miércoles, 24 de septiembre de 2014

Balzac x 3

Le Père Goriot (Gallimard, 2012)
by Honoré de Balzac
France, 1835

The Girl with the Golden Eyes [La Fille aux yeux d'or] (Melville House Publishing, 2007)
by Honoré de Balzac [translated from the French by Charlotte Mandel]
France, 1835

"Honoré de Balzac's 'Vision' of Paris"
by Owen Heathcote
England, 2013

In a brief but illuminating-for-this-particular-Balzac-neophyte essay on "Honoré de Balzac's 'Vision' of Paris" included in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris edited by Anna-Louise Milne (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 71-84), Owen Heathcote makes the claim that "Balzac's appetite for observation"--and in particular his mythification of the city in print--"has contributed to establishing what 'Paris' is to such an extent that his vision is now inseparable from the so-called actual city.  It is no exaggeration to say that this author, famed for his 'realism,' also gave us the 'idea of Paris,' a 'paper cathedral' that absorbs the material world and replaces it with text" (74).  Whatever you make of the details of Heathcote's argument, his contention provides a convenient enough prism through which to view two Parisian novels which couldn't be more dissimilar in terms of artistic quality: Balzac's grand, wrenching Le Père Goriot and the same author's dreadful, often clownish The Girl with the Golden Eyes [La Fille aux yeux d'or].  How can thinking about these two works as examples of "Balzacian Parisian novels" help us to appreciate them in a different light than we might on purely aesthetic grounds?  As many of you already know, Le Père Goriot begins with a famous extended description of a down-at-the-heels boarding house home to a motley crew of Parisians and ends with an even more famous description of another sort of Parisian rest home, Père Lachaise cemetery, from which the no longer innocent Eugène de Rastignac, a transplanted provincial, surveys a panorama of the city which has just educated him in what it will take for him to survive amid all the meanness and scheming and social climbing of his new urban milieu.  The novel's worthy of its hype on many different levels, of course, but for my $$$ one of the not so secret secrets to its success is the way the impressionable young Rastignac is forced to choose between two role models--a charismatic criminal named Vautrin who, in the course of a nearly 10 page-long rant against society, tells Rastignac that the only two choices in life are between "une stupide obéissance ou la révolte" ["mindless obedience or revolt"] (147) and that "l'honnêteté ne sert à rien" ["honesty doesn't serve anyone"] (152), and the long-suffering title character, at one point described as "ce Christ de la Paternité" ["this Christ of fatherhood"] (282), who sacrifices everything for his two daughters' well-being only to be rejected by them in his hour of need.  Rastignac's choice should be clear but ultimately isn't given the accomplished and devastating high-wire act Balzac pulls off in the finale.  Unfortunately, where Le Père Goriot tells a story of substance and depth with appropriate references to local color even at its most melodramatic (for example, as early as the third page in, a mention of the Catacombs leads the narrator to blurt out--"Comparaison vraie!  Qui décidera de ce qui est plus horrible à voir, ou des coeurs desséches, ou des crânes vides?" ["A true comparison!  For who can say what's more horrible to observe: either dried-up hearts or empty skulls?"] [23]), The Girl with the Golden Eyes is hollow, bombastic and buffoonish in its telling of what's essentially a pulp love story.  Which is not to say that the descriptions of "the soul of Paris" being responsible for its "cadaverous physiognomy" (4) aren't amusing or that the narrator's claim that "all passion in Paris is focused on two goals: gold and pleasure" (21) is any less serious a critique of the headlong pursuit of power and wealth than the one found in Le Père Goriot.  However, unintentionally funny lines like the description of hero Henri de Marsay's "slim, aristocratic waist" (34) and howlers like the Girl with the Golden Eyes' description of a love nest as "this retreat was built for love" (87) read more like a parody of a gothic novel which just happens to be set in Paris rather than the complex statement about Paris Balzac set down in Le Pére Goriot.  Heathcote, interestingly enough, provides one reason to consider taking The Girl with the Golden Eyes seriously in speaking of the "feminisation of Paris which runs throughout La Comédie humaine."  Although it pains me to even think about ever reading the ridiculous The Girl with the Golden Eyes again, I must confess that Heathcote almost tempts me with his provocative assertion that just as "'Woman,' like Paris" is both "an enigma to be solved" and "a territory to be conquered" for Le Père Goriot's Rastignac, "if, moreover, as will be seen in La Fille aux yeux d'or, Paris is also associated with the courtesans of ancient Babylon or imperial Rome, then the identification of woman and Paris extends back in time and over space: the feminisation of Paris facilitates the transformation of description into myth and the transformation of La Comédie humaine into a new, but age-old, epic with Paris as its epicentre.  At the same time, Paris also becomes a new, nineteenth century hell - both as irresistible lure and as inescapable labyrinth" (75).  Interesting thoughts to be sure--although Heathcote clearly missed a chance to go after some low-hanging fruit when he neglected to associate The Girl with the Golden Eyes' description of an elderly woman as "the old mummy" (72) with the ancient Egyptians as he maybe could have and should have given all that ancient Babylon and imperial Rome talk.  Whatever!


Le Père Goriot and The Girl with the Golden Eyes were books #8 and #9 out of a projected vingt-quatre read for the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.  Still way off the pace but a little less so than I was a month ago.  No need to play the all-novellas-in-translation card just yet, but there may be after Germinal!

24 comentarios:

  1. Thanks for this post, Richard; I know nothing about Balzac, but these texts encourage me to read him, eventually.

    And I keep forgetting I signed up for that French challenge too.

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    1. You're very welcome, Miguel, but Wuthering Expectations is where you need to go for your real Balzac fix because Tom's got 30 posts on the guy--literally! I've loved two of the Balzac novels I've read so far and not loved the other two (The Girl with the Golden Eyes is the first outright dud so far, though).

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  2. I've been meaning to read Balzac forever, and will make it a priority in coming months. This sounds like a good way to get started, especially with a critical accompaniment such as the Heathcote essay.

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    1. Le Père Goriot and Le Colonel Chabert are outstanding places to start with Balzac, Scott, and I've heard lots of applause for Illusions perdues as well. I've found him wildly uneven so far, but his good stuff is really good as you might expect. That Cambridge Companion guide to The Literature of Paris is a nice find for a Paris or a literature geek, by the way.

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  3. Those Balzac posts are almost antiques now. You may remember that I identified Girl with the Golden Eyes as my least favorite Balzac, even though I - and you - should enjoy its proto-Decadence. It is good to have read it regardless, since it pins down one extreme flank of Balzac. Le Pére Goriot, by contrast, is the dead center.

    I completely agree with that idea about "the idea of Paris."

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    1. Tom, I do remember your ranking of The Girl with the Golden Eyes on your personal Balzac greatest hits chart and the fact that other readers were even more unkind in their evaluations of it. I'd thought that its "proto-Decadence" elements might appeal to me more than they actually did, so I guess I was wrong there. That being said, three of the things that were such pleasant surprises about Le Père Goriot were the way Rastignac's social-climbing escapades seem to have been something of a dress rehearsal for all the party scenes in Proust--in a very general way--and the depth of a story in which even a relatively well-intentioned "good" character like Goriot could have a past as a war profiteer and--finally--what a memorable villain Vautrin turned out to be. I'd like to read that novel again some day, but I'll take a stab at more of the Comédie humaine first.

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    2. Vautrin is a fascinating character. He reappears many times in later novels. Not just Balzac novels - Dumas and Hugo steal and parody the character.

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    3. Ah, what good news! I knew the character appeared in other Balzac novels, but I had no idea about Dumas and Hugo borrowing him. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

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  4. I mean that Dumas and Hugo steal a number of his salient characteristics. The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, has a lot of Vautrin in him.

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    1. Well, that sounds like it could be fun, too. I guess I should try and find the right book by or about Vidocq. He seems to be the real life ground zero for a lot of these Vautrinesque creations in the 19th century and later.

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  5. I downloaded the complete Balzac when I got my kindle two years ago and it has sat there since thanks for reminder i had planned to read all his books as he is such an important writer alongside Zola in that time in France

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    1. An ambitious plan--happy reading to you, Stu! I kind of hope to do something similar long-term with Balzac eventually or at least most of his works if not all of them. In the meantime, I hope to start my first Zola tonight or tomorrow. Cheers!

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  6. I read The Girl With the Golden Eyes a few years ago as I was ripping through the Art of the Novella series and could not have been more disappointed. The actual plot seemed an after thought, a thin shell of a story constructed as an avenue through which to discuss the sociological sickness of Paris. Unfortunately, I have not been able to bring myself to read any more Balzac since.

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    1. Frances, I can understand The Girl with the Golden Eyes turning you off Balzac if that's where you had the misfortune to start with him. Other people warned me off that title after I said I didn't care for Eugénie Grandet all that much, but it was too late b/c I'd already bought the book. Having just reread your post on the novella, I strongly encourage you to give Le Père Goriot or Le Colonel Chabert a try should you ever be ready to give Balzac a second chance. Lots of great writing in both and an ending to Le Père Goriot that seemed just as undeniably masterful and powerful as Flaubert's in Madame Bovary.

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  7. Frances: Don't be deterred! I had a similar experience, ill-advisedly starting off with Le peau de chagrin, which (while not, apparently, as bad as the infamous La Fille aux yeux d'or) is not something I ever want to read again, and I had to be pretty much bullied into reading Eugénie Grandet and Le père Goriot, both of which bowled me over. Give him another try!

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    1. Steve, I seem to be less of a Eugénie Grandet fan than most other readers of that novel. However, thanks for backing me up and giving Frances another thumbs-up for Le Père Goriot. I can understand being bowled over by that work!

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    2. It was the Skin that nearly put me off Balzac forever. I imagined ten thousand pages about bad poets glooming sulkily at women from the corners of ballrooms. Proust brought me back. If Proust praised Balzac then I had to read him. "Because of this half-baked realism, too fabulous for life, too prosaic for literature, we often get very much the same kind of pleasure from Balzac's books that we get from life" (By Way of Saint-Beuve, tr. Sylvia Townsend-Warner).

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    3. Thanks for the warning about that particular Balzac title, Pykk, and for sharing that wild Proust quote. Monsieur Proust was quite the imaginative critic, it would seem!

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  8. (I'm never sure whether or not to capitalize the first word after Le/La at the start of a title. I guess there are different conventions.)

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    1. I need to find my French grammar manual and review the rules for capitalizing titles because the "conventions" seem fairly arbitrary at times in French in comparison with Spanish at least. Of course, that's nothing when you see how many different ways they spell poor Ousmane Sembene/Sembène Ousmane's name with and without the accent grave on that one "e."

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  9. I keep meaning to try some Balzac and had actually been keeping my eyes open for Le Père Goriot a few years ago after reading a very positive review. I never came across it and it slipped my mind but its now back on the top of my list.

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    1. Séamus, I thought Le Père Goriot was pretty great and hence think it's a great place to start with Balzac for the full-on experience of him. Le Colonel Chabert is also pretty powerful, but its novella-length doesn't give Balzac the chance to unwind and let his greasy 19th century hair down like he does here!

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    2. naught to do with Balzac and more hat than hair but having looked at your current cover star I think that Onetti and Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh were separated at birth. http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ltf2fmGrsr1qzrkvzo1_400.png

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    3. Ha, they certainly fancy the same sort of eyewear and hats! I'm not entirely sure know why, but this Onetti photo always reminds me of a cross between the two movie versions of The Fly (prob. something to do with the big eyes and the big glasses).

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