Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835

This was the July selection for the Great Books group. I read the original French as an epub first and then the translation by A. J. Krailsheimer in paper, so the latter is what I flagged for quotes. My reading French is still very good (I was bilingual as a kid and went through the French school system all the way through high school, but my oral French is pretty lousy now), but I knew I would still miss some context and I always like being able to compare to the translation. This one is very good! The only strange thing I noticed was “plump as a presbytery cat” for “dodue comme un rat d’├ęglise” (literally “plump as a church rat”), which presumably was to avoid the confusing analogy with “poor as a church mouse.” It sounds like the connotation in Balzac is supposed to be more metaphorical: a civil employee of a parish, ie sort of feathering her own bed?

It was an interesting combination of social commentary—Rastignac experiencing the various levels of society—with a Lear-ish family drama of father spoiling ungrateful daughters, but to me overall too sentimental and exaggerated to feel real, without the saving humor and passion of a Dickens. A delightful, truly modern-feeling bit was the lodgers’ faddish appendage of “-rama” to various words, which made a strong contrast with the horrific 19th century medicine (Goriot on his death-bed being tortured with mustard plasters and moxibustion).

I guess this is going to be the norm for my book club entries: ending with the dump of quotes! (although it’s is only a subset of what I originally flagged)

…he finally lay down and slept like a log. For every ten nights that young men pledge themselves to work, they spend seven asleep. You need to be over 20 to stay awake.

Vautrin, the voice of the non-respectable outsider:

“Those who get spattered in their carriages are respectable people, those who do so on foot are rogues. Just have the bad luck to pinch something or other and you’ll be pointed out as a curiosity outside the Law Courts. Steal a million and you’ll be held up as an example of virtue in the salons.

No doubt ideas are projected in direct proportion to the force with which they are conceived, and strike where the brain directs them, by a mathematical law which may be compared to that governing the bombs shot out of a mortar. Their effects are varied. If there are sensitive characters in whom ideas lodge and wreak havoc, there are also armour-plated characters, skulls with bronze ramparts against which the will of others is flattened out and drops like bullets against a wall. Then again there are flabby, wooly characters on whom the ideas of others fall spent like cannon-balls harmlessly absorbed by the soft earth of the redoubt. Rastignac’s head was one of those that are filled with gunpowder and explode at the slightest shock. He had too much youthful intensity to be impervious to this projection of ideas…

Bianchon, the feet-on-the-ground medical student:

“For my part I am content with the modest living I shall make in the provinces… A man’s desires can just as easily be satisfied in the smallest of circles as within an immense circumference. Napoleon didn’t dine twice a day, and couldn’t take any more mistresses than a medical student doing his house training at the Capuchins. Our happiness, my friend, will always lie between the soles of our feet and the crown of our head. Whether it costs a million francs a year or a hundred louis our basic perception of it is just the same within us.”

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