I believe it is possible to be very glad I read a book and yet still not really like it. I read not just for entertainment but for broader perspective.
Reading Balzac certainly gave me a different perspective. In a sense, it’s kind of a mix between Dumas (humorous exaggeration) and Zola (heart-breaking realism). Honoré de Balzac, who wrote Père Goriot in the 1830s, is named the “father of realism” and this book seems an apt precursor to Zola’s sagas (one of which I read earlier this year).
Père Goriot is not a book I’ll label as a favorite. It was overly dramatic and yet full of humor that I didn’t find funny. But beyond the writing, I simply didn’t like the story and failed to seriously care about any of the characters. I wanted to care. I wanted to overly moved as Balzac warned in the beginning that I would be:
you who sink down in your soft easy chair, saying to yourself: Maybe this book is going to be fun. And then, after you’ve read all about Père Goriot’s miserable secrets, you’ll have yourself a good dinner and blame your indifference on the author, scolding him for exaggeration, accusing him of having waxed poetic. Ah, but let me tell you: this drama is not fictional, it’s not a novel. All is true – so true you’ll be able to recognize everything that goes into it in your own life, perhaps even in your own heart. (page 6)
Balzac succeeded in writing of universal things, but as we discussed in our book group, it’s a somewhat negative portrayal of human nature. In Père Goriot, Balac depicts a young man (Eugéne de Rastignac) who will do anything to get to the top of society. At times, he seems to struggle to balance his upbringing with the questionable activities he seeks after. Yet, for the most part, it seemed to me that Eugéne was abandoning and using his mother, even as he was upset with Goriot’s daughters for abandoning and using their father. What a negative view of humanity to equate Eugéne’s desire for power to the politicians and business people today who likewise abandon family for positions of prestige! Yet, such is Balzac’s point.
Not all humanity is power-grubbing and selfish. The sweet scenes between Eugéne and the old man are precious, and I did get rather chocked up towards the end. But even Goriot was a man who had cheated his fellows during the years of the Revolution, spoiled his daughters, and lived for a powerful life (not that he succeeded). In some respects, his miserable end seemed to me what he deserved. But that makes me sound rather heartless.
I read this for my classics book club, and we had a great discussion Wednesday night. Will I be reading more Balzac? Probably not. But I’m glad I read this and could discuss it with a book club.
I read the Norton Critical Edition, translated by Burton Raffel. I loved the translation: it was easy to read and yet had a depth of writing that the other I tried (Henry Reed) didn’t have. While I didn’t read much of the end matter, that which I did read was very interesting.
Have you read Balzac? Do you like his “realistic” portrayal of society?