Sunday, December 29, 2013


Without really intending to, I seem to be following the course of the French novel in reverse chronological order, which, if you ignore the niceties of causation and the direction in which time is actually understood to flow, yields such discoveries as the recognition of Flaubert's Frédéric as the model for Balzac's Rastignac and the profound influence of the extended deathbed sequence in Roger Martin du Gard's la Mort du père (Book VI of The Thibaults) on the identically titled final section of le Père Goriot.

This is a curious book, one that could just as well have been entitled Rastignac, since it devotes at least as much attention to the ambitious young social climber from the provinces as it does to the pathologically doting father who divests himself of a considerable fortune, and thus dies penniless and unmourned, in order to satisfy the whims of his two shallow and disastrously married daughters. Among the other characters are Vautrin, Rastignac's voluble fellow boarder in the pension of Mme. Vauquer, who is improbably unmasked as a criminal mastermind, arrested, and then largely forgotten, the pathetic Victorine, who is smitten with Rastignac but simply disappears from the novel's pages as soon as she is poised to inherit a fortune, and Bianchon, the young medical student obviously modeled (again, disregarding chronology) on Martin du Gard's Antoine Thibault. Some of these eccentricities can no doubt be set down to the manner in which Balzac constructed the overall scheme of la Comédie humaine, in which many characters reappear in various of the component novels; but all of these difficulties are dispelled when one recognizes that the true protagonist of the novel is money, the pursuit of which and (especially) squandering of which is revealed as the true source of agency in human affairs.

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