Balzac should be on ‘Grand Designs’

I knew my memory was getting flaky, but things are worse than I thought. Only three years have elapsed since I finished reading Honore de Balzac’s ‘Old Goriot’, but already the plot and characters have become more than a little blurry. Remarkably though, the rooms and locations in the novel are still crystal clear and vivid – I could almost paint them. I don’t think this should reflect badly on Balzac’s capacity to draw real characters and a turn out a pacy plot – my bleached out memory has more to do with me slowly turning into a goldfish – but the fact that the stage sets of the novel are still so real to me can definitely be attributed to an attention to detail in the writing which is unsurpassed.

Balzac prided himself on observing and capturing Parisian life across all social strata, flaws and all. His desire to represent the truth of what he saw included meticulous detailing of the homes and surroundings of the characters he observed. My impression of Madame Vauquer’s boarding house is so strong, I feel like I could comfortably find my way around it, room by room. More than delivering fine description, Balzac imbues the homes with the characteristics of those living in them – it really is uncanny. Madame Vauquer’s establishment is not only her home, but has the essence of her in it. They are inseparable. While Madame Vanquer’s house is home to boarders, it still very much exudes a sense of the private sphere. In contrast, when Balzac describes the lavish surroundings of the well-to-do, he creates the sense that their rooms are more a stage for them to perform grandeur and social standing, not to mention their flirtations. These spaces are cold, public arenas, and despite their luxury, lack the warmth and privacy of home.

old goriot, balzac

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