Balzac: City, Country & Speculation in Le Pere Goriot

I enjoyed Father Goriot more than I thought I would.

Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering; but, then, Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature. The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.

Reading this rush of French literature I realised just how anglocentric I had become when it came to anything written over a hundred years ago — particularly in the 1800s, I was too busy reading Dickens there for a while.

There is so much to explore here, not least exciting (well, actually, to my mind it was the least exciting) being the story itself. It’s a good enough story and after so many depressing and ‘realistic’ novels (I just finished something by Zola, my god), I confess I loved being told up front that everything ended happy ever after, though you never see it all work out. I was rather fascinated that seeing how it all works out had quite a nice amount of dramatic tension. Zola has a dig at melodrama, though this was also published in serial form in 1834-35 (note to self to look more into publishing forms) it has the feel of something written as a whole. This is before The Mysteries of Paris, so he’s not talking about that when he writes:

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over.

I feel that this sentence still holds true. Funny that.

Perhaps what I liked most is that, like Dickens, this is a window on a physical world long disappeared, and Paris is revealed in an immensity of detail that engages all of the senses:

Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color, are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

In a way I think those of us without the walls of Paris might enjoy it more as we an enter another place and another way of life and we are not trapped there like so many of the protagonists. The centre of the story is this boarding house, the lives of those on the edges of most desperate poverty that are still called middle-class — it is descriptions like this that make me realise just how far everyday life for most of us has come, the comforts we take for granted. But this is class and city as prison:

PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)
PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE
Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer’s own property. It is still standing in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l’Arbalete, that wheeled traffic seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas.

In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die, and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things, the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases, and the cicerone’s droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human hearts?

Yet still, for all this value-laden description, this place is still far more closely tied to the country than any city I know of today. This too I find fascinating, thinking not just about food chains and how we sustain ourselves, but also perceptions of things:

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce, pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast eggs even in the shade.

Imagine this written today, in terms of celebration of fresh, organic and local produce, self-sufficiency, lowered carbon footprints. But wait, there’s more:

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain of pestilence.

It’s like a little city farm, this lodging house. In comparison with my own lodging it seems potentially idyllic once I strip Balzac’s adjectives away. Though I suppose it might have been fairly ripe, especially in the summer.

I cease to feel that so strongly when we venture inside — I love this description of smell, always so evocative of a kind of place, joining different buildings together in the imagination:

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the odeur de pension. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and scullery and the reek of a hospital.

In short, there is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

Meet it’s owner — and the brilliance of this disagreeable little description:

She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes.

This is the world inhabited by those trying to emerge from poverty into the world up above, and those on the opposite trajectory, sinking tragically down. The world of the renter, at the mercy of others and unsupported by property. Perhaps that is the defining sadness of this place, the flow of transience, hopes, more often illness and despair. This is a place though, where I’d love to be able to jump back in time, experience, decide for myself.

I’d like also to meet the cat Mistigris.

It’s a fictional road of course, but there is a whole website dedicated to finding Balzac’s Paris I’d like to return to.

Apart from the relationship between home and food and renting and owning and sustainability, there is a later fascinating section in here about the forces moving to destroy places just such as this and reshape the whole of the city. Here is Madame Nucingen explaining the nature of her vile husband’s work:

Do you know what he means by speculations? He buys up land in his own name, then he finds men of straw to run up houses upon it. These men make a bargain with a contractor to build the houses, paying them by bills at long dates; then in consideration of a small sum they leave my husband in possession of the houses, and finally slip through the fingers of the deluded contractors by going into bankruptcy. The name of the firm of Nucingen has been used to dazzle the poor contractors. I saw that. I noticed, too, that Nucingen had sent bills for large amounts to Amsterdam, London, Naples, and Vienna, in order to prove if necessary that large sums had been paid away by the firm. How could we get possession of those bills?

What a novel this is for an urbanist, though I know I am among many to mine its treasures as David Harvey’s book on Paris has a whole chapter on Balzac. Still, for my own pleasure there is more to come.

For more on writing cities…

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