For me there are a great many things that contribute to a rewarding reading experience, an almost ineffable series of qualities that a novel must possess for me to be able to enjoy it. Indeed, these things are what I am looking for when I am sat on my bed losing my mind for days on end, surrounded by shaky towers of books. Yet there is perhaps a single, fairly straightforward thing that elevates my favourites above the others, which is that I see something of myself in them. The more of myself I see, the more I cherish the book. I imagine most people feel that way. There is, however, one book that feels almost as though the author was possessed of the ability to see into the future, to fasten onto some kid from northern England and follow his progress, or deterioration, over the space of around twelve months. That book is Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac.
I don’t, of course, want to make the entire review about me [again!], but I find it impossible to think or write about Lost Illusions without referencing my experiences, without putting my gushing into some context, more so because the book is certainly flawed if I view it dispassionately, so let me tell a little story and get it all out; let my story serve as a kind of introduction. When I was nineteen I met and fell for a model who lived in London. Until I met her I was pretty uninterested in girls; I mean obviously I liked them and all, but I wasn’t crazy about them. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t really know that girls could be as elegant and beautiful as this particular girl. The more I liked her, the more time I spent in London until I was pretty much living there. For a while I enjoyed myself immensely; the girl was on the cusp of success and took me to lots of parties and events. I adored London. I was starstruck. If you’re a working class kid from Sheffield and you have this gorgeous girlfriend who is fawned over everywhere, and you yourself, for being with her, are fawned over also it is difficult to maintain perspective.
However, after a while things started to go awry. I began to notice that the people around her, and around me, who I had trusted were actually only looking out for themselves. Almost one by one I realised this. The scales falling from my eyes was a painful process, so much so that I almost went down with them. It was, I came to understand, impossible to have friends in London, or in those kinds of fashionable circles anyway, that the people who smiled at you were likely plotting to stab you in the back. Slowly I started to pick up their habits, to become cynical and two-faced and manipulative, because I thought that the only way to survive. Before too long I was living in a moral vacuum, where cheap sex, drugs and social climbing were the norm. It wasn’t until I returned home, back to Sheffield, that I came to understand how much I had changed. I lost something in London, something that, I guess, everyone loses at some point in their life. What had I lost? My illusions.
Lucien Chardon’s story arc is eerily similar to mine. He is a provincial poet, who moves to Paris, thinking that he will find fame and fortune. What he finds, instead, is that people in a big city will happily crawl over your carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires. He finds that everything, and everyone, in Paris is false, even if they appear absolutely to be the opposite. Lucien, like myself, is green and in the end Paris swallows him up. Of course, this kind of story is not particular to me, or Lucien, but you have to credit Balzac for nailing it. It shouldn’t, but still does, amaze me that human beings have changed so little over hundreds of years. The funny thing is that at the start of Lost Illusions I scoffed at Lucien Chardon. I inwardly belittled him, judged him harshly, and, quite literally at times, rolled my eyes at him. I suppose the reason for that is that not only was his story like mine, but his character also, and that embarrassed me. I even put the book down two or three times, actually abandoned it, because, I realised later, I wanted to distance myself from Lucien. Chardon is psychologically, emotionally, at war with himself. Part of him is thoughtful, artistic, sensitive, and another part is ruthless and ambitious and self-serving. This is what makes Lucien human to the reader; he knows what the right thing is, and feels drawn to that course of action, and yet, because he is so self-obsessed, is able to convince himself that what ultimately serves his own desires is the right thing and will, in the end, produce the best results for everyone, even if he has to trample on them in the meantime. This is, I would guess, why Balzac chose to call his protagonist a name that resembles the most seriously fallen, the most humanly flawed character in literature: Lucifer.
“I should do evil, with the best intentions in the world.”
Structurally Lost Illusions is really clever. In the beginning, Lucien plays court to Madame de Bargeton, the fashionable matriarch of Angouleme, and thinks, when he wins her, that he has done all the hard work, has won the finest victory, has raised himself to the top, only to find when they move to Paris that his victory is worthless, is nothing, and that there is a much greater, more difficult, war to fight: the fight to bring Paris under his heel. It’s a little bit like when playing a computer game and you destroy what you think is the end-of-level boss/bad guy, only to find that actually it was just some minion and the real boss is waiting for you around the next corner and he is fucking huge. What unravels after the opening section is, as noted, a tale of treachery and double-dealing of Shakespearean proportions, but I do not want to linger over all that. It’s great, of course, but I have written plenty about it already and any more would lead to serious spoilers. There are, however, numerous other fascinating ideas and themes present in the book.
Perhaps the most obvious concern is that of money; indeed it was Balzac’s most persistent theme, the one that found its way into nearly all his work. Lucien is of low birth, and so has barely a franc to his name. Yet his ambitions require capital. One needs money to make money. One needs money to grease wheels; one needs it to convince others of your worth. So it goes. As well as Lucien’s story Balzac gives some space to David Sechard, Lucien’s brother in law. David enters the novel as the son of old Sechard, the bear, who is engaged in selling his printing press to his progeny for an exorbitant price. David agrees, even though he knows the press isn’t worth what his old man is asking for it, and ultimately ends up in a dire financial predicament. Balzac, it seems to me, was torn between trying to show the evils of money, while showcasing its absolute necessity. Many of the characters in Lost Illusions do horrendous things for it, yet the most kindhearted, most sympathetic suffer horribly from want of it. Related to what the author has to say about money is the idea that there is a tension between art and commerce. Lucien at one point in the novel has a choice to make between being an artist or journalist. One will require hard work, but will lead to artistic fulfilment [and perhaps fame and fortune eventually], the other will lead to quick and easy gains but artistic bankruptcy. The author appears to be suggesting that it is near impossible to be an artist in a world so obsessed with money, that the lure of money will lead genius astray.
The most interesting aspect of the novel, for me, is what Balzac has to say about old and new approaches. In discussion of the paper business and journalism, he makes the point numerous times that things are becoming cheaper, of lesser quality. Indeed, David is an inventor and he embarks on experiments in order to create a cheaper, lighter kind of paper. It’s not just paper either, but, Balzac points out, clothes and furniture are not as well-made as they once were, will not last as long. Even artwork is being downsized, made more readily available. It is a kind of cheapening in step with the times, in step with the moral character of the people. Even professions are not what they once were, with journalism being derided as a fully corrupt occupation, when it could, in fact, be a noble form of employment. Once again, I laud Balzac’s insight, his prescience, because isn’t this exactly how the world is these days? Everything is plastic, crap, will fall apart after a couple of days; and everything is up for sale. And aren’t the press a bunch of talentless hyenas, who praise and condemn with one eye on their own purse?
As i am sure is obvious by now I passionately love Lost Illusions, but, as I mentioned earlier, it is not without flaws. David, for example, is excruciating. He’s a complete nincompoop. No matter what Lucien does he stands by him, like the craziest kind of put-upon girlfriend. It’s fucking infuriating. No one, unless sex is in the mix somewhere, is that bloody gormless, that forgiving. Balzac took Dickens’ saintly women archetype and furnished it with a penis and even less good sense. Secondly, this being a novel written in the 1800’s, and it being Balzac in particular, Lost Illusions is a melodrama. So, if people constantly wringing their hands and bursting into tears every two pages over absolutely nothing grinds your gears then you might want to re-think reading it. The melodrama didn’t bother me though, it never really does; Shakespeare is melodrama too, let’s not forget. Finally, Lucien, we are led to believe, is a potentially great poet, even potentially a man of genius, and, well, what little of his poetry is presented to us is, uh, shit. That’s a bit of a problem. I did wonder if Balzac was portraying Lucien as a great poet in jest, bearing in mind much of his novel is concerned with falsehood and how the least talented often prosper [which Lucien did at one stage]. However, having read around the book a little, it does not seem as though that is the case, that Honore was in earnest about Lucien’s greatness and talent, even though to my mind it would have been better had he been intentionally rubbish. In any case, none of that compromised my enjoyment too much. For a novel concerned with writing, with talent and greatness, it is quite apt that it is itself a work of genius.