Sunday, September 16, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac

I love the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge (hosted by Sarah Reads too Much.) I’ve had Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac on my bookshelf for years but might not ever have gotten around to it if I hadn’t decided to make it my "classic translated from the original language to my language." (And while I’m at it, I’m going to add it to my Mount TBR challenge too, since getting this one read was quite an accomplishment!)

This book is amazing. Yes, it’s lengthy and feels it. Balzac does a lot of "telling" not showing, especially to get the ball rolling, so it starts slow. Also, the ending felt a bit dragged out until all of a sudden it seemed Balzac just wanted to be done with it so he squished the last bits together to wrap up. The thread that is left hanging is an obvious set-up for a sequel–things haven’t changed much in the literary world! Nevertheless, the whole long way through, this novel is utterly captivating.

Lost Illusions is one of the major novels in Balzac’s vast collection of works comprising The Human Comedy. The books are models of realism. Lost Illusions is full of meticulous details but it is also packed with incredible character studies. Even minor characters jump off the pages.

There are two heroes. The first, David Séchard, toils in the background and is barely seen. David is a the owner of a failing printing shop but more than that, he is a scientist and inventor with a brilliant idea for making cheaper paper if only he can perfect the process. The primary protagonist is Lucien Chardon (or Lucien de Rubempré as he prefers to be known, taking his mother’s more aristocratic name.) Lucien is a poet. To set the stage: Lucien has a beautiful and devoted sister, Eve. Eve and David are in love, but more than anything else, they love Lucien. By virtue of his Adonis-like looks, Lucien has managed to secure the patronage of the infatuated Madame de Bargeton, the social queen of Angoulème, who has decided to run off with him. This provides Lucien with a chance to leave his provincial backwater life and try to make a name for himself in Paris. Lucien, full of dreams of glory (and full of himself), sallies forth.

The book was enjoyable in its portrayal of small town life in Angoulème, but it really gets interesting when Lucien reaches Paris. Lucien and his patroness become mutually disenchanted the very moment they reach the big city. It has so much better to offer! Unfortunately for Lucien, he needs the lady more than she needs him. David and Eve (poverty-stricken, overly generous newlyweds) have given him seed money. He blows through the cash in no time and finds himself destitute. Now is make or break time. Does Lucien have what it takes to be a writer?

He buckles down. He works on his poetry and a historical novel. And he finds friends. The first group of friends are noble, hardworking men, all geniuses of one sort or another, generous and loyal. They have ideals that they sincerely believe in. And they are poor. Lucien is grateful for the friendship; however, he is unable to abide the poverty. He finds another friend, Etienne, who is a journalist. Although his noble friends warn him strenuously against it, Lucien follows Etienne down the corrupt path of journalism. (And oh boy! is Balzac full of contempt for journalists!)

The reader is whisked along with Lucien as he rises and falls. Balzac masterfully portrays the corruption throughout Paris’ artistic world--from the publishers to the newspapers to the theater. Reviews are bought and sold. The newspaper editors are in bed with the publishers and favors are exchanged and negotiated. Vengeance is obtained through the clever use of the mighty pen. Wit rules. Ideals (if they exist at all) are sacrificed to the highest bidder. Lucien imagines himself to be on top of this world, but in fact, he’s in over his head.

Lucien’s weaknesses are always on full display. Although he is faced with hardship aplenty, he is also handed numerous opportunities. Every time he is faced with a moral decision, he makes a bad choice. He takes the expedient path. Surrounded by bad company, it’s easy to understand how he can justify his own failings and count them as strengths–everyone else does it. But Lucien is not a protagonist whose success you can root for. He’s such an arrogant, smug little guy that his comeuppance is no tragedy. What hurts is that he pulls down innocent people as he falls.

The terrible tension that drives the last part of the book is whether the truly good people in the book, David and Eve, will be able to rise above the desperate situation they fall into through no fault of their own. Bankrupted by Lucien’s excesses, tricked by people they are naive enough to trust, they must somehow ride out the storm.

I loved this book. It did require a significant investment of time and mental energy. I’m sure that if I had more mental energy I would have been able to appreciate it even more. (The politics of the time period are fascinating and play no small role in the journalists’ discussions/banter, but my knowledge of French politics of the time period is pretty superficial.) What I appreciated even more was how frightfully relevant the book is. The Human Comedy indeed! As to the seedy portrayal of journalists–they have sold out to be paid mouthpieces for one party or the other–read any of the comment boards on today’s internet news sites. Everyone accuses "the other side’s" news of bias. And as for the poor struggling writer–Lucien is laughed out of the publisher’s office when he presents himself as a poet. He fares slightly better with his historical novel written "in the manner of Sir Walter Scott." Yet he can’t get it published until, as a journalist, he has access to the power of reviews.

Lucien is intricately involved in the incestuous publishing process. He has written numerous paid reviews; in fact, he has learned how much better it is when he hasn’t read the books. If the pages are uncut, he can more easily sell his free review copies to discount book sellers. He uses his position as a reviewer to anonymously tear apart a "friend’s" novel in order to scare the publisher into accepting his own manuscript, then wrote two more reviews of the same book with different viewpoints. Running through my head was the scandal (is it even so scandalous or did everyone pretty much know it all along?) of paid reviews on Amazon and other web forums.

More interesting details– Lucien has a beautiful young actress for a mistress, so we see how corruption works in the theater. Newspapers are sent tickets for their reviewers and some extras for the reviewers to sell to ticket discounters. In addition, the theaters buy subscriptions to the newspapers. The reviewers write mainly positive reviews. But it’s more complicated than that. Some of those discounted tickets are used to seat "claqueurs," who could be hired to applaud or make other noise of approval for favorite actresses/actors and help ensure the success of a play. (How much simpler to use laugh tracks on TV!) If a rival theater or other vengeful person wanted to bring a play down, he could hire people to hiss, boo, or maintain stony silence at appropriate times. Or he could simply pay a reviewer to write a terrible review, but that would have to get the editor’s approval. For some reason, I think I’ll be reading theater/movie reviews with a jaundiced eye.

The weird thing is, as I read this painfully cynical book with its weak, selfish, amoral protagonist who swam through a sea of corruption and imbibed it all, it didn’t weigh me down. This is one of the wonderful things about historical fiction: perspective. When I read about life in the Middle Ages, the horror of a siege, the primitive medical knowledge, the cynical political maneuvering of kings and religious leaders throughout the ages, the mixed motivations of crusaders, I come away thinking 1) at least I’m not living then or 2) they got through that, we can get through this (whatever this happens to be that week.) Or, as when I read about the state of the literary world in post-Napoleonic France, I can say to myself: things never change. Is that good? Of course not, but it does put things in perspective. When we decry the state of publishing today and worry that books are going away, writers can’t make a living, reviewers are paid robots, it’s the end of literature as we know it–it seems the same was true two hundred years ago. I don’t know why, but I find that oddly reassuring.

  hosted by My Reader's Block.

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