...the power of detached, objective analysis, and the intensest emotional sympathy with the object of his analysis." The subject quote was made by Marion Ayton Crawford, who not only translated one of Balzac's most essential novels into English, but also wrote a valuable introduction to this work in 1950. I like the look and feel of the "Penguin Classics" versions of great literature, and the fact that a few pages are utilized for meaningful introductions as opposed to the growing trend among publishers to produce the most stripped-down version of the classics, with almost non-existent margins. Crawford makes a few other noteworthy points, including the fact that the women of Balzac's day formed a large part of his enthusiastic public since he took up cudgels on their behalf. And concerning the novel as a whole, she says: "...he remarks how rare true love is, as rare as true charity, both the highest form of generosity."
Honoré de Balzac set this novel in the period of the Bourbon restoration; that is, a period of sought normalcy just after the quarter century of turmoil caused first by the French Revolution, and then followed by the militarism and empire of Napoleon. In ways, it was similar to the `20's in the United States, where the much milder impact of World War I was likewise actively forgotten.
The story commences in 1819. The setting is Paris where a mean-spirited, petty woman, Madame Vauquer, runs a boarding house. Balzac focuses on the stories of three of the boarders, each on very different life-trajectories. There is "Old Goriot," himself, nearing the end of his life, retired from a successful career as a vermicelli merchant, growing more impoverished by the day, and is the butt of jokes from the other boarders. There is Eugène de Rastignac, a young, poor student from the south of France, trying to learn the rules of the society of the Bourbon restoration, so that he can "make his mark," and obtain a "position" that would have been impossible under the Ancien Regime. And there is Vautrin, a harden criminal, and sometimes tutor of Eugène.
Almost 200 years latter, Balzac's novel is still most relevant; he helped establish a style of searing realism, and his view of society and the human condition is bleak. Consider some of the advice de Rastignac receives on how to succeed in society: "Regard men and women only as you do post-horses that you will leave worn out at every stage, and so you shall arrive at the goal of your desires." Or, "...don't stick any more firmly to your opinions than to your work. When you are asked for them, sell them." Concerning the human condition, Balzac observes, as it eventually took me a long time to realize, concerning Madame Vauquer: "...but she was like many people who are on their guard against those nearest to them and blindly confide in the first stranger that comes along." Or consider an observation on the nature of seduction and love itself: "The desire to conquer is as quickly aroused by the easiness of a triumph as by its difficulty: these two incentives excite or sustain every human passion and divide love's empire between them." Other aphorisms have their derivation in this novel, including: "Temptations can be got rid of." "By yielding to them." And the eternal truth, most nearly: "Behind every great fortune is a great crime."
The denouement is heart-breaking, as Old Goriot continues to sacrifice and impoverish himself, all in his devotion to his two daughters, Delphine and Anastasie. His love for them is unrequited, to say the least; it is a stunning and cautionary tale for those who sacrifice too much for their totally self-absorbed children. Balzac concludes with a well-earned swipe at the Church: "The two priests, the choir-boy and the beadle came and said and did all one could expect them to for seventy francs in an age when the Church is not rich enough to pray for nothing."
I recently read Anita Brookner's The Debut concerning a young woman who decides to specialize on Balzac in the academic world. It would be an excellent accompaniment to this book. Even read as a stand alone, 200 years along, it remains a 5-star read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on August 02, 2010)