Tuesday, October 4, 2016
I caught a whiff of the Vancouver of today in Honore de Balzac's Old Man Goriot, a portrayal of Paris in the early 1800s. Vancouver has its extremes of rich and poor, with the drug-ridden misery of the Downtown Eastside just blocks from multimillion-dollar oceanview condos offering every luxury imaginable. Post-revolution Paris had Madame Vauquer's wretched boarding house for the city's failures, as well as glittering ballrooms and palaces for rich aristocrats who were thriving again after escaping the guillotine.
"Money is life. If you have cash, you can do anything," says Monsieur Goriot, a once-wealthy merchant whose two daughters leave him to poverty and death after he gives them all his money for dowries so they can join Paris's high society.
Goriot's fate is one strand of the novel; the other is the efforts of handsome young law student Eugene Rastignac to climb into high society through his wits and looks -- using one of Goriot's daughters for the purpose. Rastignac's impoverished but noble rural family gives him 1,200 francs a year to live on; he needs 25,000 to join the aristocrats in their games.
Ambition, greed, crime, duels, love affairs -- what's not to enjoy about this book, the first Balzac I've ever read? Detailed and textured, it's as relevant in today's consumer-oriented society with its extremes of wealth and poverty as the day it was written. Even better is the fact that it's one of about 100 books written by Balzac, reusing many characters, as part of a grand scheme to portray every aspect of his tumultuous society. He called it The Human Comedy. I call it a guarantee I will never run out of reading material.
Here are a couple of excerpts, relating to Madame Vauquer's boarding house and its tenants:
"Our language has no name for the odour given off by this first room, which ought to be called 'essence of boarding house.' It smells of all that is stale, mildewy, rancid; it chills you, makes your nose run, clings to your clothes; it repeats like last night's dinner; it reeks of the scullery, the pantry, the poorhouse."
[The lodgers had] "cold, hard faces, as worn as ecu coins withdrawn from circulation. Their thin lips concealed greedy teeth. Each lodger's appearance hinted at a tragedy, either fully played-out, or in progress...."