Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Old Goriot

I will be honest: this was a hard ride. It is my first Balzac. While parts of it sparked, a lot of it was a difficult trudge for me. Part of this surely was due to translation -- I always get the feeling that reading French translated to English is kind of like drinking flat root beer. Part of is also due to the fact it was written 170 years ago, and much of it is about social customs of the time. I had a hard time, in many cases, forming clear pictures of some of the characters.

One thing that totally shocked me were discussions of "Paris humor", such as:
The boarders dropped in one after another, interchanging greetings and empty jokes that certain classes of Parisians regard as humorous and witty. Dullness is their prevailing ingredient, and the whole point consists of mispronouncing a word or in a gesture. This kind of argot is always changing. The essence of the jest consists in some catchword suggested by a political event, an incident in the police courts, a street song, or a bit of burlesque at some theatre, and forgotten in a month. Anything and everything serves to keep up a game of battledore and shuttlecock with words and ideas. The diorama, a recent invention, which carried an optical illusion a degree further than panoramas, had given rise to a mania among art students for ending every word with "rama." The Maison Vauquer had caught the infection from a young artist among the boarders.
' Well, Monsieur-r-r Poiret,' said the employee from the Museum, 'how is your health-orama?'
These "rama" jests continue through the entire book. I was partly surprised to hear how old the origins of "o-rama" were, but also surprised to see an acknowledgment of the "humorous catchphrase", which I had always thought of as a modern phenomenon, probably starting around the beginnings of radio. Lorne Michaels used to talk about the power of these annoying catchphrases (Steve Martin's "Excuuuse me", John Lovitz's "Yeah, that's the ticket", etc.) and explained that if you create a really annoying character with a stupid catchphrase, the annoying people in the real world will start repeating it everywhere. So, perhaps these annoying catchphrases are not so modern after all, but have been around as long as there have been annoying people.

Anyway, even though I had a hard time with aspects of the book, and I was starting to regret having embarked on it, the ending was worth all the trouble. It was so poignant, so poetic, so powerful, so memorable, and so modern, I feel sure I will not forget it anytime soon.

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