My recent caricature researchs got me in the mood for more of Daumier’s Paris. I listened to an audiobook version of Honoré de Balzac’s most famous novel. Good, but I’m not exactly rushing out to read the rest of the series. I understand that “la comédie humaine” is not a promise of lots of laughs, but I was expecting more laughs. I had been expecting a prose Daumier. Instead Balzac is a mix of cynical realism and gothic or sentimental melodrama. (I am sure I am not the first to notice this!)
My ‘meh’ reaction is my own fault, probably. I am corrupted by the extremity of genre fiction in our time. My palate is jaded. Call it the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies problem. Since everything today has zombies in it – or vampires – it’s hard not to expect something on that order when you are reading what is obviously supposed to be an exciting piece of popular entertainment. It’s easy to see how Goriot should be converted into a proper modern work. Vautrin needs to be upgraded into a proper super-villain. So we have our poor medical student, Rastignac, living in a cheap boarding house with dear Goriot and … The Death Deceiver! Vautrin (trompe le mort!) can monologue with the best of villains, and he’s a central node of a vast criminal conspiracy. But his scheme is so petty. (Arrange for Rastignac to marry an heiress, then take a cut? Please! It is unworthy of his monologues.) Vautrin is not trying to construct a Cosmic Cube, find the Infinity Gauntlet, release a Shoggoth, become a vampire, destroy Paris, or anything. So obviously we need to update that. Here is the Faustian bargain he offers young Rastignac. With but two Infinity Gems – the Soul Gem and the Mind Gem – you can ascend the filthy-slippery social ladder of Paris with ease! Meanwhile, Vautrin will take just the Power gem and set himself up as a slave-owner in the American South.
Anyone want to undertake rewriting Balzac’s 90-volume series as Le comédie superhumaine?
I do have one semi-serious questions about the book – about social conventions in Paris. I’m not surprised that all the decadent male aristocrats have opera singer lovers. The wife knows her husband visits his mistress every Thursday, or whatever. Fine. But there seems to be a social norm that the likes of Goriot’s daughters may have young lovers as well, whose existence their husbands politely overlook. I take it the idea is supposed to be that these are only pretty admirers, not sex partners. When Delphine’s husband offers to free her to take Rastignac as a lover, if she will not interfere with his scheme, he is offering her the chance to have sex with him. That is presented as an unusual concession on his part. So it’s not like the males and females are equally free to engage in extramarital sex. Even so, the whole arrangement seems surprisingly egalitarian. Would there really have been socially prominent adult males in Paris in the 1820’s – especially socially prominent titled aristocratic males – who allowed their wives to take young lovers, even on the tacit understanding that there would be no sex? Wouldn’t that have been an intolerable threat to patrimony? I am obviously just an innocent Oregon boy at heart, who does not understand the subtle ways of Paris.