Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lost Illusions, like its more hopeful but also more ironic English counterpart Great Expectations, could be the title affixed to the entire genre of the realist novel going back to Don Quixote: the realist novel is a narrative whose heroes and heroines learn that the world in which they find themselves—the social, economic, political, and cultural world—always resists what they think about it or desire from it.
Balzac was a follower of Sir Walter Scott, about whom much is said in this novel as the characters discuss their own literary fortunes and relation to literary fashions. While Balzac’s characters mock Scott for his insipid, sexless heroines—whom they see as a capitulation to characteristic English prudery—they take from him the lesson of how to write fictional historical chronicles. (The hero or mock-hero of Lost Illusions, Lucien Chardon, writes a novel after Scott entitled An Archer of Charles IX.) Scott was the father of historical fiction: according devotees like Georg Lukács, he was the first to write novels that showed history as a living, dynamic, and conflict-driven force in the lives of ordinary people, rather than just a static background for their acts. And, as Erich Auerbach notes in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Balzac’s innovation is to see “the present as history”—history in Scott’s sense, as a developing, organic process made by but also subsuming the individual. To that end, Balzac crafted not discrete stories organized as individual novels, but an entire Human Comedy. In the words of another Marxist admirer, Friedrich Engels, Balzac
describ[es], chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles, that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could, the standard of la viellie politesse française.
Peter Brooks elaborates:
He had the advantage of living in an age of revolution, which made the passing of the old order starkly perceptible. Born a few months before Napoleon’s coup d’état brought a halt to the French Revolution — while consolidating its liquidation of the ancien régime — Balzac came of age during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after Waterloo, and wrote most of his fiction during the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philippe, which followed the Revolution of 1830. His novels generally are set during the restoration but were written after its demise — written with a sense of its impending doom, its inevitable closure and the coming of the age that will ever be characterized by Francois Guizot’s words, as Prime Minister, to his fellow citizens: ”Enrichissez-vous.” Make money, get rich.
Balzac was a self-proclaimed reactionary, a monarchist who wanted to restore all the hereditary rights of the aristocracy and a Roman Catholic. Because of his reactionary stance, he was able to perceive all the more sharply the decline of the landed gentry, the coming of the cash nexus and the end of what he nostalgically saw as an ordered, organic society with each person in an assigned role. The new era was one of convulsive egotism, the cult of the individual personality.
Lost Illusions is only one episode, albeit a very long one, in this massive saga; it follows directly, plot-wise, Le Père Goriot and leads on directly to A Harlot High and Low (I have read the former but not the latter).
The plot is in one way very simple, and in another almost unfathomably complicated. To put it simply, two young men in provincial France—the inventor David Séchard and the poet Lucien Chardon—hope to make their way in the world. David, the educated son of an uneducated and miserly local printer, aims to revolutionize printing by creating a cheaper paper production process, while Lucien, whose mother was of the aristocratic de Rubempré line, though she made a mésalliance with a middle-class chemist, wishes to take the literary world by storm. Eventually, Lucien gains access to high society by wooing Mme de Bargeton, a women educated (by a priest fleeing the Revolution) beyond the social capacities allowed her by her class and gender, both of which enjoin that she be merely ornamental. Scandal drives her to take Lucien to Paris, and his parabolic 18-month sojourn there occupies the long middle part of the novel. Lucien quickly attains literary success in the world of journalism, but that milieu’s many ruthless schemers so manipulate the provincial dreamer/naïf that he ends up having to return to the countryside in poverty. Meanwhile, rival printers, ambitious lawyers, and social-climbing laborers catch David up in their greedy intrigues until he too is driven from his field of action, his invention stolen. The novel ends with Lucien on the way back to Paris under the thumb of a suspicious Spanish Jesuit (really Vautrin, whom readers will recall from Le Père Goriot).
Simple enough in outline, but over the course of 700 closely-printed pages, Balzac furnishes an enormous amount of complication, most of it in the form of information. Each of the novel’s three sections has what we might call an information theme—the history and technology of printing for the first; the structure of the overlapping literary and political worlds in the Parisian demimonde for the second; and the intricacies of banking, debt, and law in the French provinces for the third. In fact, using these info-topoi, Balzac in this novel describes a compete circuit, from the production of paper, to the production of the ideology printed on that paper, to the commodification of both material and idea in the cash nexus. While this novel’s tearful melodrama and chronicle-style narration mark it as of its time, or even old-fashioned for its time (technique-wise, Balzac is behind Jane Austen and Stendhal, in my view), its insistence on the flux/reflux through society of both material and its capitalization mark Lost Illusions as not just modern or even postmodern, but post-postmodern, an object-oriented thing-theorized neo-Marxist extravaganza to give Tom McCarthy or William Gibson or David Mitchell a run for their money.
But to be honest, my eyes tended to glaze over through much of Balzac’s exposition. The history of printing was interesting, and I caught the gist of how journalistic, political, and literary corruption work (they work almost the same way today, if a bit more subtly), but I don’t think I ever quite mastered who all the Parisian newspaper editors were, nor did I get the hang of the provincial banking system. As Henry James wrote in his great essay on Balzac (where he calls him “the father of us all”), the French novelist gives us “a reproduction of the real on the scale of the real”—a map almost as big as the territory. That can make for an exhausting sojourn, and James does not exactly mean it as praise—for one thing, it is directly contrary to James’s own rigorously, maddeningly elliptical artistic procedures—but he nevertheless extols Balzac for his mastery of the essentially novelistic dedication to creating “the image of life,” which James contrasts with poetry, the lyrical sensibility that gives us “life itself.” Here, he is only echoing Lost Illusions; Balzac’s outspoken narrator censures Lucien and, through him, all poets:
It is noticeable that some characters, genuinely poetic, but lacking in will-power, give themselves up to feeling in order to reproduce their feelings in images. Such men are completely wanting in the moral sense that ought to accompany the power of observation. Poets are more apt to receive sensations themselves than to enter into the experiences of others, or to study the mechanism of sensation.
I am somewhat more lukewarm toward Balzac than is James; his distanced style of narration sometimes scarcely creates even an image; and many of his emotional high points are merely melodramatic outpourings in a desert of facts. Not always though—it’s hard to think of a more moving scene in fiction than the one wherein Lucien writes bawdy songs at the deathbed of his lover, the devoted actress Coralie, to pay for her funeral.
Balzac is at his best, I think, in his characters’ lengthy speeches, especially those in which his more demonic characters elaborate on the anti-values of the modern kingdom of money. I love the passage in which Lucien’s first corruptor, the journalist Lousteau, explains to him how to write essays and reviews so as to argue all sides of the issue, or the one in which his last corruptor, Vautrin in disguise as the Spanish priest, offers him a cynical theory of history as the “secret history” or “shameful chronicle” of purely corrupt and self-interested actors.
As Peter Brooks notes above, Balzac ostensibly opposes these corruptions from an older ethic of intrinsic values and social hierarchies; but despite his scorching and still-relevant dystopian portrayal of journalism, politics, literature, and science as wholly captured by the profit-motive and the manipulation of the masses in a time of so-called democracy, a question remains: in what other type of society could a man write books like these, endless serials for mass consumption, with recurring characters to ensure the purchase of future issues and back numbers? Balzac is well aware that his own book is the product of the very processes he decries, printed on the same paper as the works of cynics and propagandists. Lost Illusions holds out the hope that hard and sincere work will rise above the sea of money-minded sensationalism, and perhaps it did in the work of Balzac himself. And who am I to judge?—I am in the exact position of the French novelist and his hero: this very text appears on the same type of screen—produced on the other side of the global economic circuit in conditions that make Balzac’s provincial paper mills look positively idyllic—as the discourse of those contemporary littérateurs who, in their learned disquisitions on corporate-monopoly mass culture, may well be something worse than cynical.
Still, Balzac’s boundless energy, his total belief in his characters and his total commitment to the description of their milieu, eventually silences all objections until only something like awe remains: as a writer, I wouldn’t want to write a novel like this, but this novel teaches me to regard that as the loss—in historical sensibility, in fictional intelligence, in artistic vitality—that it is. Throughout Lost Illusions, the narrator refers to the Lucien as “the poet.” At first, this is an honorific; by the end of the novel, it sounds like a curse. Poetry as irresponsibility, abdication, laziness, as the expectation the novel was devised to defeat, the illusion it was born to dispel: I resist and resent this more than slightly, but doesn’t old Balzac have a point?
[…] it is because of the changed situation of publishing as much as anything else. Having just read Balzac’s Lost Illusions, I can tell you there was no golden age of publishing when talent was rewarded, profits […]
Interesting read and some great points. Reading Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” was the impetus for writing my own novel, “Crystal Falls.”
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