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A- : much of it first-rate, but final (and less successful) third is a bit of an uncomfortable fit
See our review for fuller assessment.
(* review of a different translation )
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The complete review's Review:
Lost Illusions is a three-part novel -- indeed, it was originally published in three parts, between 1837 and 1843.
(Balzac was super-prolific and juggled a lot: as translator Raymond N. MacKenzie notes in his Introduction: "During the years he was composing Lost Illusions, he finished and published some nineteen other works".)
The first part of the novel is titled 'The Two Poets', and introduces the protagonists -- very different sorts of poets --, setting the stage that will determine so much right through to the end in beginning in Angoulême with the miserly Jérôme-Nicolas Séchard and how he successfully navigated first the French Revolution and the ensuing Terror and then the Restoration, having decent success with his printing business (this despite the fact that he remained illiterate).
Old Séchard eventually sold the business to his son, David -- sold, not passed on, and not for a fair or good price, with David's continuing obligations to his (increasingly wealthy) father continuing to be a hardship for many years to come.
Eventually, there's competition in town, from the Cointet brothers, who set up a printing press as well, and make much more of a success of it and are soon powerful enough to more or less control the fate of the Séchard business; for a long time, however, they decide it's for the best to prop up this insignificant competitor -- in order to keep more serious business-competition at bay.
And so he not only left his children in poverty, but worse, he had raised them to hope for a brilliant future that in fact died with him.As if that weren't bad enough, Lucien's mother's family was actually a noble one -- but the eminent name was lost with her marriage to commoner Chardon. Knowing the value of the 'de', Lucien would soon come to style himself as Lucien de Rubempré, to fit in with a higher class of people -- and this division of society, a chasm, is central to the novel. Lucien aspires to the world of being 'Lucien de Rubempré' but bears the burden of being -- but refusing to accept the fact that he is -- 'Lucien Chardon'.
The two worlds -- of high society and common working life -- are not only different but largely separate; it is almost impossible for 'commoners' to find an entrée into the 'higher' world, but Lucien is desperate to cross over. His de Rubempré-family connection gives him a toehold, and a name he can (sort of) use, but it's dangerous relying on it, since it is not truly his. Indeed, officially he's not supposed to: only the king can legitimize his use of it -- and one of the storylines among many others involves his efforts, and the assistance of those disposed to help him, to convince the king to draw up an ordinance authorizing him to: "use the name and titles of the Comtes de Rubempré, as the grandson of the last count, on his mother's side". (The promise of the possibility of obtaining such an ordinance is dangled in front of him several times, but of course he can never actually get his hands on it (not in one piece, at least ...).)
Just how seriously this nonsense is taken is evident from an episode early on, when Lucien is introduced into the local Angoulême (i.e. provincial) society, where it's a bit easier to play fast and loose with this sort of thing. Nevertheless, even here, where he is introduced as a young poet, the fact that he actually works for a living -- as a printer -- is held against him and his use of that noble name:
The women began saying to each other, "He printed his poems himself."(Lost Illusions -- with Lucien's story basically beginning in 1821 -- shows again and again how the French Revolution failed in establishing any lasting sense of égalité; indeed, noble privilege is shown to be more firmly entrenched (and to behave even more privilegedly) than ever.)
Lucien is, in some ways, ridiculously spoiled. In particular:
Madame Chardon and her daughter Ève believed in Lucien the way Mohammed's wife believed in her husband; their devotion to him and his future was absolute.David hardly needs convincing, either, and he too is soon on board: Lucien is the chosen one, and his path to the greatness he deserves is what they all feel they should dedicate themselves to. Entitled Lucien, equally convinced of his own genius, has few qualms about others making sacrifices for him.
Lucien looks the part -- he is very attractive: "The poet was already poetry" -- and is only too happy to play it as well. And once he sniffs the high life, introduced to it by bored local upper-class woman, Madame de Bargeton, who has grand dreams of Paris too, he clings to it desperately:
Like everyone else who finds himself elevated into a new social sphere before being able to sustain himself there, Lucien was vowing that he would sacrifice everything in order to remain in that upper world.Of course, most of the sacrifices are not so much his but rather those of family and would-be friends .....
At considerable cost, Lucien makes good his escape to the promised land, to Paris with Madame de Bargeton -- but she almost immediately realizes that in the circles she wants to move in the commoner is a millstone who would drag her down; she cuts him (loose). Left to his own (very limited) devices, the situation doesn't look so good for Lucien. Bankrolled by his sister and close friend David who is now her husband, most of his funds had quickly gone up in smoke. He moves into humble quarters, eats frugally -- and imagines he will conquer the world with literary success. He has two manuscripts, after all -- a "magnificent novel" (so Lucien's opinion of it), The Archer of Charles IX , and a flowery poetry-collection, Marguerites; his struggles to get them published however extend over much of the novel, and give Balzac a wonderful opportunity to amusingly describe the ways of book-publishing and -selling of the time, with good advice such as that from the publisher who explains:
Whoever comes in with a manuscript, ask him first whether it's in verse or in prose. If it's in verse, show him the door at once. Poetry is the ruination of the publishing trade !Lucien befriends a group of would-be littérateurs, a circle calling themselves the Cénacle, in similarly dire straits -- but, though he appreciates the oasis they offer, he doesn't quite fit in. They have him pegged from the get-go: "instead of a sophist of ideas, you will be a sophist of acts", one of them tells him, while writer Daniel d'Arthez -- who would continue to maintain an interest in Lucien even as Lucien goes his own way and despite some of what he gets up to -- recognizes:
Lucien, you will have grand internal debates from which you will emerge sounding righteous, but which will lead you to do ignoble things ... You will never be at one with yourself.Much later, in a letter to Ève, d'Arthez spells it out even more clearly:
He will come to loathe himself, and he will repent; but when necessity rears its head again, he will succumb again, for he has no willpower, no strength that would allow him to withstand the temptations of sensuality or of his most trivial desires. Lazy, like all poetic men, he sees himself as clever in wriggling out of difficulties rather than facing and overcoming them.Against the advice of the Cénacle, Lucien takes up journalism -- and finds almost immediate great success. The pen gives him both power and money -- and he handles both indiscriminately, blinded by his sudden success.
Everything he sees points to the importance of having one thing, above all else: money:
All that Lucien had been hearing over the preceding few hours was the importance of money. In the Theater as in the Bookshop, in the Bookshop as in the Newspaper, there was never a mention of art or of glory. Money was like a great heavy pendulum; he felt it hammer over and over, again and again, on his head and his heart.As the novel's title makes clear, this is a story of lost illusions, as for all Lucien's poetic ideals reality and experience repeatedly shatter his. Of course, he's not the only one whose illusions are shattered, and part of the novel's power is in how those that believe(d) in him also have theirs shattered (though in some cases -- friend David's, for example -- belief is so hard to shake that it takes unrealistically long for them to get to that point).
Lucien never really becomes cynical -- he doesn't have the depth for it -- but even he eventually comes to realize:
"It's difficult," Lucien said as they arrived in his place, "to have any illusions about anything at all in Paris. Everything is taxed, everything is for sale, everything is constructed, even success."But while he recognizes this, he fails to understand how to play the game -- at least the long game. When he makes money, he also immediately spends it. So certain he is deserving, he can't conceive of a rainy day. But he's practically congenitally incapable of playing his cards right, and is of course destined to fall yet again -- all the harder, since from an even greater height.
Lucien finds happiness with Coralie, a young actress whose career he boosts, but he takes her down with him, too. David and Ève, too. When he thinks all is lost -- and it and more has been -- he considers taking the cowardly/honorable way out -- but, true to character, he can't even manage suicide. First he wants to do it 'right' -- "the poet wished to end his life poetically" -- but then of course he gets thrown off even this course. Instead, he encounters Carlos Herrera, yet another character who dangles what seems like opportunity in front of Lucien's eyes, setting the stage -- though not yet much more -- for the sequel-volume to this novel, A Harlot High and Low (now also translated by MacKenzie as Lost Souls).
The second part of the novel covered 'The Parisian Adventures of a Great Man from the Provinces' -- the masterly section on Lucien's Parisian experiences, a devastating portrait of the big city, high society, and the world of literature, theater, and journalism. With Lucien's departure from Paris, the third part then unfortunately switches almost entirely to recounting the travails of David and Ève, both while Lucien was away and then the mess that he left with his abrupt departure from Paris. (It takes a while before Lucien dares show his face in Angoulême again -- though when he does tragi-comedy repeats itself with yet another triumph that isn't. But Lucien is not the central figure in most of this final section.)
While David's father is wealthy, he is not interested in helping David out, and his actions compound David's problems. Money is owed, and debts are used to exert pressure. The Cointet brothers continue to play puppet-masters, pulling all the strings they have -- and enlisting a lawyer to get himself hired by David and not serve his new client well ..... Balzac loves this kind of stuff -- elaborate legal proceedings and deceits, close family and trusted employees proving untrustworthy, and a guileless David only interested in working on his grand invention. Ève wises up some -- including eventually even about Lucien -- and helps prevent the worst, but for a while it looks very bad, and goes very badly. But this whole section isn't nearly as strong as what came before. The characters are too extreme -- both good (Ève and David, for example) and bad (pretty much everyone else) -- and the situation gets too absurdly knotted -- and then Balzac just resolves it all so easily with a more or less happy ending (though David and Ève are apparently easily satisfied -- though even they eventually, a few years later, clean up, when old man Séchard finally dies, leaving them his tidy fortune).
This third section feels a bit like the odd man out in the novel -- though it can't entirely be separated out. Lucien is integral enough to some of the happenings, but it really feels like Balzac got quite carried away with the local machinations -- which, fun though they are, aren't a good fit with the rest of the story. Keeping Lucien front and center and continuing to deal with David and Ève's difficulties only peripherally might have served the whole better; in the alternative, a truly separate novel focused on David and Ève, and doing more without Lucien, would have also worked better.
While Balzac is good on life and business in the provinces, the novel really shines in Paris. Set in a time -- some two decades before Balzac wrote the novel -- when French literature still lags behind some of its foreign counterparts, and with newspapers just beginning to really catch on -- "We're only at the dawn of the influence and power of the newspaper [....] Journalism is in its infancy, and it's only going to grow. Ten years from now, everything will depend on our publicity" --, Balzac presents a lively battlefield, with Lucien switching sides with foolish abandon. He has no real beliefs, and no integrity; he's also a poor planner, acting on impulse rather than thinking through the consequences of his actions: he jumps at opportunities, without understanding they can wind up being traps. He's often well-meaning, wanting to be kind and helpful; he loves sincerely, and he's willing to work hard -- but he's also too easily blinded by the illusion of glory. It gets him every time (and there are quite a few times).
As one character eventually concludes: "The boy's not a poet -- he's more a serial novel !" So he is, for better and worse -- for both the novel and himself.
It's unsurprising that the burgeoning world of journalism attracts Lucien -- a world that has already abandoned seriousness in this era where:
A paper no longer exists in order to enlighten the reader, only to flatter his opinions. Soon enough, all the papers will be amoral, hypocritical, brazen, dishonest, and murderous: they will be the murderers of ideas, of philosophical systems, of men, and they will flourish for doing so. They will enjoy the payoff that all rational creatures are always working toward: evil will be done, and no one will be responsible.It is a world as if made for Lucien -- which is why his friends try to warn him off it:
You already have too much of the journalist in you: your thoughts come quickly and easily. You would be unable to refuse the allure of saying something clever, even if it meant driving a friend to tears. [...] Journalism is a hell, an abyss of iniquities, lies, betrayalsAmong the pleasures of the novel is how neatly it is tied into the times, from some of the events of the times to, especially, the worlds of literature and theater. Balzac bases several of his characters on real figures, too, and MacKenzie's helpful endnotes succinctly place the who and what. There's also good fun in how characters from other Balzac novels move through this one as well -- not least d'Arthez, who crops up in quite a few others too (and, readers will be happy to note, eventually achieves great success).
Not quite balanced as a three-part work -- the first two far outshine the third -- Lost Illusions is a grand novel that is nearly a truly great one. But even if the third part pulls the story onto a different track, it's all very good reading. And, some fifty years after the last, it's good to see it in a new translation.
- M.A.Orthofer, 9 August 2020
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The great French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) is best known for his multi-volume 'Human Comedy'.
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