Lee's Reviews > Old Goriot

Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
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Apr 14, 2011

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Read in September, 2011

It's good to study up on the history of the novel -- this one's apparently a founding father. Maybe if I'd read it with nothing to do for a week my experience would've been different, but I was too often distracted to commit to the concerns of early-19th century Paris. As such, my feelings about this one are mixed, like with Stendhal's The Red and the Black last year.

I love the expository jags, the proclamations about the behavior of all young men, all women in Paris. The essayistic asides seem perfectly phrased, always calling for enthusiastic dog-earing, as though I'll one day find on the page the bit of wisdom that struck me the first time through. I'd love to read essays by Balzac, or even a collection of insights into human nature culled from his hundred million novels. Sometimes I was reminded of that bit in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto where David Shields comes clean and says he thinks novels are life-support systems for eloquent articulation of wisdom/theme.

I often sort of muddled through the dramatization, not always sure who was who and what was happening where. (The names/surnames of too many characters start with "V" for me?) Reading this, it became real clear how much we modern readers (ie, "I") rely on chapter breaks and white space between sections or at least clear transitions between scenes. In this, once a scene ends, in the next paragraph a character is propelled across Paris by no more than a hard return. This sort of thing requires an attention I might not always have paid, in part because I wasn't so engaged in the young social climber's upwardly mobile quest? The title character's unconditional love for his daughters is undeniably moving, and maybe also more cloying than Balzac's statements that it's Christ-like. But his daughters I didn't see nearly as well -- and if you don't see someone so well that character is pretty much screwed since being seen by readers gives characters a heartbeat and breath.

So: Loved the wisdom zingers throughout, liked the two major male characters, thought less of minor characters (even Cheat-Death), wasn't so engaged by the plot, and wasn't always sure what was going down in the dramatized bits. Seven stars for the expository jags, but maybe 3.25 stars overall, with respect for the writer's perception and humility for my abilities as a distractable 21st century reader.
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