Wouldn’t it be fun to know how many library books circulate without ever getting read? I haven’t had a library card in 25 years so I’m just getting used to the new freedom of choice that lets me bring books home and dip into them for free. Last week’s haul was eclectic: a Tracy Chevalier novel, a volume of Chekhov novellas, and Pere Goriot. I only finished one of the Chekhov tales but the Balzac was lots of fun, in a literature-geek way. Which is to say that I enjoyed reading it, but a great deal of my pleasure involved books connected to Pere Goriot rather than the book actually in my hand. What I did cherish was the detail of the settings and atmosphere. Balzac is generous with descriptions of the world his characters live in, from the squalor of certain neighborhoods in 1819 Paris to the enameled monogram on a gold Bréguet watch.
It turns out that Pere Goriot was published in the mid-1830s and was one of the first full-length novels that falls into Balzac’s immense series called la Comédie humaine. It has a number of important features that narrative culture still takes advantage of. One is the prototypical French character of the young-man-from-the-provinces who arrives in Paris eager to make the city its own. In this case, he’s Eugene de Rastignac, from minor nobility, poor, handsome and charming but above all, ambitious. Balzac retooled him as Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions and Dumas gave him a rapier and called him d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. Zola uses the trope over and over again, as does Maupassant.
Of course you know what they say: that there are only two stories, “A man goes on a voyage” or “A stranger comes to town,” and this is the former. Eugene is all potential — he has no present when the book begins. Just his restrained provincial past and the future which he must choose. Balzac sets out two paths for him, embodied in the two older men living at the shabby Maison Vauquer, a Left Bank boarding house. In one corner is our titular Pere Goriot, a retired manufacturer of vermicelli, who has sacrificed everything for his two beautiful daughters. (The specificity of “vermicelli” is typical of Balzac.) In the other is Monsieur Vautrin, a mysterious figure of titanic energy who tries to lure Eugene into a profitable arranged marriage. Yes, actually, he probably is the devil: Balzac gives him great lines like, “… there are no principles, just things that happen; there are no laws, either, just circumstances.” When another character calls him a prophet, he answers, “I am anything and everything.” Oh, that Balzac, what a cynic!
The narrative tension hovers around Eugene’s choice, and Balzac leaves the outcome open. Only in later books do we meet Eugene de Rastignac as a powerful and worldly Parisian figure. Vautrin comes back, too, to reprise his role of tempter and fixer. This trick of working with recurring characters over an extended narrative was another Balzacian innovation. Actually, I think that means “Downton Abbey” is directly descended from Pere Goriot.