Father Goriot (Le Père Goriot)
The Unconscious Humorists (Les Comédiens sans le savoir)
Parisians in the Country: Gaudissart the Great (Les Parisiens en province: L’illustre Gaudissart)
Le Père Goriot perhaps deserves to be ranked as that one of Balzac’s novels which has united the greatest number of suffrages, and which exhibits his peculiar merits, not indeed without any of his faults, but with the merits in eminent, and the faults not in glaring, degree. It was written (the preface is dated 1834) at the time when his genius was at its very height, when it had completely burst the strange shell which had so long enveloped and cramped it, when the scheme of the Comédie Humaine was not quite finally settled (it never was that), but elaborated to a very considerable extent, when the author had already acquired most of the knowledge of the actual world which he possessed, and when his physical powers were as yet unimpaired by his enormous labor and his reckless disregard of “burning the candle at both ends.” Although it exhibits, like nearly all his work, the complication of interest and scheme which was almost a necessity in him, that complication is kept within reasonable bounds, and managed with wonderful address. The history of Goriot and his daughters, the fortunes of Eugène de Rastignac, and the mysterious personality and operations of Vautrin, not only all receive due and unperplexed development, but work upon each other with that correspondence and interdependence which form the rarest gift of the novelist, and which, when present, too commonly have attached to them the curse of over-minuteness and complexity. No piece of Balzac’s Dutch painting is worked out with such marvelous minuteness as the Pension Vauquer, and hardly any book of his has more lifelike studies of character.
It would, however, not be difficult to find books with an almost, if not quite, equal accumulation of attractions, which have somehow failed to make the mark that has been made by Le Père Goriot. And the practiced critic of novels knows perfectly well why this is. It is almost invariably, and perhaps quite invariably, because there is no sufficiently central interest, or because that interest is not of the broadly human kind. Had Goriot had no daughters, he would undoubtedly have been a happier man (or a less happy, for it is possible to take it both ways); but the history of his decadence and death never could have been such a good novel. It is because this history of the daughters – not exactly unnatural, not wholly without excuse, but as surely murderesses of their father as Goneril and Regan – at once unites and overshadows the whole, because of its intensity, its simple and suasive appeal, that Le Père Goriot holds the place it does hold. That it owes something in point of suggestion to Lear does not in the least impair its claims. The circumstances and treatment have that entire difference which, when genius is indebted to genius, pays all the score there is at once. And besides, Lear has offered its motives for three hundred years to thousands and millions of people who have been writing plays and novels, and yet there is only one Père Goriot.
It is, however, a fair subject of debate for those who like critical argument of the nicer kind, whether Balzac has or has not made a mistake in representing the ex-dealer in flowery compounds as a sort of idiot outside his trade abilities and his love for his daughters. That in doing so he was guided by a sense of poetical justice and consistency – the same sense which made Shakespeare dwell on the ungovernable temper and the undignified haste to get rid of the cares of sovereignty that bring on and justify the woes of Lear – is undeniable. But it would perhaps not have been unnatural, and it would have been even more tragic, if the ci-devant manufacturer had been represented as more intellectually capable, and as ruining himself in spite of his better judgment. On this point, however, both sides may be held with equal ease and cogency, and I do not decide either way. Of the force and pathos of the actual representation, no two opinions are possible. There is hardly a touch of the one fault which can be urged against Balzac very often with some, and sometimes with very great, justice – the fault of exaggeration and phantasmagoric excess. Here at least the possibilities of actual life, as translatable into literature, are not one whit exceeded; and the artist has his full reward for being true to art.
Almost equally free from the abnormal and the gigantic is the portraiture of Rastignac. Even those who demur to the description of Balzac as a impeccable chronicler of society must admit the extraordinary felicity of the pictures of the young man’s introduction to the drawing-rooms of Mesdames de Restaud and de Beauséant Neither Fielding nor Thackeray – that is to say, no one else in the world of letters – could have drawn with more absolute vividness and more absolute veracity a young man, not a parvenu in point of birth, not devoid of native cleverness and “star,” but hampered by the consciousness of poverty and by utter ignorance of the actual ways and current social fashions of the great world when he is first thrown, to sink or swim, into this great world itself. We may pass from the certain to the dubious, or at least the debatable, when we pass from Rastignac’s first appearance to his later experiences. Here comes in what has been said in the general introduction as to the somewhat fantastic and imaginary, the conventional and artificial character of Balzac’s world. But it must be remembered that for centuries the whole structure of Parisian society has been to a very great extent fantastic and imaginary, conventional and artificial. Men and women have always played parts there as they have played them nowhere else. And it must be confessed that some of the parts here, if planned to the stage, are played to the life – that of Madame de Beauséant especially.
It is Vautrin on whom Balzac’s decriers, if they are so hardy as to attack this most unattackable book of his at all, must chiefly fasten. It was long ago noticed – indeed, sober eyes both in France and elsewhere noticed it at the time – that the criminal, more or less virtuous, more or less terrible, more or less superhuman, exercised a kind of sorcery over minds in France from the greatest to the least at this particular time, and even later. Not merely Balzac, but Victor Hugo and George Sand, succumbed to his fascinations; and after these three names it is quite unnecessary to mention any others. And Balzac’s proneness to the enormous and gigantesque made the fascination peculiarly dangerous in his case. Undoubtedly the Vautrin who talks to Rastignac in the arbor is neither quite a real man nor quite the same man who is somewhat ignominiously caught by the treachery of his boarding-house fellows; undoubtedly we feel that with him we have left Shakespeare a long way behind and are getting rather into the society of Bouchard or Eugène Sue. But the genius is here likewise, and as usual, it saves everything.
How it extends to the minutest and even the least savory details of Madame Vauquer’s establishment, how it irradiates the meannesses and the sordidnesses of the inhabitants thereof, those who have read know, and those who are about to read this new presentation in English will find. Let it only be repeated, that if the rarest and strangest charms which Balzac can produce are elsewhere, nowhere else is his charm presented in a more pervading and satisfactory manner.
Le Père Goriot originally appeared as a book in 1835, published by Werdet and Spahmann in two volumes. It had, however, appeared serially in the Revue de Paris during the previous winter. The first and some subsequent editions had seven chapter-divisions, six of them headed. These, according to Balzac’s usual practice, were swept away when the book became, in 1843, part of the Scènes de la Vie Parisienne and the Comédie itself. The transference to the Vie Privée which is accomplished in the édition definitive was only executed in accordance with notes found after Balzac’s death, and is far from happy, the book being essentially Parisian.
Les Comédiens sans le savoir seems to me one of the best and most amusing of what may be called (though it might also be called by a dozen other names) the Bixiou cycle of stories, in which journalism, art, provincials in Paris, young persons of the other sex with more beauty than morals, and so forth, play a somewhat artificial but often amusing series of scenes and characters. In this particular division of the series the satire is happy, the adventures are agreeably Arabian-Nightish with a modern adjustment, the central figure of the Southern Gazonal is good in itself, and an excellent rallying-point for the others, and the good-natured mystification played off on him is a pleasant dream. I think, indeed, that there is little doubt that the late Mr. Stevenson took his idea of “New Arabian Nights” from Balzac, of whom he was an unwearied student, and I do not know that Balzac was ever happier in his “Parisian Nights,” as we may call them, than here. The artists and the actresses, the corn-cutters and the fortune-tellers, the politicians, the moneylenders, the furnishers of garments, and all the rest, appear and disappear in an easy phantasmagoric fashion, which Balzac’s expression does not always achieve except when his imagination is at a white heat not easily excited by such slight matter as this. The way in which the excellent Gazonal is forced to recognize the majesty of the capital may not be in exact accordance with the views of the grave and precise, but it is a pleasant fairy tale, and there is nothing so good as a fairy tale.
Les Comédiens sans le savoir appeared in the Courrier Francais during April 1846, and shortly thereafter found its way into the Comédie. But in 1848 it did outpost duty, with some other short stories, as Le Provincial à Paris. There are some interesting minor details as its variants which must be sought in M. de Lovenjoul.
I have sometimes wondered whether it was accident or intention which made Balzac so frequently combine early and late work in the same volume. The question is certainly insoluble, and perhaps not worth solving, but it presents itself once more in the present instance. L’Illustre Gaudissart is a story of 1832, the very heyday of Balzac’s creative period, when even his pen could hardly keep up with the abundance of his fancy and the gathered stores of his minute observation. La Muse du Département* dates ten years and more later, when, though there was plenty of both left, both sacks had been deeply dipped into.
* The second and final section of Les Parisiens en Province: but since the two stories are unconnected, La Muse du Departement has been reserved for another volume.
L’Illustre Gaudissart is, of course, slight, not merely in bulk, but in conception Balzac’s Tourangeau patriotism may have amused itself by the idea of the villagers “rolling” the great Gaudissart; but the ending of the tale can hardly be thought to be quite so good as the beginning. Still, that beginning is altogether excellent. The sketch of the commis-voyageur generally smacks of that physiologie style of which Balzac was so fond; but it is good, and Gaudissart himself, as well as the whole scene with his épouse libre, is delightful. The Illustrious One was evidently a favorite character with his creator. He nowhere plays a very great part; but it is everywhere a rather favorable and, except in this little mishap with Margaritis (which, it must be observed, does not turn entirely to his discomfiture), a rather successful part. We have him in César Birotteau superintending the early efforts of Popinot to launch the Huile Céphalique. He was present at the great ball. He served as intermediary to M. de Bauvan in the merciful scheme of buying at fancy prices the handiwork of the Count’s faithful spouse, and so providing her with a livelihood; and later as a theatrical manager, a little spoilt by his profession, we find him in Le Cousin Pons. But he is always with the French called a “good devil,” and here he is a very good devil indeed.
The history of L’Illustre Gaudissart is, for a story of Balzac’s, almost null. It was inserted without any previous newspaper appearance in the first edition of Scènes de la Vie de Province in 1833, and entered with the rest of them into the first edition also of the Comédie, when the joint title, which it has kept since and shared with La Muse du Département, of Les Parisiens en Province was given to it.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.