I don’t even remember what it was that led to me read Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot around 1970. It was a Penguin paperback with a cover illustration of the last chapter’s funeral scene at Père Lachaise cemetery in muted colors. The scene, quoted below, showed the book’s young hero Eugène de Rastignac, poor scion of a good family, seeing the virtually unattended obsequies of an old man, who, like King Lear, gave everything to his daughters. Except there was no Cordelia in this tale:
But just as the coffin was put in the hearse, two empty carriages, with the armorial bearings of the Comte de Restaud and the Baron de Nucingen, arrived and followed in the procession to Père-Lachaise. At six o’clock Goriot’s coffin was lowered into the grave, his daughters’’ servants standing round the while. The ecclesiastic recited the short prayer that the students could afford to pay for, and then both priest and lackeys disappeared at once. The two grave diggers flung in several spadefuls of earth, and then stopped and asked Rastignac for their fee. Eugène felt in vain in his pocket, and was obliged to borrow five francs of Christophe. This thing, so trifling in itself, gave Rastignac a terrible pang of distress. It was growing dusk, the damp twilight fretted his nerves; he gazed down into the grave and the tears he shed were drawn from him by the sacred emotion, a single-hearted sorrow. When such tears fall on earth, their radiance reaches heaven. And with that tear that fell on Father Goriot’s grave, Eugène Rastignac’s youth ended. He folded his arms and gazed at the clouded sky; and Christophe, after a glance at him, turned and went—Rastignac was left alone.
He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently:
“Henceforth there is war between us.”
And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen.
At the time, I was only about 25 years old myself, and I felt myself, like de Rastignac, to be a creature of destiny. The years have shown that I was deluding myself, but that wasn’t Balzac’s fault.
Over the years, Balzac has continued to cast his spell on me. By now, I have read virtually everything Balzac published under his own name, as well as two works written under the pseudonym Horace de Saint-Aubin. I am a member of a reading group dedicated to Balzac under Yahoo!—a group which at one time read and discussed all of the author’s books over a period of several years.
Interestingly, Balzac is a rare example of a great writer who is not a consistently good writer. He was remarkably slapdash about composing and editing his works, yet he always entranced the reader by the breadth of his imagination which, to this day, has never been approached by any other writer, not even Marcel Proust. He is like a candle burning at both ends, a creature of soaring ambition, poor spending habits, and a remarkable understanding of how people interact in what is a material world. At his worst, he is a tedious dimestore philosopher in Seraphita and the second half of Louis Lambert.
Ah, but at his best, he is sublime. Even when all the pieces don’t add up, the following works are among the most powerful works ever penned:
- The Wild Ass’s Skin (1831)
- Colonel Chabert (1832)
- Père Goriot (1835), his masterpiece
- Lost Illusions (1843)
- Cousin Bette (1846)
- Cousin Pons (1847)
- A Harlot High and Low (1847)
If you have a Kindle or other e-reading device, you can pick up Balzac’s complete work, translated into English, for free or for mere pennies. And be sure to visit La Comédie Humaine by Balzac, which was put together by members of the Yahoo! Balzac group, and which includes dozens of reviews and summaries written by me and others.