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Penguins on Parade: Old Goriot!

By (May 3, 2013) No Comment

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Some Penguin Classics – in fact, perhaps a good deal more than we like to tell ourselves – enshrine books that aren’t really ‘classics’ at all, or ought not to be. This problem – if you view it as a problem, which I tend to – has been hugely exacerbated in the last twenty years by the howling blight of cultural relativism (Christy Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch, which had to be heavily ghostwritten just to get it to the level of semi-literate, has just been so enshrined in the Penguin Classic line, and I, Rigoberta Menchu can’t have long to wait), but it’s always been a minefield for any publisher wanting to clothe their scruples in a little warm, fashionable lucre. The so-called common reader feels the kindred impulse all the time: the impulse to elevate what he likes to what’s good. It’s an impulse that should be strongly resisted (you will never see me calling for Penguin Classics of The Price of the Phoenix, or Red Dragon or The Illearth War), and don’t we all feel a queasy touch of it, when we see a Penguin Classic of The Prince and the Pauper, or Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, or The Last of the Mohicans?

penguin old goriotStill, the forces of multi-culturalism and the grindstoning of academe will have their way, and things reach a state where it’s no longer even permissible to speak of certain books as ‘really enjoyable trash,’ since they’ve been raised to the literary firmament for a century and have been studied in school by hundreds of thousands of luckless teenage drug addicts. If you say of such books, “Look, these are very enjoyable to read, I grant you, but if you call them ‘classics’ in the same sense as La Vita Nuova or The House of Mirth, you’re stretching ‘classics’ to the point where it becomes meaningless,” you’ll be sneered out of the room. Maybe that’s just; maybe “classics” are, in the end, books that survive in spite of themselves.

Such is surely the case with the 5,678 books dashed off by Honore Balzac during his lifetime (some under made-up names, the brute), and it certainly applies to what may be the most famous of all his books to English-speaking audiences, Le Pere Goriot, written in 1834 just as its author was contracting the always-fatal writerly disease of taking himself seriously. In the grip of this malady, he’d already begun thinking of his headlong potboilers as one huge interconnected work, a study of mankind, gawd help us all, that he with a straight face started calling the Comedie humaine. In Old Goriot, he sets up some term paper-ready contrasting characters around his central figure, the meek and doting father Goriot, who’s spoiled his two daughters to the point where they seethe with contempt for him (and he eventually, just for one moment, seethes with contempt for himself as well). While the daughters are making good marriages to bad men, we also follow the adventures of parvenu young man from the provinces Eugene Rastignac as he strives to worm his way into the glittering upper classes, tutored in part by the charismatic criminal Vautrin.

The Penguin Classic that presents all this overheated foie gras to the English-speaking world is the 1951 translation by M. A. Crawford, and she does a very sound job and has already sworn fidelity to her dark lord:

Balzac’s psychological observations are of extreme acuteness and penetration, and all that the science of psychology has discovered in its immense advances in the hundred years since Balzac’s death has done nothing to invalidate them. Of course Balzac was here proceeding not by the careful piling up of evidence, hypothesis and verification of the scientist, but by the intuitive knowledge of human nature and flashes of insight of the novelist, which when the novelist is a genius is a much swifter and not less sure method. It is a measure of the authenticity of the characters he creates that conclusions drawn from them are felt to be so valid. One never for one moment feels that they are puppets set up to demonstrate the truth of his theories.

There’s hardly a scrap of truth in that passage – psychology, lacking disprovability, isn’t a science and certainly hasn’t made any immense advances in the last century; Balzac’s characters hardly show any insight or penetration at all; one feels constantly that every character in all of his books is a puppet set up to demonstrate whatever crackpot theory was uppermost in his mind that morning, etc. (Crawford also, when talking about Old Goriot’s long opening description of Madame Vauquer’s boading house, baldly states “No novel ever had its setting more exactly visualized” – which takes quite a bit of gumption to claim if you’ve ever read The Return of the Native). But when our translator tells us “There is no possibility of sitting back to read Balzac in a lazy, half-awake fashion,” she’s being nothing but honest. It’s the saving charm of virtually all Balzac’s books: they’re consummately, almost lucy reads balzachysterically headstrong. If you set one well-intentioned foot onto their slopes, you’re off.

Balzac is also boffo at endings, and he never wrote one better than the one he gives us on the last page of Old Goriot. The old man has died at last, and only poor furtive conflicted Rastignac is present at his grave. He sheds one melodramatic tear and then turns away from the innocence of his youth. It’s all predictable and simple stuff, and Balzac plays it for all its worth:

Then, left alone, Rastignac walked a few steps to the highest part of the cemetery, and saw Paris spread out below on both banks of the winding Seine. Lights were beginning to twinkle here and there. His gaze fixed almost avidly upon the space that lay between the column of the Place Vendome and the dome of the Invalides; there lay the splendid world that he had wished to gain. He eyed that humming hive with a look that foretold his despoilation, as if he already felt on his lips the sweetness of its honey, and said with superb defiance,

“It’s war between us now!”

That rendition of “A nous deux, maintenant!” is, in its unabashed ham, worthy of the master. So who knows? Maybe after all fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.