Both in France and in the United States, we seem to be in the worst of the COVID-19 problem now. There are shortages of equipment, rising numbers of deaths and infected, new outbreaks, and no quick fix on the horizon. We continue to be inundated with non-stop news, most of it bad. I’ve discovered that when you need help with sleep, read Balzac!
In France we are hunkered down, except to go outside by ourselves for exercise or to buy food. Still, I don’t sleep so well with all the things beyond my control. It’s not because there is too much noise in the neighborhood. I have dreams about situations that make no sense, problems that can’t be solved. I wake up when it gets too difficult.
Scientists don’t really know why we dream, but one interpretation is that, unlike focused activity like hammering a nail, dreams represent a supremely unfocused state in which our brains make broad, unfocused connections guided by our emotions. If there’s only one strong emotion, the dream is more straightforward, but if there are several conflicting emotions, dreams can be complicated. Dreams are thought to be a way that new material can be woven into our conscious thinking, providing compensation for our waking, perhaps unconscious, problems. I think there is a coronavirus restlessness that comes to bed with me every night. There have been other times like these.
From 1348 to 1665 the Black Plague struck London every 20 years or so. Bubonic plague was a disease spread by the bites of fleas from black rats. One of these epidemics struck London in 1604, and they ordered social distancing. Houses with infected people had to hang a bale of straw on a pole for 40 days to warn others. They had a special bell to ring when transporting the dead through the streets to mass graves. There was much suffering with poor treatment options and no known cures, but also there was unexpected good. All the London theaters were closed, and William Shakespeare used his time in lockdown to write Macbeth and King Lear. No wonder that Shakespeare turned to writing tragedies while he was in isolation. Here’s a little background on King Lear.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the King announces to his three daughters that he’s giving up his kingdom and will award it to the one who loves him the most. The first two daughters praise him effusively, and are each awarded a share. The third daughter states that she loves him and that the award of his kingdom will make her love neither more nor less. She is disinherited. A complex story follows, but let it suffice to say that the first two daughters consider the king a fool. Each with her husband sets about trying to take all the power and money for herself. Only the third daughter has true love for her father. The first daughter kills the second, then commits suicide when her betrayal is discovered. The third daughter dies trying to save her father. The King dies of his heartbreak because he loses everything he values.
Le Père Goriot
When I can’t sleep I’ve been reading Le Père Goriot, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, one of France’s greatest writers. Le Père Goriot is similar in many ways to King Lear. Two daughters take advantage of their father’s love and drive him to financial ruin, all to keep up appearances and improve their social status in the post-Napoleonic Paris of two hundred years ago, when King Louis XVIII (whose brother Louis XVI was beheaded in the Revolution) was brought back to the throne in a constitutional monarchy. It was the first time in France that lower classes had a chance to gain wealth and power and move up in social status.
Our protagonist, a young student named Rastignac, is trying to figure out how to get ahead in his life. He lives with a number of other characters in the run-down pension Vauquer near today’s Pantheon on rue Neuve Saint Genevieve. Today rue Neuve Saint Genevieve is known as rue Tournefort. The steeply sloping part where the house would have been has become rue Lhomond. Balzac’s descriptions of the shoddiness of the pension are legendary. There Rastignac meets Le Père Goriot, a retired vermicellier (pasta maker) whom everyone thinks is a dolt, and also a gregarious man named Vautrin, who seems to know everything about everyone. The ladies boarding at the pension all seem to like him. He pays the servants to let him come and go furtively in the night.
At first the women in the pension try to attract Le Père Goriot, since he seems to have lots of money, but he ignores them. They think he pays for two beautiful women who stop by his room from time to time. It turns out these are his daughters, who only come to visit him when they need money. As he runs out of money, he keeps moving into cheaper and cheaper rooms in the pension. Everyone at the pension makes fun of him, but he seems not to notice.
Rastignac has a distant cousin, Madame de Beauséant, who lives in the district Faubourg Saint Germain (the neighborhood on the other side of Invalides from ours). She is wealthy and belongs to that part of society that Rastignac wants to enter. She arranges an invitation for him to attend a ball, and there he meets a beautiful young woman, Madame de Restaud, whom he vows to see again. When he comes home that night, full of hope for his future, he hears his neighbor, Le Père Goriot, working away in his room. Peering through the keyhole, Rastignac sees Goriot winding silver around a sculpted piece with great skill, all the time muttering about his poor child. Rastignac is impressed and realizes that he and others have greatly underestimated Le Père Goriot.
Rastignac goes to visit Madame de Restaud (Anastasie, a countess) at her house on Rue du Helder, east of the Paris Opera. He walks, muddying his boots along the way. The countess isn’t expecting him, and she makes him wait. While waiting he unexpectedly sees Le Père Goriot departing via the servant’s entrance. He meets another young man, beautifully attired, named Maxime de Trailles. He turns out to be Madame de Restaud’s lover. Then he meets Count de Restaud, her husband. They exchange pleasantries. When Rastignac mentions that he knows Le Père Goriot, the others become angry. He is shown the door. The Count informs the servants to never again present him at their home.
Rastignac realizes he needs to up his game. He visits his cousin Madame de Beauséant for advice. She says that to succeed he will need to have a hard heart, to never show his emotions, to guard against ever letting a woman know he loves her. The way to get the attention of Anastasie is to become companion to her sister, Delphine, wife of Baron de Nucingen. Delphine is unhappy and trying to attract attention. The two sisters are rivals and enemies. Despite her cold blooded advice, secretly Madame de Beauséant has a broken heart because her lover, a marquis, is leaving her to marry another woman.
Rastignac writes his mother and his sisters, asking to borrow money, which they send to him even though they are poor. He buys beautiful clothes to fit in with his newfound lifestyle. He meets Delphine at a ball. She is troubled and in debt, so he risks his money at a casino and wins enough to pay what she owes. She loves him. They date, for lack of a better word. Time passes, and she becomes more critical of him. He loses money gambling and is almost out of funds. He is in at the end of his wits.
One night at dinner, Vautrin approaches him with advice. First, he needs to be hard hearted, but also that this pursuit is fruitless. He suggests a more lucrative approach. There is another resident at the pension, Victorine Tallefer, whose father has millions, but who denies it all to her in favor of her brother. She is in despair because of her poverty. Vautrin proposes that he arrange to have the brother killed in a duel, thus the father’s fortune will pass to Victorine. Rastignac could move in and instantly become part of the fortune. Vautrin desires to make a contract that would pay him two hundred thousand francs for his services, a small price for Rastignac to achieve everything he wants.
The moral contradiction is too much for Rastignac, and he declines. Still he cozies up to Victorine, who seems to like him. That night at dinner, Vautrin offers some wine to both Rastignac and Le Père Goriot, who has also become Rastignac’s confident. He has spiked the wine with something, and they both fall asleep. When they awaken, they find out that someone killed Victorine’s brother in a duel, and that she has departed to be with her father.
Another man and woman living at the pension, who seem to be amorous, meet secretly with a police detective in the Jardin de Plantes. The detective says that he thinks Vautrin is a wanted criminal who has escaped from prison. There is a substantial reward for his capture. He gives them a potion to slip into Vautrin’s drink. It will put him to sleep so they can identify if he has the prison tattoo on his arm. They drug Vautrin and discover that he is indeed this criminal. The police arrest Vautrin and lead him away. Others at the pension condemn the couple for denouncing him and force them to leave. The landlord, Madame Vauquer, bemoans her loss as her tenants depart for new apartments.
Le Père Goriot tells Rastignac that in spite of appearances, his daughter Delphine loves him dearly. Goriot has purchased for them a flat where they can get away together. Delphine sends him a love letter promising a bright future. Rastignac meets her at the new place, and sees that all is as arranged, though Delphine will continue to live with the Baron and only visit from time to time. Anastasie has come to her father with a sorrowful tale of the debts of her lover, which her husband insists that she pay. Le Père Goriot gives her his nearly exhausted funds to pay her debts.
Meanwhile Madame de Beauséant has invited everyone to a grand ball at her mansion. Her secret plan is to leave Paris and escape her failed love life, never to return. Both of Le Père Goriot’s daughters will be there. He has given up the last of his funds to buy a dress for Delphine. Anastasie will wear her husband’s family diamonds for the last time, since she has promised them to pay the gambling debts of her lover. Le Père Goriot, realizing he has nothing left to offer his daughters, has a stroke and is dying in his room. He is crazy, both expressing love for his daughters and remorse at the heartless way they have treated him. Rastignac remains behind to tend to Le Père Goriot with another tenant, a medical student.
Rastignac reaches out repeatedly for the daughters to come to the side of their dying father, but neither responds. He receives a menacing note from Delphine that he better accompany her to the ball or else. Finally he goes, and it is a grand affair. Afterwards, the daughters go home and are preoccupied with sleeping and explaining their debts to their husbands. Rastignac returns to the side of Le Père Goriot, remaining there until he expires.
Anastasie stops by briefly after her father is dead to express her love and her guilt, then departs. Delphine never shows. Rastignac uses the last of his own funds to arrange a funeral and burial. He must borrow money to tip the grave diggers. At the end of his ordeal, he sheds the last tear of his youth. Now understanding the game, Rastignac declares, “It’s just the two of us two now.” He departs to have dinner with Delphine, who will become his doorway to enter French high society.
Honoré de Balzac
Between about 1830 and 1850 Balzac wrote prolifically, producing more than 100 works including books, plays, novellas, short stories, and poems. Le Père Goriot is one of the most important books in Balzac’s series Le Comédie Humaine . In this series of publications, he attempted to provide an all-encompassing description of Parisian society.
His masterpiece was a unique contribution to the literary craft. His employment of realism and highly descriptive details, not to mention scandalous subjects, would influence fiction for generations to come. He also started reusing the same characters in different novels at different stages in the character’s lives, a unique method that created a web that give life to Le Comédie Humaine.
His characters are complex people, having both good and bad qualities. Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, created nearly 50 years after his death, is less a likeness than a monument to his creativity and spirit. Balzac was a man who failed in many things before realizing his great success as a writer. His work and his characters reflect many of his own experiences.
Improving my sleep
I owe a lot to Balzac. Reading Le Père Goriot (in French) was hard work. First I tried the audio book – too hard. Then I bought the paperback – difficult and time consuming. Then I took some months off to read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and all of the Harry Potter series. Finally I started Le Père Goriot again on my Kindle. Better this time, but still not easy. It was the perfect antidote to coronavirus restlessness, making me weary and allowing me to fall back to sleep.
I hope I’m receiving compensating effects from my dreams. They seem to be affirming that there’s not much I can do but wait. On a hopeful note, you know that there are a lot of efforts to combat the virus that are farther along than we think, whether they be to manufacture and distribute masks or ventilators or plastic suits, to develop better testing for the virus, or to make progress towards a medicine or trial vaccine. Both in France and US we are nearing a peak in the number of deaths and new cases. We hope that the number of serious cases remains within our capacity for medical treatment. In another week we’ll find out new developments in all these areas. In the meantime, stay away from others and keep washing your hands.
But there’s a missing piece. Many of us are isolated away from family and friends. With whom can we share this anxiety?
Every night at 8pm, Parisians open their windows to applaud our healthcare workers for their tireless efforts in combatting the virus. Besides the applause we hear bells, whistles, shouts, and sometimes singing. A recent article in Le Figaro found that some doctors are indifferent to this showing of gratitude. It’s hard to feel it when you aren’t there. A sociologist said that these displays of support are really for ourselves, to show solidarity in our isolation. We hardly know our neighbors, much less the people across the street, but in this cause we are all together.
John Donne said it best: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Any therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”