‘Lost Illusions’ By Honore Balzac

9780375757907We were on vacation in Colonial Williamsburg and I saw this book on a table in a bookstore. I didn’t buy it then, but the name (and back cover blurb) stuck with me. I am ashamed to say that I have never finished anything by Balzac before.

The story of two brothers-in-law, one named Lucien, whose sister marries David. David is an idealistic printer who is blinded into naivety by his idealism. Lucien is a poet cum journalist who is blinded into naivety by his ego and by his susceptibility to the finer things in life.

The most interesting part if when Lucien goes to Paris as the lover of a wealthy provincial noblewoman, gets tossed aside, and manages to find his way into various literary circles. First, a bohemian circle of poets and novelists and then a more seedy circle of journalists and publishers. Lacking real conviction, he is convinced to abandon the Liberal press for the Royalist press, but it was all a bit of a plot to pull him from his media protectors so that scorned parties among the aristocracy could tear him down completely. The whole thing is fascinating and written, not exactly from third person limited, but very much putting you in his perspective.

When it switches back to travails of his sister and brother-in-law back in the provinces, Balzac takes Lucien apart, showing the reader what an absolute little turd he is.

For a while there, the constant piling up of misfortunes was overwhelming. I felt like I couldn’t take much more. But the deux ex machina happy ending was also too sudden. And Lucien gets taken under the wing of a corrupt Spanish priest, more like Melmoth the Wanderer or an Ann Radcliffe villain than any of the other characters! What the h–l? And it’s brought up and quickly dropped? What happens to Lucien? I feel like another two hundred pages and a literal devil would come to claim his soul.

While Balzac has nothing so lengthy as Hugo’s discourses on the Battle of Waterloo or his massive essay within a novel on the sewers of Paris, I was bombarded with discussions of the mechanics and economics of early nineteenth century printing shops and on how provincial lawyers make their money. My eyes glazed, especially reading the later, and I probably know less than I did before on the subject for that reason.

As a side not, Nicholas Jenkins, in one of the Dance to the Music of Time, talks about enjoying Balzac in the French, but struggling to understand all the minutiae about the type of thatch roofs used atop print shops. Surely a reference to Lost Illusions?

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