Lost Illusions: A Distinguished Provincial at Paris by Honoré de Balzac

Illusions Perdues: Un Grand homme de province à Paris
Lost Illusions: A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
Also translated as Lost Illusions: A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris


Mme Louise de Bargeton and Lucien travel to Paris – together, scandalously even though they are well chaperoned by the manservant Gentil and Albertine the maid. There is no real opportunity to talk since they are always in the company of others. They take rooms at an inn – Lucien in a room directly above Louise – and sleep exhaustingly (and separately) much of the day away. At 4pm Lucien stumbles out of bed, hurriedly dresses, and descends from his room to see Louise, who somehow doesn’t look so grand in the more humble surroundings of the rather shabby inn. Louise acts a bit standoffishly to Lucien, and we find that she has been paid a visit by Sixte du Chatelet, her former elderly suitor who had introduced Lucien to Louise. He has actually followed her carriage to Paris and the inn. A clever fellow!

They are playing Chatelet’s game now. Round one was lost when Louise took up with Lucien (though we are to understand that as yet Lucien and Louise have not been intimate). But now in Paris Chatelet is in his element. He cautions Louise about being seen as Lucien’s lover and tells her – truthfully – that such an association will ruin her in Paris society. Although he cleverly acknowledges Louise’s fondness for Lucien, Chatelet tells her that Lucien may not look so attractive once she meets the dandies of Paris. And most importantly he gives Louise the name of clothing and accessory makers who can transform her provincial look into something more acceptable to Paris. Chatelet does not directly run down Lucien, he is setting the trap for Paris to disparage him as the country bumpkin he is. Chatelet urges Louise to take private quarters under a different roof than Lucien and leaves to locate accommodations for her. It is this news that she breaks to Lucien when he descends from his room.

Lucien is disturbed that Louise will be moving away from him even though Louise presents the decision as a concern for his career. She reassures him that they will spend their days together, and Louise removes herself in a carriage provided by Chatelet. Her new lodgings were much better than those of the inn, and Louise is surprised that the price is only 600 francs a month. I wonder if Chatelet is subsidizing the cost?

Chatelet invites Louise and Lucien to the theatre the following day – it seems renting a box is quite inexpensive in the off-season, and Chatelet calculates he can impress Louise and expose her to society quite cheaply by this method. Louise is impressed that he has invited Lucien, not realizing that Chatelet knows that Lucien and his dress and manner won’t hold up in society. Louise proceeds to upgrade her wardrobe in anticipation of the theatre and also with meeting her society cousin Mme d’Espard – her gateway to acceptance in Paris society. Lucien during the day retrieves his luggage so he may gain access to his best blue suit for the theatre. At the theatre that evening he notices the women quite handsome. “There were fair Parisiennes in fresh and elegant toilettes all about him; Mme de Bargeton’s costume, tolerably ambitious though it was, looked dowdy by comparison; the material, like the fashion and the color, was out of date. That way of arranging her hair, so bewitching in Angouleme, looked frightfully ugly here among the daintily devised coiffures which he saw in every direction.” We see the beginning of a theme: “In Mme de Bargeton and in Lucien a process of disenchantment was at work; Paris was the cause. Life had widened out before the poet’s eyes, as society came to wear a new aspect for Louise. Nothing but an accident now was needed to sever finally the bond that united them…” Chatelet continues to subtly undermine Lucien with Louise, not that a great deal of help is needed as he cannot measure up to the Paris dandies in his quaint costume and provincial manners.

When Lucien goes to call on Louise the next day he finds her out but that he is to meet her at the Opera in the Marquise d’Espard’s box that evening. He’s delighted until in roaming the streets he begins to realize how dismally he is dressed. He spends the rest of the day and more money than he can afford trying to acquire suitable clothing and accessories – evolving into what Chatelet later calls a wedding guest guy and another guest calls a dummy at a tailor’s shop-door. He is refused entry into the d’Espard box at the opera – no doubt he doesn’t look the part – and is only rescued when Louise and the Marquise arrive at the theatre. The Marquise is graciously condescending to Lucien at first, but through the machinations of Chatelet and the natural reaction of Paris society to this country-bumpkin she realizes associating with him might jeopardize her place in society. Louise notices that Lucien is star-struck with the grand appearance of the Marquise, and that makes her fear for his loyalty, just at Chatelet predicted. When the news is spread by M. de Rastinac – our old friend from another story – that Lucien is of humble birth, the jig is up. Chatelet persuades Louise and the Marquise to actually abandon Lucien in the opera box, and they plan to cancel the gathering the Marquise has planned for Lucien by claiming illness. Louise has natural good breeding and figures she can become transformed into a Parisian woman under the guidance of the Marquise.

Lucien finishes the opera, a little uneasy in being abandoned but quite taken with the opera and grand society. He realizes his costume is still all wrong, and he spends almost the rest of his fortune with a custom tailor to get the right Parisian look. He wants to look just right for the gathering in his honor at the Marquise d’Espard’s. But suddenly Louise is never available to him, and he receives a note from her that the gathering for Lucien is canceled due to the illness of the Marquise. When he sees Louise and the Marquise out in a carriage and they ignore him, he knows he has been ousted. He thinks money is the key to it all and vows that someday he will be rich. Chatelet tells Lucien quite frankly that Lucien’s background compromised the ladies and advises him to send back Louise’s letters as a magnanimous gesture to avoid making an enemy of her. This Chatelet is smooth!!

Lucien dresses in his new clothes and takes a stroll. “He had his day of triumph. He looked so handsome and so graceful, he was so well dressed, that women looked at him…” He returns to his room and mails Louise her letters with a note of scolding – he did not think of his own faithless thoughts. Then he moves to humble quarters as he is almost out of funds. He writes to his sister of his folly and tells her he will nevertheless make a name for himself. He begins to work and study in earnest, eating his meals at the humble Flicoteux restaurant, where most of the working poor eat. He meets Etienne Lousteau there and would like to befriend him, especially after he finds out Etienne is on the staff of a local newspaper. He’s puzzled that Etienne shows up at Flicoteux only occasionally – not knowing that he eats there only when he is broke.

This segment was interesting in that it depicts not just Louise but also Lucien influenced by the money and manners of Paris – he no longer worships Louise just as quickly as she sees his flaws. Balzac made me completely understand how Lucien would rush out and spend his fortune on clothes just to fit in, too. And finally I like Lucien better for having confessed his foibles to his sister and for settling down to work after his total rejection by Louise and her society friends.

Lucien continues to work and attend the theatre on cheap tickets obtained by standing in line for hours. He studiously avoids temptations to spend money but alas his funds are dwindling alarmingly. It is time to try to sell his works, a book of poetry and a French historical romance entitled “The Archer of Charles X” (which sounds suspiciously similar to Balzac’s Catherine d’Medici works). He walks the streets looking for a promising bookseller and enters the shop of Vidal and Porchon after seeing a great deal of activity inside and enticing advertisement posters for the latest books. While waiting to be seen he overhears the proprietors making a sharp deal with a hard-up vendor. When Lucien proposes his works, he learns that Vidal and Porchon are book sellers’ agents and only bring out well-known names themselves. They direct him to Doguereau, a romance bookseller, but they scoff at his mention of his poetry – apparently there is no market for poetry.

Lucien leaves, observing that “it appeared that books, like cotton nightcaps, were to be regarded as articles of merchandise to be sold dear and bought cheap.” He says to himself that he has made a mistake but is nevertheless intrigued by this glimpse into the literary publishing world. Off he goes to Doguereau, a man of curious part literary and part merchant dress who “united the magisterial, dogmatic air, and the hollow countenance of the professor of rhetoric with the sharp eyes, suspicious mouth, and vague uneasiness of the bookseller.” He agrees to read Lucien’s novel but almost gives it back when Lucien tells him he also has a volume of poetry. Doguereau claims the poet can’t properly write novels, but relents when Lucien reminds him Sir Walter Scott did both.

Two days later Doguereau visits Lucien’s impoverished rooms. He had planned to offer him 1000 francs for the novel but changed to offering him only 400 francs when he sees Lucien’s poor circumstances. He also proposes that Lucien write two books a year for him at 600 francs a piece if the first novel sells out. But Lucien spends 120 francs a month on his miserable existence and is so insulted by the offer that he grabs the book back and says he’d rather burn it first. Agitated, he leaves his rooms and runs into Daniel d’Arthez, a man he has admired from afar for some time. Daniel seems the paragon of an aspiring writer and indeed Balzac tells us he becomes quite successful later in life. Lucien tells Daniel his story of Doguereau, and Daniel gives him encouragement and agrees to read his book. Daniel tells Lucien his work is good but too much like the work of his model, Sir Walter Scott. He makes constructive suggestions for improvement which sound a lot like a blueprint for the way Balzac writes: start with colorful descriptions instead of dialogue, plunge straight into the action, vary methods, add passion to the women characters, etc.

Daniel, who writes just enough hack work to support himself while pursuing his studies and writing, becomes Lucien’s role model. Gradually Lucien is accepted into Daniel’s circle of friends, all of who make other appearances in “The Human Comedy”. This group of thinkers meets in Daniel’s rooms every evening and through their bond of goals and exchange of ideas are an unselfish society of love and friendship. Times moves on while Lucien recasts his novel, and Lucien runs out of money. He visits Doguereau but finds him out of the office and doesn’t go back again. His friends notice he didn’t appear at supper and knowing he must be broke went together and scrapped up 200 francs for him. Meanwhile a plea for funds from him results in David’s borrowing 200 francs and his mother pawning enough to send him 100 francs. Things are not going well at home with David occupied trying to invent the new paper material, Eve pregnant and running the printing shop, and mother having had to go back to nursing to make ends meet. Yet Lucien accepts the 300 francs and immediately pays his friends back. The friends chide him for being uncomfortable in their debt.

Lucien thinks of becoming a journalist until he can sell his book even though greatly discouraged by his friends, who see journalism as a dishonorable profession of liars. Nevertheless he pursues this idea by going to the newspaper office of editor Andoche Finet. It is a repeat of his experience with publishing – he waits a long time, witnesses a journalist being cheated out of part of his earnings, even overhears a milliner bribing the newspaper to promote her works. This should have discouraged him, one would think, but it does not. He locates his old journalist acquaintance Etienne Lousteau at dinner. Etienne listens to his sonnets and thinks them worthwhile but strongly advises Lucien to give up his quest. We learn of his own story of not having the connections and funds to advance. It’s a dog eat dog world and unless you can blackmail enough people or have enough connections for success even the best work will not be known. Etienne talks of his own bitter sell out to journalism with tears in his eyes.

Etienne Lousteau continues telling Lucien the story of his career in Paris. He succeeded in getting one of his writings accepted at the Theatre-Francais, but he was unable to make a go of it there because he had no power or influence over the actors. He sold a novel to Doguereau for 200 francs and finally decided, like Lucien, that journalism could make his living. He endured months of making his way begging for journalism work, passing over insults, etc. Now he reviews almost for free the plays at the Boulevard theatres for editor Finot’s paper. Managers give him tickets as bribes for a good word, and Etienne sells the tickets along with reviewers’ copies of books. Publishers of books are forced to provide copies that Etienne and Finot can resell or else they will publish bad notices in the paper. Etienne also writes for and against various commercial articles and takes bribes from various tradesmen. Actors pay for favorable reviews or for just mentioning them in any form at all. He even sells the papers neutrality on certain subjects! Etienne says “I am a hired bravo; I ply my trade among ideas and reputations, commercial, literary, and dramatic. I am beginning to be looked upon as a man to be feared. Someday, instead of living with Florine at the expense of a druggist who gives himself the airs of a lord, I shall be in a house of my own; I shall be on the staff of a leading newspaper…and on that day…Florine will become a great actress.” Etienne describes second-rate literature as “the kept-mistress picked out of the brothels of journalism, lucky literature as “the flaunting, insolent courtesan who has a house of her own and pays taxes, who receives great lords, treating or ill-treating them as she pleases…” And yet for the Luciens and his friend d’Arthez, at least at first, literature is a “white-robed angel with many-colored wings, bearing a green palm branch in the one hand, and in the other a flaming sword.”

Lucien vows to fight on, and Etienne decides to help promote Lucien. He advises Lucien to first try to find someone to print his poetry, the Marguerites. Does Etienne want to watch another soul like him corrupted? Balzac says “Lousteau, seeing that Lucien was resolute, enlisted him as a recruit, and hoped to attach him to himself. The relative positions of the two were similar – one hoped to become a corporal, the other to enter the ranks.” Etienne sends Lucien home to dress up for his entry into the society of connections at a first-night performance at the Panorama-Dramatique. They will first go to the book publisher Dauriat, who will introduce Lucien to some journalists and wheeler dealers, and then dine with his mistress and friends.

Lucien goes to Etienne’s rooms, which are rather shabby. Etienne says his true home is with Florine, his rooms are just his kennel: “I appear in state in the Rue de Bondy, in the new apartments which our druggist has taken for Florine; we hold the house-warming this evening.” The bookseller Barbet drops by, and hard negotiations take place that finally result in Etienne’s obtaining a little cash for the evening. Lucien is astonished that Etienne sells Barbet the books for which he is to write reviews – as if reading the books and taking them seriously had anything to do with the reviews! He explains that sometimes he listens to Florine’s synopsis of a novel and throws something together, sometimes he just writes ‘what he thinks the reader might like, and if Florine says the novel has lots of author’s ‘stuff’ he sends for another copy of the book and takes a closer look. His last advice to Lucien before they leave for the evening is to ink the strings on a bound manuscript – that way the author can tell if the publisher ever read the book.

Part II begins with a vivid description of the Wooden Galleries of the Palais Royal, a sort of squalid bazaar of booksellers and other merchandise and at night taken over by the prostitutes of Paris. It is a cross between a gypsy camp and a country fair. Lousteau and Lucien go into the shop of bookseller Ladvocat – the place to connect with people of the literary trade. Etienne’s editor Finot is there discussing an article with Vernou, or rather negotiating who is to claim authorship, who is to be pumped up or put down. Lousteau invites Finot to Florine’s housewarming. A young man Blondet enters – he is a rising critic. Novelist Nathan enters – he’s young and hesitant though his first book was just reviewed favorably by Blondet. Lucien is struck by how subservient Nathan is to Blondet even though he’s read Nathan’s work and thought it quite good. All this activity makes Lucien’s head swim.

We learn that Dauriat is planning to take on partners in his newspaper, and Finot is interested because he sees it will be difficult to establish newspapers in the coming years due to the overall political situation in France. And he wants to use a newspaper to advance his personal causes. Dauriat discusses the cost of doing the business of selling books – all those bribes for good reviews are quite expensive, and Lucien wonders how any first book could ever get published. You’d think by now he’d be starting to get it. Dauriat after first turning his nose up at Lucien’s poetry agrees to look at it after being assured by Etienne it was a masterpiece, “a volume of sonnets that will put Petrarch to the blush”. The cynicism of all parties is really quite disturbing.

Finot asks Etienne to ask his mistress Florine to get her druggist sugar-daddy to buy 1/6th interest in Dauriat’s paper for the 30,000 francs Finot has agreed to put in for a 1/3 interest and editorial supremacy. Finot wants above all his own mouthpiece. In return he will name Etienne editor and provide him financial benefits. It could be the start of wealth for Etienne. Finally Lucien and Etienne are off to the theatre. The druggist Matifat hovers in the background of Florine’s dressing room – which doesn’t seem to disturb Etienne at all. He says it is not much different than being the lover of a married woman, and they have to get their funds where they can. He doesn’t feel bad asking Florine to get Matifat to buy the interest in the newspaper – it will help Florine’s career and save Matifat money he’s currently spending on bribes for her to receive favorable notices. The other actress Coralie seems taken with Lucien, though she too of course has a sugar-daddy. The actresses seem a bit absent-minded about their parts, and the author of the play M. du Bruel drops by to encourage them to perform well.

And so Lucien sees what the literary life in Paris is really like. He “had gone from surprise to surprise since the dinner at Flicoteaux’s. For two months Literature had meant a life of poverty and want; in Lousteau’s room he had seen it at its cynical worst; in the Wooden Galleries he had met Literature abject and Literature insolent. The sharp contrasts of heights and depths; of compromise with conscience; of supreme power and want of principle; of treachery and pleasure; of mental elevation and bondage – all this made his head swim, he seemed to be watching some strange unheard-of-drama.”

They wait to see the success of the play, largely determined by even more bribes. Other theatres have paid hissers, but Matifat has hired 200 men to counteract this strategy. Money seems and is everything. Lucien thinks of d’Arthez and of David back home and feels sad. When he questions Etienne about these ethics, Etienne reminds him how lucky he is to be getting a foot in the stirrup with his help. He shows him how soon he will be making a decent living and more through Etienne’s editorship at the newspaper.

As Lucien watches the theatrical performance, he momentarily envies Etienne’s relationship with Florine – already forgetting Matifat in the background. “Thoughts rose within him that set his soul on fire as the spectacle on the stage had heated his senses…He felt the fascination of the life that was offered to him, of the gleams of light among its clouds; and thus so much the more keenly because it shone out like a blaze of fireworks against the blank darkness of his own obscure, monotonous days of toil.”

It becomes obvious that Coralie is smitten with Lucien – she is blowing her performance due to her distress over him. Lucien looks at the sultry 18 year old with lust and decides to take her on for the experience. He’s already tried love with Mme de Bargeton with disastrous results, so he figures he might as well indulge his less lofty passions. “I know nothing of the love that wallows in luxury and wine and sensual pleasure…I have lived more with ideas than with realities…Must one not first learn of courtesans and actresses the delights, the perfections, the transports, the resources, the subtleties of love, if only to translate them afterwards into the regions of a higher love than this?” What a great rationalizer is our Lucien! Somehow he has already forgotten Coralie’s sugar-daddy Camusot – exactly the situation Lucien just criticized of Florine and Etienne.

Lucien indicates he will go home with Coralie, and the play is saved as Coralie’s acting is improved. Meanwhile Etienne leaves to provide more copy to Finot, who is short-handed as usual. When Lucien in musing about Coralie tells Etienne about the history of his love affair with Mme de Bargeton and his antipathy to Chatelot, Etienne tells him he knows of them and their attendance at the Opera. He’ll use them as the satirical subject of his copy, and by tomorrow they will be “in no pleasant predicament.” How easy it all is! And Lucien is to stay and write notices of the play as his first assignment for Finot.

It’s all a dream. “The solemnity and reality of life disappear, the most sacred things are matter for a jest, the most impossible things seem to be true. Lucien felt as if he had taken some narcotic…He plunged into this joyous intoxication.” After the play lights have dimmed, off Lucien goes in a carriage with Coralie, the playwright de Bruel, Camisot, and his father-in-law Cardot – who apparently also offers financial support to Florine in exchange for sexual favors. Coralie maneuvers a promise of a carriage from Camusot while groping Lucien’s knee. At Florine’s housewarming, the cast, Etienne, Lucien Nathan, Finot, Blondet, other journalists, and the sugar-daddies Camusot, Matifat, and Cardot gather. Deals are made for box seats and other advances for good reviews. The various journalists collaborate to fill Finot’s last-minutes pages of copy. Lucien in writing his first review is glad to give glowing notices. Etienne writes an amusing satire of “The Elderly Beau” featuring lightly disguised Mme de Bargeton and Chatelot.

But Lucien had made an error – his review is too good, and now Etienne seems him as a rival and determines that he must keep him impoverished to keep him in line. Oblivious Lucien is focused on Coralie, who arranges with Florine to get Camusot so drunk he won’t be able to go home with her. She can’t wait to get Lucien alone.

A disturbing discussion of journalism takes place. “Every newspaper…is a ship to which people come for opinions of the right shade…A newspaper is not supposed to enlighten its readers but to supply them with congenial opinions. Give any newspaper time enough, and it will be base, hypocritical, shameless, and treacherous; the periodical press will be the death of ideas, systems, and individuals; nay it will flourish upon their decay.”

With the aide of Etienne, Camusot is indeed too drunk to accompany Coralie home. Lucien although drunk himself does make the trip. Coralie and her faithful maid Berenice carefully undress him and put him to bed, and the next day Lucien and Coralie make love. Camusot makes an appearance as Lucien is hidden in an inner room, but Berenice and Coralie fail to remove Lucien’s boots which had just been polished. In an amusing scene, Camusot spots the boots and ponders whether to mention them and start a confrontation he doesn’t really want. But Coralie takes the bull by the horns and tells Berenice to bring her a button-hook, she simply must practice walking in the boots for a performance even though they hurt her dreadfully. Camusot, not really wanting to face the truth, buys the story and even insists on providing funds to acquire better-fitting boots for her.

Lucien moves in with Coralie secretly. He’s carried away with lust and the luxury of Coralie provided by Camusot. Coralie sends out for a dozen shirts, cravats, handkerchiefs, and gloves to better dress Lucien. When Camusot pays a call, Lucien appears to also be paying a call. Lucien has fallen far in the day or so since he criticized Etienne for having a mistress kept by another man: “I am too poor for you to ruin yourself for me” he says in response to Coralie’s expression of disdain for Camusot. “And thus Lucien passed under the Caudine Forks.” The Caudine Forks was the shortest route for the Romans to get to Lucia to aid the city, but it was an entrapment set up by their enemies.

Coralie and Lucien meet Mme d’Espard and Mme de Bargeton while out driving. They looked at him in surprise and met his scornful glance. “That moment was one of the sweetest in his life, and perhaps decided his future.” Lucian is in paradise, revenge is sweet! Lucien continues to move in society and among journalists. He meets and dislikes the critic Hector Merken, an ambitious and vindictive man. He gambles away his money only to discover the next morning that Coralie has replaced it. He returns to his humble lodgings for the first time in a few days and discovers his writing friends have completed a loving criticism and rework of his novel. He is delighted and rushes off to d’Arthez’s lodging. “As he climbed the steps and thought of these friends, who refused to leave the path of honor, he felt conscious that he was less worthy of them than before.” They would have never allowed Coralie to continue with Camusot, and they abhor journalism.

Lucien learns that our old philosopher friend Louis Lambert has died and the friends are in mourning. When Lucien says that he is not quite yet a journalist, d’Arthez proclaims delight and expounds at great length on the vile behavior of the profession. Lucien leaves his friends with an attack of conscience, a voice saying to him, ‘You will be a journalist – a journalist!’ as the witch cried to Macbeth that he should be king hereafter.”

Etienne introduces Lucien to more important people including Vermou, who writes for a liberal political paper. Etienne advises Lucien to invite Vermou, Hector Merlen and his paramour Mme du Val-Noble to supper. Vermou lives in a cheap and vulgar flat and is married to a plain woman. His children are unpleasant and unattractive. Apparently Vernou suffers from his marriage but is unable to abandon his family. “‘No wonder his epigrams are so sour, a tiger with two hands that tears everything to pieces.”

Camusot notices Lucien’s boots as they meet at Coralie’s. Coralie immediately goes on the offensive and tells Camusot that she loves Lucien, take it or leave it. He takes it, he cannot do without her and hopes to be around when Lucien will prove unfaithful. Camusot leaves and Lucien and Coralie make plans to live together. They figure they can live well with Camusot’s paying for Coralie’s clothes, Coralie having an increased salary at the Gymnase (due to Lucien’s article), and Lucien at least earning from journalism. They will get into debt with horses and carriages and servants, but no matter.

Finot goes out of his way to get Lucien to sign a contract for reviews before Etienne becomes editor. It seems a reasonable deal, but we suspect he’s up to something as usual. Meanwhile Lucien continues to be taken in hand by his new journalist friends. They decide they will attack the second edition of Nathan’s new book when Nathan’s publisher Dauriat refuses to publish Lucien’s poems. They assure Lucien that Nathan will understand, and we find out later that negative criticism raises the profile of a book and helps create talk and subsequent sales. The journalists also continue the satire article on Chatelet and Mme de Bargeton. The journalists display astounding versatility and subtlety in their attacks, and Lucien becomes a quick study in this skill.

Dauriat responds to the attacks on Nathan’s book – he now realizes the power of Lucien over his profits. He comes to Lucien and Coralie, who make him wait while they breakfast. Dauriat buys the Marguerites (Lucien’s poems), obviously as a bribe for Lucien’s and the other journalists’ good will. He pays Lucien a handsome 3,000 francs, but in exchange we learn that Lucien signs away all future rights to the poems.

There are more connections, more parties, more articles. The other journalists explain to Lucien that now he must write other articles under different signatures praising Nathan’s book. All the talk will definitely make the book a success. Lucien first objects to this as he doesn’t like the book, but after a detailed explanation of how the game is played he quickly catches on.

Coralie spends more money in dressing Lucien to perfection, and he continues to rise in society. Lucien goes to the Ambigu Theatre to review a play but is refused a seat at first because the manager doesn’t know him. Even though he’s eventually seated, he’s incensed that he was unrecognized and writes a scathing review of the play. Much to his surprise, when he reads his review the next morning he finds that it has been tweaked positively enough to come out as a recommendation for the play. He complains to Etienne, who explains to Lucien that it is not good to make theatre owners mad as they provide complimentary seats and other perks which can be sold for ready cash. Surely by now Lucien realizes everything is for sale and nothing is done because it is right or honest. Etienne takes Lucien to a theatre ticket broker Braulard to make arrangements for selling his future theatre tickets.

At his play review at the Ambigu, he sits in the box of the Duce de Rhetore, who advises him to apply quickly for the legal right to use de Rubempre instead of Chardon as his name while the current Royalist government is in power. “Take advantage of the last moments of liberty to make yourself formidable, and you will have everything…” Curiously we learn that Lucien’s new friend is in a plot to draw Lucien back into the circle of Mme de Bargeton, apparently as a reconciliation but we suspect as a set up for disgrace.

Lucien and Coralie give a dinner in Coralie’s rooms – theatre managers, sugar-daddies, journalists, and his old friends from his days of poverty. The party goes well except his old friends leave in disgust when they see what Lucien has become, an unprincipled journalist who panders to all and is enthusiastically embraced by Nathan for the favorable review.

Lucien (and Coralie) no doubt are headed to their doom, can anyone doubt it? The dinner party continues with a bit too much wine. “…all the men in the company were the best friends in the world, addressing each other as great men and bold spirits, who held the future in their hands.” Finot gets a volunteer in Merlen to write a pamphlet in favor of the system of primogeniture, and the journalists talk of their power with the Government. All this party talk is a bit confusing to me. I gather that the Liberals are for a government by the people and the Royalists are for the restored monarchy. And of course the Royalists are currently in power but are not long for control.

More parties, wonderful canes, diamond studs, and “an assortment of waistcoats marvelous to behold”. Lucien was a hit at the German Minister’s dinner, where Mme d’Espard and Mme de Montcornet flatter him excessively. Mme d’Espard tries to explain away their earlier treatment of Lucien by her necessity of seeking court favor. She even tells him how amusing his articles on Chatelet were. “Lucien knew not what to think of all this…the treachery and bad faith of journalism he had had some experience; but in spite of his perspicacity, he scarcely expected to find bad faith or treachery in society.” Oh, Lucien, will you never learn?

Mme de Montcornet invites Lucien to her house, and Lucien thinks of exchanging Coralie for such a grand lady is Mme de Montcornet. His need for a title comes up again, and Lucien discerns the difference in the splendor of Coralie and the splendor of true nobility. He is encouraged to come over to the Royalist cause as a man potentially with a title. He appears to get on splendidly with all, but after he leaves it is declared he’s a coxcomb and “he will be rotten before he is ripe.” Definitely our Lucien is being set up for a fall.

Coralie in her simplicity encourages Lucien to go over to the Royalists. Lucien soon meets Mme de Bargeton at Mme de Montcornet’s house. She looked splendid and every bit the great lady. Somehow she manages to win over Lucien: “A woman of the world has a wonderful genius for diminishing her faults by laughing at them; she can obliterate them all with a smile or a question of feigned surprise…She remembers nothing, she can explain everything; she is amazed, asks questions, comments, amplifies, and quarrels with you, till in the end her sins disappear like stains on the application of a little soap and water…” But when she asks Lucien if he is happy, and he more or less says he is content and owes much to Coralie. The plot thickens as Lucien is now invited to the house of Mlle de Touches, who is 30 with an income of 80,000 livres. The women seem to swirl around Lucien intoxicatingly, and he blurts out that in two months he will arrange his title. Mme d’Espard promises to get word to the Chancellor of his title request. He learns to play whist, he escorts the ladies around Paris, he is apparently in the in crowd!

Lucien begins hanging out with “free-livers” such as Eugene Rastignac. He has given up his idea of winning fame in literature. He is assured by Chatelet (with whom he had made up) that “A plot below the surface rouses no one’s attention. Intrigue, moreover, is superior to talent, for it makes something out of nothing; while, for the most part, the immense resources of talent only injure a man.” Lucien has fallen far to buy such a statement!

Lucien is not working all that much, preferring the society life, and he and Coralie are falling further and further in debt. He secretly plans to switch to the Royalist paper Reveil to be headed by Merlen. He’s lured largely by the promise of Mme d’Espard and Mme de Bargeton to get him his title if he becomes Royalist. Lucien asks Dauriat when his book of poems is coming out but is put off by the publisher. Finally the debts are so large that Coralie’s horses, carriage, and furniture are repossessed. He asks Etienne for a loan but is told that Florine is in much the same shape. It seems Matifat has been lost. Etienne offers to help Lucien sell his book and takes him to publishers Fendant and Cavalier. Unknown to Lucien, Etienne is to receive a kickback for bringing Lucien to the publishers. They give Lucien 5,000 francs payment in future bills, which he has great difficulty converting discounted into funds – only receiving 500 francs from one broker and 1500 from another. Etienne is now engaged in a type of blackmail he calls ‘chantage’ to keep himself afloat in Florine’s reverses. He threatens to put articles of prominent people’s secrets in the press unless they pay him to suppress them. He and Finot tried their tricks on Matifat, but he is too unsentimental and too smart for him. They plot their revenge by publishing his not very literate and incriminating letters to Florine unless he coughs up hush money. These are not nice people, and Lucien sees fully how dangerous they are. He seems it would be imprudent to break with them especially if his new noble friends do not deliver on his title. He’s walking a tightrope between the journalist Liberals and the noble Royalists.

Depressed by their circumstances, Lucien and Etienne gamble away all their funds. Upon returning home, Lucien discovers Coralie has moved to more modest lodgings. Her theatre has failed, and she has settled her accounts and downsized – but welcomes Lucien with open arms. Lucien thinks he will make a recovery in his new position as a Royalist journalist. Lucien’s old friends d’Arthez, Geraud, and Chrestien visit and beg Lucien not to turn Royalist. They feel it will be his total ruin, that he will be perceived as an enemy of the people. However, “the three could make nothing of Lucien. Intercourse with the great world had developed in him the pride of caste, the vanities of the aristocrat. The poet thought…that there was a fortune in his good looks and intellect, accompanied by the name and title of Rubempre.” He lists himself as a contributor to Reveil.

The plot to ruin Lucien is executed. Lucien is slandered as the great traitor of the Liberals. Even his sonnets are slandered, and Dauriat proclaims he will not publish them. Vermou attacks him, speaking of his gambling problem and the anti-national nature of his forthcoming novel. Nathan comes up with an involved scheme to get Florine away from Etienne which involves asking Coralie to get Florine a part in his upcoming play at the Gymnase. Then he woos Florine with the promise of the part, and she – seeing Etienne was on his way down – cooperates with Nathan by turning over Matifat’s correspondence to Nathan. Nathan sells the correspondence back to Matifat and buys a sixth share of Finot’s new paper. Florine moves to sumptuous new apartments furnished by Nathan. Etienne is devastated. Somehow Lucien is blamed for all of this!! “And so it came to pass that deep plots were laid by all parties alike to rid themselves of this little upstart intruder of a poet who wanted to eat everybody up.” Vermou is jealous of Lucien’s social success. Finot “declared that Lucien had betrayed the secret of the combination against Matifat”. I’m not sure what that means. Etienne loses his work when Nathan sells his share of the paper to Finot.

Lucien writes on for the Royalist papers, working with Martainville – who knows nothing of all the plots against Lucien and stands by him loyally, and Hector Merlen. But Lucien’s association with Martainville makes him more hated than ever because Martainville is the most hated Royalist. He’s unwelcome of course in the greenroom of the Vaudeville where all the Liberals meet. But Lucien’s head is turned by the prospects of a title and then perhaps a noble marriage and great success. He does not fight his enemies, and even if he had he probably could not have won against such expert muckrakers.

Etienne knows Lucien’s weakness for a title and sets the plot in motion to bring him down through the wiles of Mlle des Touches, Mme d’Espard, Mme de Bargeton, and Mme de Montcornet. They have long memories! Lucien might have made a friend of Mme de Bargeton if he had taken her for his lover when they met again, but his remaining loyal to Coralie made the break permanent and vengeful. Now the plot gets even more complicated, it would seem unnecessarily so. A facetious article about the Keeper of the Seals is to be published and attributed to Lucien. This article will anger the King and he will supposedly cancel Lucien’s title – though in fact here has been no title application by the Touches circle of women. Just for good measure, the group plans to ruin Coralie too. With Finot’s control of the newspaper, Lucien will also be kept from earning money by publishing articles except in Martainville’s paper.

Coralie prepares for her new role, but alas Balzac says she does not have the gift of intrigue to survive plots against her. Coralie “was unskilled in the wiles of an actress – she could not fight her own battles nor protect herself against the machinations of jealousy behind the scenes.” Lucien is anxious that Coralie’s first performance be successful as she needed the success for the confidence to continue. He decides to take Fendant and Cavalier’s bills and ask Camusot to discount them even though to do so was quite humbling. Camusot doesn’t want to see Coralie fail and so eventually gives Lucien 4500 francs, mysteriously stipulating that he should add “for value received in silks” on the receipt. Not sure what that was about, though Camusot does know that Fendant and Cavalier are close to bankruptcy. Perhaps this is to cover himself with his wife. Or maybe so he can sue Lucien for the bills later.

Lucien uses the most of the money to arrange for a reception, clappers, all the things needed for a great opening night and gives the rest to Berenice for unpaid for expenses. The night before Coralie’s debut, Lucien is asked to review D’Arthez’s book which had just appeared. His editor wants a slashing review, and when Lucien refuses he’s told that he won’t have a job if he does not provide the review. Martainville and Merlen point out that Coralie would be tossed to the wolves of the Liberal papers if Lucien abandons the Royalists (by not writing the article). So Lucien was forced to choose between d’Arthez and Coralie. He finally goes to d’Arthez and confesses all, and unbelievably d’Arthez tries to help him rewrite the article to be slashing but not fatal. D’Arthez is s saint! Lucien is moved by his graciousness. When Lucien says that he is leaving his conscience in d’Arthez’s keeping, d’Arthez solemnly says “I look upon a periodical repentance as great hypocrisy” and “repentance becomes a sort of indemnity for wrongdoing… Repentance is virginity of soul, which we must keep for God; a man who repents twice is a horrible sycophant. I am afraid that you regard repentance as absolution.”

Lucien is “struck dumb” by d’Arthez’s words and remains melancholy through Coralie’s preparation for the opening night. Coralie flops, partly because of the conspiracy against her and partly because of her own youth and nervousness. She falls sick with fever, only made worse by the reviews. Florine stands by and takes over, all part of the plot. And goes on with the part to become recognized as one of France’s greatest actresses. Lucien is worried about Coralie who remains ill and assures her that as soon as he gets his title he will be successful and support them both. He grabs his remaining money and gambles it away.

Finot appears to ask him to write articles, including one on the Keeper of the Seals. Coralie continues to be ill and seems to worsen. Lucien goes to a great evening party at Mlle des Touches’ house and expects to hear of his title. He is assured by Mme de Bargeton that he may go to the Chancelerie in two days to find his patent of nobility signed. The Keeper of the Seals will deliver it there. The party shamelessly brags on Lucien and tells of great things the King has said of him. Lucien stays late and extracts a promise of a part for Coralie. Coralie has new hope. But the next morning the Keeper of the Seal article is published. It is not Lucien’s article, but it is attributed to him. Lucien goes to collect his title accompanied by du Chatelet, and of course he is told it has been torn up (by des Lupeaulx). Of course there was no title, it was only a piece of paper, but Lucien doesn’t know that. Lucien is ruined, he has neither Royalist or Liberal friends, no money, no way to earn a living.

He walks dejectedly home and sees his book published in a bookseller window. No one comments on it, no reviews, nothing. Michel Chrestien approaches him and spits in his face for his review of d’Arthez’s book. Lucien challenges him to a duel even though he has never fired a pistol and is seriously wounded in the duel itself. Coralie, who has carved out a little success for herself in a small play, nurses him back to health. His old friend Bianchon agrees to tend him and learns that Lucien was not responsible for any but one of the articles attributed to him. Lucien’s book is a failure, and Fendant and Cavalier are bankrupt. They had actually sold Lucien’s book for paper before filing. Dealers hawked it cheap. One dealer Barbet saved his copies, and we learn that two years later the book gains some respectability with the support of d’Arthez and Giraud.

I’m confused here because now Camusot proceeds against Lucien, I presume for the discounted bills. But they were on Fendant and Cavalier, so I would have presumed that Lucien would have been out of the picture. At any rate Coralie intervenes, presumably by most reluctantly reestablishing her liaison with Camusot. Coralie declines, and is pushed over the edge when the Gymnase is forced by Nathan to give her part to Florine. Lucien is still weak, Coralie becomes sick, and they are penniless. He goes to Etienne for the 1000 francs he owes him, but Etienne is in as bad a shape as Lucien. Etienne and Lucien and two other comrades all have sad stories to tell. “It seemed to the poet that he was the least unfortunate among the four.” One of the four, the critic Vignon, says “one must do as one can…Your book is good, but it excited jealousy, and your struggle will be hard and long. Genius is a cruel disease. Every writer carries a canker in his heart, a devouring monster, like the tapeworm in the stomach, which destroys all feeling as it arises in him. Which is the stronger? The man or the disease? One had need be a great man, truly, to keep the balance between genius and character. The talent grows, the heart withers. Unless a man is a giant…he must be content either to lose his gift or to live without a heart.”

Lucien in desperation forges bills of 3000 francs in the handwriting of his brother-in-law David Sechard and cashes them. He pays his bills and begins writing, but the word is spread around that he has “written himself out”. Alas, in a few months Coralie dies and Lucien doesn’t even have enough money to bury her. He goes to Mlle de Touches to ask for burial money, but she is asleep. Finally he secures 200 francs from Barbet in exchange for 10 drinking songs to be written that evening. A ghastly scene of Lucien writing the drinking songs by Coralie’s dead body is not to be forgotten. Later Mlle des Touches shows up and gives him 2000 francs, but it is too late to be used for Coralie or even for the funeral. Lucien’s old d’Arthez friends attend the funeral along with Mlle des Touches and Berenice and Camusot.

Lucien pays his debts (unlike Balzac!) and only 200 francs of Mlle des Touches’ money is left. Berenice and Lucien live on it for two months, and then Lucien sells his wardrobe for 50 francs. Lucien in anger gambles the 50 francs away, and there is no money for him to even return to David and Eve. He confesses his action to Berenice and asks for Coralie’s shawl. Berenice sees that he is going to hang himself. She declares she will get the money and tells him to walk on the Boulevards. Later she approaches him with the money dressed in her best clothes; she has obviously prostituted herself for the 20 francs he needs to get home. She hands him the money and flees. Lucien wants to return the money, but “He was forced to keep it as the final brand set upon him by life in Paris.”


Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, August 2008

2 comments on “Lost Illusions: A Distinguished Provincial at Paris by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Our boy Lucien goes to Paris, doesn’t measure up, almost starves to death, and turns to the total corruption of journalism to rise in society. Along the way he takes up with the young actress Coralie, who loves him but eventually dies. Lucien loses his place in society due to the machinations of his enemies and slinks back home. Balzac is at his intriguing best in this work, though one has to question whether or not every single aspect of life in the big city is as corrupt as Balzac depicts. Saintsbury says probably not and suggests that Balzac is peeved that every critic in Paris did not praise his work. This is a work I won’t soon forget.


  2. Definitely one of Balzac’s better-known works. Probably better known than Pere Goriot. I wonder if the only one more familiar to the general public is Cousine Bette because of the recent movie.


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