Sunday, April 19, 2015

Father Goriot (1835)

Aka Old Goriot or (Le) Pere Goriot, this is widely considered one of the best novels by one of the best novelists, Honore de Balzac, and since it was my starting point in my meager career of reading him I'm happy to point to it for anyone so inclined. It's positively masterful about the fundamentals of fiction: setting, characters, action, like that. It's so purely conceived and executed, in fact, that it does not appear to require chapters or even section breaks (in my translation by Ellen Marriage). It is rich with insight and incident, moving easily about the playing field it sets for itself: a seedy boardinghouse, the foolish, gallant, and ultimately disquieting figure of the title character, an old man slowly sinking into poverty in order to give his daughters the lives he thinks they deserve. His love for them is impressive if not altogether unsullied, if only because he is a man of the world after all, who earned his fortune as a vermicelli maker. I thought Balzac was amazingly good in this short novel at moving about among the social strata of 19th-century Paris, dwelling among the students and the indigent in the boardinghouse (who are nonetheless furiously attempting to maintain dignity, and position) as well as the elaborate money-dependent rituals of their betters, among whom Goriot's daughters now move. The purity of the narrative stream is all the more remarkable considering that it was originally published in serialized form. This is the novel where Balzac began to enlarge his vision of his larger project, "The Human Comedy," first beginning to use characters from previous novels, as scenery, as context, and as key players in their own right. His characters are always interesting, both as stock types and, as we get to know them better, with their many bottomless complexities. I particularly like the way Goriot's doting over his daughters is hardly an unmixed thing. It's kind of sick actually, and not just on the part of the daughters who use him and take him for granted. It is always recognizable and familiar human behavior.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Way back in my Doestoevsky phase I recall him namedropping Balzac often. You got the impression D thought Balzac invented what he was trying to extend. Never followed up, though. Where does one start w/ Balzac?

  2. My sources say Father Goriot, followed by Lost Illusions. After that opinions begin to diverge, but some recurring titles include Eugenie Grandet, Colonel Chabert, The Black Sheep, Cousin Bette, and A Harlot High and Low. Be careful about e-books that gather it all up attempting to construct the complete (unfinished) "Human Comedy. The one I got has a serious technical flaw.