even if the money to do so does come from dubious sources and even if he loses it all again afterward. He can believe himself genuinely in love with a woman while also being conscious of wanting her fortune. He is allowed to keep some promises to himself while reneging on others; retain some principles while blithely throwing others away. Even at the novel's end, this ambiguity remains: Rastignac can be quite affected by Goriot's tragedy, and at the same time never waver in his own pursuit of money and power.
In a similarly "doubled" way, Balzac drops hints about the man Eugène will become: he will be rich; well-clothed; powerful; known for his cutting turns of phrase; he will be all of these things, but in this particular novel he's none of them. I think the roman fleuve format probably allowed Balzac this leeway—the hints about Rastignac's future career would serve as publicity for future novels—but I found the technique oddly compelling within this single volume, as well. It struck me as a subtler version of the flash-forwarding of which modern authors like Rushdie and Irving are so fond, giving an idea of the scope of a character's future life with just a few strokes of the pen.
[I]n his tailor, Eugène had found a man who understood the genealogical function of the trade, a man who realized that, when he played his cards right, he might well become a basic link between a young man's present life and his future one. And Rastignac, deeply grateful, had in turn made this fellow's fortune with one of those deftly phrased remarks at which, later on, he so excelled:
"I myself," he'd said, "am personally acquainted with two pairs of trousers, made by his hands, which brought about marriages worth twenty thousand francs a year."
As the above quote suggests, this novel has much to offer someone who, like me, is interested in the relationship between clothes and identity. People in Père Goriot are forever revealing, concealing, and transforming themselves with costume: Goriot's pathetic rags, Rastignac's mortgaged finery, Vautrin's wig, Anastasie's ruthlessly procured spangled dress. In many cases, as with Vautrin and Rastignac, the clothes are a blatantly false claim, or at the very least a pledge for the future: they are pretending to be what they are not, sometimes in the hope of making the pretense a reality. This fear of artifice creates an interesting tension with some of Balzac's other claims about clothes, however, such as this description of the landlady Mme. Vauquer:
...in short, everything about her seems to embody her pension, just as her pension invokes her image. You can't have a jail without a jailer, the one is unimaginable without the other. This tiny woman's pallid flabbiness stems directly from the life she leads, just as typhus comes from the foul effluvia in hospitals. Her flannel petticoat, hanging out beneath her outer skirt, cut down from an old dress, its cotton quilting protruding through the slits in the frayed, splitting material, is like a summary of the salon, and the dining room, and the garden; it proclaims the kitchen; it warns you what the lodgers will be. Given her presence, the whole spectacle is complete.
Here we have an appearance, including items of clothing, that "stems directly from" the life led, developing organically in a way that reveals Mme. Vauquer's character rather than obscuring or misrepresenting it. She is such an integral part of her environment, in fact, that the one is unimaginable without the other—an interesting contrast with characters like Eugène and the Goriot sisters, who use clothing very consciously to ensconce themselves in an alien environment. What most intrigued me about Balzac's approach here is that neither way of life seems particularly privileged, morally: Mme. Vauquer and Anastasie are equally petty and despicable, despite the one's fakery and the other's quality of naturalness. Nor is a lack of artifice necessarily less threatening to those around the artificer: while the liar Vautrin does pose a threat, Rastignac is actually more dangerous to his cousin and the Goriot women before he learns how to dissemble. I can understand why upright turn-of-the-century Iowans like those in The Music Man might feel uncomfortable with this kind of moral laxity, but personally I quite admired Balzac's ability to accept ambiguity and contradiction.
Père Goriot was my sixth book for my Personal TBR Challenge.