Lost Illusions [1837 – 1843/1971] – ★★★★★
“...he was living in one of those golden dreams in which young people, cantering along on their ifs, leap over all barriers” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 113].
“It’s hard…to keep one’s illusions about anything in Paris. Everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 387].
This week I am celebrating my first blogaversary – my blog is one year old (thank you to all my followers for following!), and this will also be my 70th full book review (see the others here). Therefore, I thought I would review a classic for a change as a way to “celebrate” and also to draw attention to the best literature has to offer. Translated from the French by Herbert J. Hunt, Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac is part of his La Comedie Humaine series, and centres around Lucien Chardon, a handsome and optimistic, but very naïve, young man who desires to be successful in high society through his talent – he is a writer. He leaves his friend David Sechard, a typographist, in Angouleme and embarks on a dizzying adventure full of dramatic ups and downs in Paris, where he has to make difficult for him decisions about which path to success to follow. This is not one’s ordinary tale of a man’s fall from grace or the corruption of innocence. Balzac masterfully portrayed a story with a number of vivid characters, and his observations on the society, its hierarchy and its unspoken rules are second to none – making this work a true classic, both entertaining and insightfully profound. Through his tale, we get to understand the nuts and bolts of a printing business and journalism in the countryside and in Paris in the 1820s, as well as the consequences of unrelenting ambition and talent when they are not underpinned by solid connections and easily swayed by vanity and egocentrism.
The story is divided into three parts. The first part begins in Angouleme, where Jerome-Nicolas Sechard, an old miser and owner of a printing business, is thinking about selling his printing business to his son David. David is a close friend of Lucien Chardon, and both men are portrayed as poor, but enthusiastic about poetry, philosophy and art: “Both of them, full of varied ideas for making their fortune, were possessed of that soaring intelligence which makes a man capable of the highest achievements. Yet there they were, at the very bottom of the social ladder. The injustice of their lot forged a powerful bond between them. Moreover, each of them was a poet, although they climbed different slopes on their way to Parnassus [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 23]. The two friends end up taking different paths to success when Lucien become enamoured of Madame de Bargeton, a rich lady who is married to local aristocracy.
In many ways, Lost Illusions is a tale of two cities – of relatively calm Angouleme and buzzing Paris (including the poverty of its backstreets and its artistic Latin Quarter). We get to understand how a person may have a full measure of both in a bewilderingly fast manner. It is also a story of the three segments of the French society – aristocratic, professional and peasant. Each of those parts has its own rules of behaviour and is as different to the others as black is to white. Thus, the second part of the novel is about Lucien’s adventures in Paris, where he first battles against a society which appears to be ruthless, haughty and impatient, preoccupied with self-interest and money (at the expense of paying due attention to true talent, and showing humility and goodness). At this point, we sympathise with (now) Lucien de Rubempré because, despite his youth, hope and ambition, he is not yet at ease with high-ranking people of Paris and begins to be pulled in different directions, succumbing to many temptations along the way. Later on, though, handsome Lucien starts to distance himself from honest work, as well as from his true friend Daniel d’Arthez, another honest intellectual, embarking on a very steep learning curve of the Parisian book-publishing business.
Balzac, who himself had a background in printing and publishing, clearly knows what he is writing about, and makes his main character jump through some tricky Parisian hoops and Paris’s own definition of “journalism” in the 1820s. A society Lucien does start to prefer is that of journalistic endeavours, as he makes friends with Etienne Lousteau, another journalist, and becomes romantically linked to an actress Coralie. Paradoxes of one fickle society emerge at this point, as well as its duplicity, while Lucien starts to navigate this intricate and complex system filled with corruption and shortcuts to success, getting caught up in this machinery geared at instant gratification and at praising that kind of success that is never associated with hard work and gratefulness. “Journalism is an inferno, a bottomless pit of iniquity, falsehood and treachery: one can only pass through it and emerge from it unsullied if one is shielded as Dante was by the divine laurels of Virgil” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 177]. Each step on the ladder to success gets Lucien further away from his roots, his values and his true friends. Balzac asks – what principles, values and friendships the main character is prepared to sacrifice to achieve his status among the elite in high society? Will the end justify the means? There are some detours and surprises along the way, and the final part of the novel takes us back to Angouleme and to Lucien’s friend David.
Balzac is an acute observer of the human nature and a witty commentator on a life in transition. Virtually every page is filled with insightful and witty observations on life, on the nature of raw talent and on the consequences of rapid success: “genuine talent is always simple and good-natured, open and unconstrained, its epigrams foster wit in others and never seek to injure self-esteem” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 220]. The author pits new and old ideas against each other, including those related to printing, and provides vivid character descriptions – those of David, Madame de Bargeton and of Daniel d’Arthez are particularly striking.
Lost Illusions is rightly among Balzac’s finest achievements. This is a literary work of profound insight into society and human weakness/naivete that gets caught in deceptive traps leading to some disastrous results. Observant and witty, with sumptuous character and setting descriptions, Balzac’s satire makes for an entertaining read, too, as we learn how fortunes can turn in the blink of an eye.