Lost Illusions, Honoré de Balzac, The Folio Society (2009)

The title ‘Lost Illusions‘ has always intrigued me into wanting to read this book. The picture in my head, based on the title, was a story full of philosophical musings on how age and experience inevitably crush the dreams and aspirations of youth. I am not sure why that story line captures my attention, but it always does, perhaps in the hope that nuggets of wisdom on circumventing this natural law will stem forth that I can pass on to my children. It turns out that Lost Illusions provides a much broader overview of life’s ups and downs then simply lifting the veil of ignorance that allows our youthfulness to be enveloped in a cloud of optimistic illusions; it shows the role that human character (or lack thereof) and societal conventions plays in both encouraging expectations and in ultimately destroying them.

Honoré de Balzac wrote Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions) between 1837 and 1843. It is part of Balzac’s multi-volume La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), a set of over 100 stories, novels and essays which present a detailed panoramic of French society in the first half of the nineteenth century. Lost Illusions is set partly in the provinces and partly in Paris, allowing Balzac to present a contrasting, microscopic and critical look at the cultural and moral norms between the two settings. For example, Balzac provides this insight into country life that certainly has some truth to it:

Lack of company is one of the great drawbacks of country life. When no relationships exist which call for minor concessions in dress and deportment, we lose the habit of accepting inconvenience for the sake of others and  deterioration sets in which affects our inner and outer selves.

Lucien Chardon, a young man of lower middle class background, is the focus of the story. Chardon lives in Angoulême, away from Paris. He is young, full of ambition, handsome, has some poetic talent and is desirous of a life in high society. Chardon ends up in a near affair with one Mme de Bargeton, a somewhat older woman at the pinnacle of high society in Angoulême. Balzac gives this affair plausibility by reminding the reader that:

…she reached that dreaded time in life when a women begins to regret her years of beauty which have fled past without her enjoying them, when she sees her roses fading, when a yearning for love is reborn with the desire to prolong the smiling days of youth.

How many women today, in all of history, have felt that pull? As the relationship between Chardon and Mme de Bargeton blooms, Balzac reminds us:

A characteristic of true love is its enduring resemblance to childhood: in both are found the same heedlessness, imprudence, prodigality, laughter and tears.

Balzac reminds us all what love is capable of producing in our souls.

Cupid is pleased with such deferential awe, not dissimilar to that which the glory of God arouses in his worshippers…”People who love find infinite pleasure discovering the poetry which fills their soul in the undulations of a landscape, the transparency of the atmosphere and the scents which rise from the earth. Nature speaks for them.

Mme de Bargeton runs away with Chardon to Paris, but quickly shuns him as her relations in Paris bring her into the cream of high society there. Mme de Bargeton’s relations and friends poison her mind on Chardon by getting her to recognize all of his faults, especially his lower class upbringing. This reminds us that the relationship was doomed from the start as Mme de Bargeton loved Chardon for reasons of herself, not him.

Many women so exaggerate their cult of love that they always expect to find a god in their idol; whereas a women who loves a man for himself rather than for her own sake adores the littleness as well as the greatness in him.

Initially, Chardon intends to set the world on fire with his writing. A friend tells Chardon that “the works of genius are watered with its tears”; he should just buckle down and let the quality of his work speak for itself, letting success come (or not). Instead, to make ends meet, Chardon wastes his talent in journalism, which is shown in all of its corrupt trappings. People become journalists for money, but then sacrifice all intellectual honesty to succeed.

Journalism is an inferno, a bottomless pit of iniquity, falsehood and treachery: one can only pass through it emerge unsullied if one is shielded as Dante was by the divine laurels of Virgil.

Obviously if journalists are essentially prostitutes, then newspapers themselves do not have much to say for them. Probably will offend a few of you, but the following reminded me of the rag referred to as The New York Times which forsake straight news reporting long ago to pursue its political agenda, though one can substitute about any media outlet for it when reading the following.

Newspapers are an evil…Instead of being a priestly function, the newspaper has become a political party weapon; now it is merely a trade; and like all trades it has neither faith nor principles. Every newspaper is…a shop which sells to the public whatever shade of opinion it wants. If there were a journal for hunchbacks it would prove night and morning how handsome, how good-natured, how necessary hunchbacks are. A journal is no longer concerned to enlighten, but to flatter public opinion. Consequently, in due course, all journals will be treacherous, hypocritical, infamous, mendacious, murderous; they’ll kill ideas, systems and men, and thrive on it. They’ll be in the happy position of all abstract creations: wrong will be done without anyone being guilty…A newspaper can behave in the most atrocious manner and no one on the staff considered that his own hands are soiled.

Chardon is enraptured by the power his role gives him, and becomes well known and part of high social circles. He even rebuffs a reconciliation with Mme de Bargeton, staying with his actress girlfriend instead. Both Mme de Bargeton and Chardon simply cannot get past what happened between them in the past.

Whereas criminals make peace with one another after some play with daggers, people who love each other fall out irretrievably for a look or a word. The secret behind estrangements which often seem inexplicable can be found in the memory of a well-nigh perfect union of hearts. One can live on with mistrust in one’s heart when the past affords no picture of pure and unclouded affection; but for two beings who in the past have been perfectly at one, life becomes intolerable as soon as looks and speech have to be kept in careful control.

The true aristocrats and power brokers dislike Chardon and are determined to put him in his place. His greed, his lack of a solid moral foundation, and his ignorance of the way of the world ensures the success of his enemies. When Chardon gives a reading of his poetry, it is bound to fail as he is surrounded by those who want him destroyed. Balzac explains what happens in a more artistic manner:

If poetry, when read or when recited, is to be understood, devout attention must be paid to it. There must be a close bond between reader and listener, for without this the electric communication of feeling is impossible. If this cohesion between souls is lacking, the poet then feels like an angel trying to sing a celestial hymn amid the jeering laughter of demons.

I will not provide a plot spoiler in this review. Suffice it to say that Chardon hits bottom and contemplates suicide.

Suicide results from a feeling which if you like we will call self-esteem in order not to confuse it with sense of honor. The day when a man despises himself, the day when he sees that others despise him, the moment when the realities of life are at variance with his hopes, he kills himself and thus pays homage to society, refusing to stand before it stripped of his virtues or his splendour.

Balzac paints an entertaining yet grim look at the morality, standards and lifestyle of both Paris and the provinces in the early 1800’s.  Pretty much nobody is who they seem to be, all presenting whatever face they need at any point in order to advance themselves. Chardon’s lack of true friends, rampant in this society where no one is who they seem, deprives him of:

What makes friendships indissoluble and doubles their charm is a feeling not found in love — the feeling of certainty.

Besides Chardon’s actress girlfriend Coralie, his sister Ève (both of whom are nearly angelic), his best friend David Séchard, and the writer Daniel d’Arthez, everyone takes whatever opportunity they have to get ahead, regardless of whose expense it comes from. Does nobody have a conscience?

Conscience, my dear, is a kind of stick that everyone picks up to thrash his neighbor with, but one he never uses against himself.

There are hundreds of details presenting the reader with an encyclopedic window into life in early 1800’s France; one feels completely immersed into the setting. The experience of Chardon in this book is nicely summed up by Balzac in a way that reflects the title:

That’s why one spends a good deal of one’s life weeding out what one has allowed to grow in one’s heart during adolescence. This operation is called gaining experience.

An important aspect of the story is Chardon’s relationship with his sister Ève and his best friend, David Séchard, who are married to each other. Séchard is a publisher who struggles throughout most of the story to invent a new and cheaper method of paper production. Balzac spends many, many pages discussing the making of paper and of presswork that most Books and Vines readers would probably find fascinating. It is a primer on early nineteenth century paper and press methodology (perhaps a fine press manufacturer reading this can comment on its accuracy).

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was an early proponent of literary realism (perhaps with a dash of naturalism), with the collection called La Comédie humane (The Human Comedy) being his crowning achievement. At 91 published works and 46 unpublished, this collection of interrelated stories is immense. His characters are real; even the good have flaws. Themes include power, wealth and social success. Characters across the social spectrum come in and out throughout his novels, typically shown struggling with or against the norms of society. Some works focus on country life, some on city life, others on military life or political life.  His novels can be negative in their view of human nature, especially when highlighting the morality of the higher stages of society. He has been enormously influential in literature, with writers such as Charles DickensGustave FlaubertEdgar Allan PoeFyodor Dostoyevsky, and Henry James taking stylistically from him.

The book itself is of very good quality, similar to most standard editions from The Folio Society. I particularly like the crushed silk over the boards. From certain angles it looks elegant and new.  From others, worn and haggard. Very apropos for the story. The illustrations by Francis Mosley are wonderful. I did find myself wishing they were in color, which for some reason seems like a good fit here. None the less, they are very well executed, in a style I really enjoy.  Many know Mosley from his excellent work in Folio’s Sherlock Holmes and Folio’s Conrad series. For a large book (at over 600 pages) the paper and type are well done, it is quite comfortable to read.

About the Edition

  • Illustrated by Francis Mosley (copyright 2009) with a colour frontispiece and 10 etchings
  • Translated by Herbert J. Hunt
  • Introduced by Graham Robb
  • Published with arrangement from Penguin Books Ltd
  • Set in Galliard at The Folio Society
  • Abbey Wove paper from Memminger MedienCentrum AG, Memmingen, Germany
  • Quarter bound in cloth with crushed silk sides by Lachenmaier, Reutlingen, Germany
  • Blocked with a design by Frances Button
  • 9½” x 6¼”, 608 pages

Pictures

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Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Book in Slipcase
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Macro of Spine
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Front Cover (crushed silk)
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Macro of Front Cover
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Spine and Covers
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Endpapers
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Frontispiece and Title Page
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Macro of Frontispiece
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Copyright Page
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Contents
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, List of Illustrations
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Macro of Sample Text #1
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Lost Illusions, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2

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