Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Reading Balzac in Paris

Okay boys and girls, sharpen your pencils and pay attention. This is a multiple-choice test.

Please answer the following question. Why did Polly buy a copy of Le pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac last week?

( ) A. She analyzed the list of books in her blog post and was embarrassed by how vapid it seemed

( ) B. She is having lunch with her former 19th-century French literature professor next week and wanted to be au courant.

( ) C. Blessed with an aging memory, she can re-read it without remembering the plot.

( ) D. She was leaving on vacation and wanted a good read that looked vaguely intellectual while on public transportation.

( ) E. Everyone who moves to Paris must read this book.

( ) F. All of the above.

Of course the correct answer is F, you sillies. You knew that all along, so you get an A+.

Answer explanations.

A. The books weren't all vapid, but mostly lightweight. The most intellectual book in the List was Les Cent-Jours by Dominique de Villepin and I couldn't really make my way through all the footnotes (is he like that in real life, qualifying every statement with someone else's opinion?). In all honesty, I had only bought his book because I actually encountered the Premier Ministre walking home one day (he lives in my neighborhood), and hoo-boy, is he handsome! He even nodded "Bonjour" to me with a slight smile. So, I reasoned, if I ever saw him again I wanted to have something to mention other than French politics while my knees wobbled in appreciation. Such as gushing, "I loved your book." Otherwise I'm actually quite shy and don't know what to say to famous people. Or any people.

B. Ten years ago I got a Master's degree in French literature. One of my dear professors is in town right now, staying at her little pied-a-terre on rue du Bac. I remember 10 years ago in class listening enviously to references to her Paris flat and drooling just thinking how lucky she was. Now I'm living the dream, around the corner in the 7e, to boot. We're meeting next week, and our conversation is sure to be peppered with lofty literary references. So I don't want to blow it by sounding like a dunce and make her wish they'd never given me that full scholarship.

C. I've read Le pere Goriot several times over the past 30 years. Who said aging isn't fun? You can hear jokes, read entire novels, over and over, each time with virginal enthusiasm. No plot spoilers here! What could be better? I've just read the same page 3 times without realizing it until I'm half way through. The fog in Paris isn't only in the air.

D. Okay, c'mon everyone, admit it. You don't want to be seen everywhere reading Gala magazine all the time, do you? Right. So if I want to project the intello-feminine image, Le pere Goriot is fine, and so ...non-threatening. Plus, it fits easily into carry-on luggage. It isn't quite the calibre or heft of, say, War and Peace, but I also have a hard time wading my way through more contemporary authors like Yourcenar. And Proust is fabulous but definitely not airplane reading.

E. If you haven't read Le pere Goriot ever or even in the past 10 years, and you live in Paris or simply dream of living in Paris, you must read this novel. Why? Because in my book, it's as relevant today to the get-to-know-Paris learning curve as it was in 1835 when it was written.

F. So kiddos, stop reading this little blog post right now and go to your nearest bibliotheque or librairie or Brentano's or Smith's or the American Library in Paris and get a copy of Le pere Goriot in whatever language you read best. Here's just a taste:

"Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature."

Scram -- va-t'en! Start reading.

You can thank me when you've finished the last page and you decide to name your poodle Rastignac.

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