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Balzac's "Lost Illusions": a Novel in Contrasts

For Honoré de Balzac there is one title, obvious but apt: the Napoleon of Realism. In drive and desire, wit and will, Balzac and Napoleon stand as a Castor and Pollux of modern politics and literature, stout builders and rulers of vast empires. As Napoleon marched through Europe, Balzac strode through Paris, jeweled canes his scepters of power. Napoleon won his empire on the battlefield; Balzac won his at his desk, writing through long nights wrapped in a monk's robe, drinking thick black coffee while the city slept around him. Wielding his pen as his sword, he took each page by storm:

Memories come up at the double bearing the standards which are to lead the troops into battle.... the artillery of logic thunders along with its supply wagons and shells.  Brilliant notions join in the combat as sharpshooters.  The characters don uniforms, the paper is covered with ink, the battle is begun...

Balzac named his empire The Human Comedy, fifty-plus books that stage fifty-plus years of French history as if in a Tivoli garden through which we stroll while all about us impeccably costumed actors play out hard-bitten tales of heartbreaking passion. His goal, he wrote, was to paint: "a complete picture of society,"

...from which nothing has been omitted, no situation in life, no physiognomy or character of man or woman, no way of living, no calling, no social level, no part of France, not any aspect of childhood, old age, middle age, politics, justice or war...These will not be imaginary facts; they will be things that happen every day.

Balzac reached his goal. Each novel details aspects of French life: the wine trade in Eugenie Grandet, retail perfumery in Cesar Birrotteau, art collecting in Cousin Pons, the stock market in The Firm of Nucingen, and in Lost Illusions, his greatest single masterpiece, the world of Parisian journalism he labored in himself. No other novel is more worldly than Lost Illusions — courtesans and countesses, misers and millionaires delight us here as they do in all of Balzac — yet no other novel is more word-y than Lost Illusions, more focused on the art and business of writing.

Balzac states Lost Illusions' unifying theme in his first sentences, opening a point of view that sees writing as an industry linked to a national economy;  "At the time when this story begins" (May, 1821):

...the Stanhope press and inking cylinder were not yet in use in small provincial printing offices. Although Angouleme's papermaking industry kept it in touch with Parisian typography, printers there were still using wooden presses...and pressmen still used leather balls smeared with ink to dab on the characters.

Then Balzac introduces the two characters who give Lost Illusions its duality: Lucien Chardon and David Sechard, young friends in provincial Angouleme who read Byron to each other and dream of glory. Romantic Lucien thirsts for fame as a poet; practical David struggles to invent a new paper made from plant pulp.

Balzac tells Lucien's story first, and we follow the poet as he sets off to Paris with his patroness, Louise de Bargeton. When she abandons him, he rents a garret for fifteen francs a month and starts to write. The noble-hearted novelist Daniel D'Arthez counsels "patience" as the one sure way to greatness, but Lucien soon slips into the cutthroat world of the fluy-by-night newspapers, led by the cynical critic Etienne Lousteau, who sneers that fame is "a flashy, insolent courtesan" and shows Lucien where to sell his review copies.

In following Lucien's descent to hack journalism step-by-step, Balzac walks us through the city seedbed that was giving birth to modern writing. Womb of this world is the Wooden Galleries, a shantytown in the heart of Paris, "the home ground of publishers, poets, politicians, milliners, and lastly the prostitutes." Its rude vitality stirs Balzac to sixteen pages of virtuoso visual description.  Its shops, set around "an untended garden watered only with fetid fluids," reminded him of "bee hive cells," "a gypsy camp or the booths of a fairground." Lucien offers his bulky historical novel, The Archer of Charles the Ninth to a Wooden Galleries' publisher who turns it down "with a brutal stare." Lucien tries again:

"Monsieur, I also have a volume of poetry."

"Poetry!" Porchon angrily exclaimed, "What do you take us for?"  He laughed in his face and vanished into the back premises.

Lucien concludes that to publishers "books were like cotton bonnets to haberdashers, a commodity to be bought cheap and sold dear," but he still jumps into this world with both feet, becoming in a few months a celebrity journalist who sells his opinions to the highest bidder. The wheel of fortune soon turns: the hacks who puffed him up become jealous rivals who bring him down, and Lucien limps back to Angouleme without a sou.

David, meanwhile, stays in Angouleme, slaving to make paper from plant pulp, a patent worth millions, he knows, because the growth of literacy was creating a demand for paper that outstripped France's supply of cotton rag, then paper's raw material. Machiavellian manufacturers, the Cointet brothers, get wind of David's work and lie in wait to steal the invention as soon as he completes it. A twist of irony reconnects the storylines: in his last desperate days in Paris, Lucien forges a loan note using David's name; the Cointets buy the note, and when David can't pay it, they have him thrown in jail.

Contrast keeps Balzac's two-character structure distinct. "The contrast between...the two men was so strong that it might have tempted a painter to take up his brush," he declares in describing his heroes.  David is "tanned brown," Lucien has "the whiteness of a woman's skin"; David has "black hair," Lucien's is "fair." Moral contrasts — David is honest and strong, Lucien dishonest and weak — influence the paths the two take: David roots himself in the provinces, Lucien floats footloose in the capital.

The contrasts of Lost Illusions only begin with David and Lucien. Little Angouleme is split in two: the ancient upper city of churches and noble mansions built above the river Charante, and L'Houmeau, the modern lower town of warehouses and factories on the river's edge: "two social zones, everywhere and constantly hostile to each other." Paris' grand contrasts — D'Arthez and Lousteau, garret and salon, grisette and grande dame — overwhelm Lucien; at the Wooden Galleries he ogles the prostitutes' "gleaming bosoms" standing out against "the somber hues of male costumes."

Lucien and Louise had believed each other's pretensions in dowdy Angouleme, but after a few days in Paris, contrast causes the scales fall from their eyes:

The contrast between Lucien and Chatelet was too blatant for Louise not to be struck by it....His frock coat, too short in the sleeves, his cheap provincial gloves and his skimpy waistcoat gave him a prodigiously ridiculous appearance in comparison with the young men of the dress circle.

Proximity with a woman of fashion...set in such strong contrast the imperfections of her country cousin that Lucien...at last saw [Louise] for what she was: a tall, desiccated woman with freckled skin...angular, affected, pretentious, and above all badly dressed.

How remarkable that in a book about writing, contrast is the great revealer! Lost Illusions contains geniuses and hacks, trashy rags and thoughtful reviews, Paris and the provinces. The conflicts between David, Lucien, D'Arthez, Lousteau and the Cointets all push to one creation: the birth of writing in the age of industry. In the 18th century, Balzac declares, books were vellum volumes found in aristocratic libraries. The 19th-century middle-class had changed all that; now, Balzac predicted:

... as fortunes are equalized and so diminished, we shall require cheap linen wear and cheap books, just as people are beginning to require small pictures for lack of space to hang big ones.  Neither the shirts nor books will last, that's all.

Reading a tattered paperback of Lost Illusions in a tiny apartment today, I realize that the book I hold Balzac knew I would hold. Balzac's empire may be no more than a paper panorama, but each book is a black and white ticket, good forever, to the colorful comedy that plays within its pages.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.