#FrenchFebruary: Balzac’s Lost Illusions

Honore de Balzac: Lost Illusions, transl. Herbert J. Hunt, Penguin Classics.

It took me two months to read this, so most of December and January, but I will review it this month since I decreed that this will be a #FrenchFebruary (simply because I love the alliteration, and not excluding any French-speaking writers from other parts of the globe).

The book was initially published in three parts from 1837-1843 rather than in the weekly installments that Dickens would have used. So a mighty long wait for Balzac’s readers to hear the end of the story (and one might argue that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger anyway) and possibly the reason I found the writing uneven and some parts far more interesting than others.

While Dumas was largely interested in entertaining the reading public, Balzac was a very strong believer in educating them (and perhaps moralising as well). Of course, encyclopedias, looking something up on the internet or even libraries were not as easily accessible to vast swathes of people then, so he forces knowledge down their throats, whether it helps to understand the story better or not. In other words, he will share his personal obsessions and research with his readers – and he was very much concerned about social, political and economic changes during his time. Since Balzac himself tried initially to be a publisher and printer, and he was all too familiar with money-lenders and banks (having been in debt most of his life – which explains his prodigious productivity), he incorporates those worlds into the story.

Balzac is certainly not enamoured of his hero Lucien, although at times Lucien seems naive rather than deliberately cruel. Some of the clearest insights about his character come from his friends rather than his family:

He is of the kind who like to reap without sowing… he loves to shine and society will intensify his desire, which no amount of money will be able to satisfy. … You’ve got him into the habit of thinking he’s a great man, but society, before recognizing any sort of superiority, expects it to be strikingly successful. Now literary success is only achieved in solitude and through unremitting labour.

Your Lucien has poetry in him but is no real poet. He’s a dreamer not a thinker, he makes a great to-do but is not creative. He will never take to crime, he’s too weak-minded. But he would accept a ready-made crime and share the profits without having shared the dangers… He will despise himself but he would do the same again when the need arose for he lacks will-power and will always take the bait when pleasure or the satisfaction of the most trifling whims are in question. He’s lazy and thinks he’s clever enough to juggle difficulties away instead of overcoming them…

He is not the only literary type that Balzac mocks. Here he is poking fun at the ‘sensitive reader and wannabe salon lioness’ Madame de Bargeton, who becomes Lucien’s patroness in the provinces.

Mme de B took up the lyre on the slightest occasion, making no difference between poems of personal inspiration and poems for public consumption. There are in fact feelings which others cannot understand and which one should keep to oneself… She was wonderfully prodigal of superlatives and weighted her conversation with them, so that the most trivial things assumed gigantic proprotions… Her mind moreover suffered from the same inflammation as her language. Her feelings were as dithyrambic as her utterance. She had palpitations, went into ecstasies, waxed enthusiastic over every occurrence.

The author is ruthless when it comes to exposing the mercenary nature of newspapers and publishing – having been at their mercy most of his life. Sadly, his diatribes against those worlds still ring true today. As a shoestring publisher myself, I have to admit I had a tiny bit of sympathy for some of their cries of despair (although in most cases they were fraudulent, as it turns out)

You don’t understand business, Monsieur. When an editor publishes an author’s first novel he has to risk 16 hundred francs for printing and paper. It’s easier to write a novel than to find such a sum. I have a hundred manuscripts in my drawers, but less than a hundred and sixty thousand francs in my till. I have not made such a sum during the twenty years I have been a publisher. You can see then that the trade of printing novels doesn’t bring in a fortune.

The key to success in literature is not to work oneself, but to exploit others’ work. Newspaper proprietors are contractors; we’re their masons… the more mediocre a man is, the sooner he arrives at success; he can swallow insults, put with anything, flatter the mean and petty passions of the literary sultans.

I don’t publish books for fun. I don’t risk 2000 francs just to get 2000 francs back. I’m a speculator in literature… It costs as much effort to get a new name accepted as to promote the success of works such as Masterpieces of Foreign Drama, French Victories and Conquests… and there’s a fortune in them. I’m not here to be a springboard for future reputations, but to make money for myself and provide some for the celebrities.

The newspaper has become a political party weapon; now it is becoming merely a trade, and like all trades, it has neither faith nor principles. Every newspaper is a shop which sells to the public whatever shades of opinion it wants… A journal is no longer concerned to enlighten, but to flatter public opinion… In corporate crimes no one is implicated. A newspaper can behave in the most atrocious manner and no one on the staff considers that his own hands are soiled.

Lucien ends up selling his soul to a devil in disguise – one of the greatest villains in all of literature – at the end of the book, story to be continued in the next massive tome by Balzac The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans – that’s what I meant about a cliffhanger ending. Yet in spite of his many faults, we cannot help but feel some sympathy for the eternal story of wide-eyed youth determined to make their mark in the cultural world of the capital city and how they lose their youthful enthusiasm and dreams.

It’s hard to keep one’s illusions about anything in Paris. Everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success.

One of the most famous of Balzac’s novels, but not my personal favourite, although I greatly enjoyed about two thirds of it. It is probably quite a personal book, expressing the author’s own disappointment with the literary world, although there is a slight glimmer of hope in the form of the ‘Cénacle’ group of friends, all writers, historians or philosophers, who debate ideas graciously rather than aggressively and support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes. If only Lucien had stuck with them… but would he have been talented or self-abnegating enough to truly succeed?

Sadly, I haven’t been able to watch the latest French film adaptation of the book, which looks very promising indeed, but is apparently only available on Netflix in Canada or something absurd like that.

14 thoughts on “#FrenchFebruary: Balzac’s Lost Illusions”

  1. Loved this book so much, even the long asides into accounting law and such like. Imagine hanging out for the next episode….and it’s MORE ACCOUNTING! What he could get away with. I’ve discovered that I can see the recent film online in Australia. But I would like to see the sixties series too.

    1. I know, the business side of things was actually making me anxious (as an entrepreneur myself). Let me know if you get to watch either of the two adaptations and what you think of them.

  2. I read my first Balzac last year and loved it, Eugene Grandet. I’m looking forward to reading more, not sure which though, maybe this?

    1. I think we did one or two of his stories in French class at secondary school in Romania – and I wasn’t keen then. But he does a great job of reflecting the society he was living in – quite critically (how very French!)

  3. I’ve still only read one Balzac novel – Cousin Bette – but I enjoyed it and have always intended to read more of them. I think some of his others appeal more than this one at the moment, but I’ll keep it in mind!

  4. To complicate the timeline, the first volume of The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans was published in 1938, just after the first volume of Lost Illusions but before the last two. So Balzac had the “sequel” rolling before he was close to finishing the first novel.

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