6. Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac (1835)

Balzac is the only writer I can think of whose achievement seriously rivals that of Charles Dickens. The novels that make up La Comédie Humaine are without doubt the greatest large-scale literary achievement of the nineteenth century. And for those of us raised on the English Victorians, Balzac’s work is shockingly frank and dirty. I’ve chosen Le Père Goriot out of all Balzac’s novels because it’s the most focused, the most powerful and the most sexy. It’s a boarding-house novel, which I love – plotting the complex inter-relations of a varied group of lodgers in a house on the Left Bank in Paris. Rastignac is the idealistic, handsome young law student, Goriot the impoverished old pensioner, and Vautrin the dark, charismatic criminal who comes to control their lives. Vautrin’s Mephistophelian hold over Rastignac is fraught with sexual tension, and some of the ‘seduction’ passages rank among my absolute favourites of erotic writing. Balzac spins a web of intrigue, satire and deception around that central relationship, creating one of the most devastating and entertaining portraits of human greed, folly and cruelty I’ve ever read. Coming a very close second to Goriot is Illusions Perdues, which takes some of the sexual themes even further. I relearned French in order to read Balzac in the original, and I’m really glad I did. Mind you, I wish he’d learned to use the return key on his PC a bit more. His paragraphs are awfully long.

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Filed under My top 100 novels

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