Pere Goriot

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac (Jimcin Recordings, 1994). I typically work out about an hour a day and spend another half hour or so in the car – so I’m a big consumer of audiobooks and a grateful customer of Audible.com , which runs a marvelous website of downloadable contemporary and classic fiction and nonfiction.

Audiobooks are a tricky commodity. You have to worry not only about the quality of the book and the translation, but also of the quality of the reading and the recording. And when you’re choosing books to listen to while pounding an elliptical machine, you have to go for strong storyline and straightforward style. I turned in some of my worst performances of the year while listening to Dubliners.

Balzac meets the workout test. I’m told he was Karl Marx’s favorite novelist, and if that is not true, it should be. Balzac is obsessed with money, status, and the dangerous trinity of choices offered to the ambitious young by 19th century France: “submission, revolt, or struggle” – “struggle” meaning an amoral campaign of personal self-advancement.

I first encountered Pere Goriot in a college French literature course a quarter century ago. Listening to it anew, I found myself thinking hard about why it is that modern France – modern societies generally – cannot seem to produce novels that matter in the way that Balzac’s novels mattered to his time (and still resonate in ours).

Let me try a theory:

The 19th century was a period in which different classes of people were coming more closely into contact with one another – and becoming more curious about one another. Pere Goriot for example traverses Paris from a shabby genteel lodging house to the ballroom of a great aristocrat. Goriot begins life as a journeyman baker, becomes a wealthy grain speculator, and marries one of his daughters to a count and another to a banker. The novel’s true protagonist, Eugene de Rastignac, is the son of an impoverished nobleman from southern France in Paris to study law. He becomes the lover of one of Goriot’s rich daughters; in later novels he will appear as a successful businessman, a patron of the arts, and ultimately a cabinet minister. Balzac moved in enough of these worlds to describe all of them with the ring of truth.

By contrast, so much contemporary fiction rings false, even when the details are painstakingly reported. I suffered a couple of years ago through Jane Smiley’s novel about evils of real estate and capitalism 1980s style, Good Faith. The woman did her homework! Dozens of pages about zoning, bylaws, financing …. all of it exhaustingly accurate … not a moment in which you felt the shock of reality that you can still feel in Balzac’s account of what it felt like to arrive at the door of a great house by foot rather than by carriage. Balzac was at least as disgusted by postrevolutionary France as Smiley was by Reagan’s America – but not so revolted that he hid himself away from the world on some college campus where he could spend all day every day with people exactly like himself; not so revolted that he substituted cartooning for writing.

Balzac’s France was an aristocratic society becoming steadily more egalitarian; we live in an egalitarian society that is becoming less so. Could it be that as the classes separate, they lose curiosity about each other – and become more readily satisfied by fantasy and caricature? Or could it be that the great modern masters of the 20th century taught too many of our writers to look for their material within themselves – but that unlike Joyce, Mann, and Proust, they cannot find enough there to entertain anybody but themselves?

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