Saintsbury Introduction, Volume VIII – Part I

Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues):
     The Two Poets (Les Deux Poétes)
     Eve and David (Eve et David)

The longest, without exception, of Balzac’s books, and one which contains hardly any passage that is not very nearly of his best,  Illusions Perdues suffers, I think, a little in point of composition from the mixture of the Angouleme scenes of its first and third parts with the purely Parisian interest of Un Grand Homme de Province. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the gain in distinctness and lucidity of arrangement derived from putting Les Deux Poétes and Eve et David (a much better title than that which has been preferred in the Edition Définitive) together in one volume, and reserving the greatness and decadence of Lucien de Rubempré for another. It is distinctly awkward that this should be divided, as it is itself an enormous episode, a sort of Herodotean parenthesis, rather than an integral part of the story. And, as a matter of fact, it joins on much more to the Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes than to its actual companions. In fact, it is an instance of the somewhat haphazard and arbitrary way in which the actual division of the Comédie has worked, that it should, dealing as it does wholly and solely with Parisian life, be put in the Scènes de la Vie de Province, and should be separated from its natural conclusion not merely as a matter of volumes, but as a matter of divisions. In making the arrangement, however, it is necessary to remember Balzac’s own scheme, especially as the connection of the three parts in other ways is too close to permit the wrenching of them asunder altogether and finally. This caution given, all that is necessary can be done by devoting the first part of the introduction entirely to the first and third or Angouleme parts, and by consecrating the latter part to the egregious Lucien by himself.

There is a double gain in doing this, for, independently of the connection as above referred to, Lucien has little to do except as an opportunity for the display of virtue by his sister and David Sèchard; and the parts in which they appear are among the most interesting of Balzac’s work. The “Idyllic” charm of this marriage for love, combined as it is with exhibitions of the author’s power in more than one of the ways in which he loved best to show it, has never escaped attention from Balzac’s most competent critics. He himself had speculated in print and paper before David Sèchard was conceived; he himself had for all “maniacs,” all men of one idea, the fraternal enthusiasm of a fellow-victim. He could never touch a miser without a sort of shudder of interest; and that singular fancy of his for describing complicated legal and commercial undertakings came in too. Nor did he spare, in this wide-ranging book, to bring in other favorite matters of his, the hobereau – or squireen – aristocracy, the tittle-tattle of the country town and so forth.

The result is a book of multifarious interest, not hampered, as some of its fellows are, by an uncertainty on the author’s part as to what particular hare he is coursing. Part of the interest, after the description of the printing office and of old Séchard’s swindling of his son, is a doubling, it is true, upon that of  La Muse du Département, and is perhaps a little less amusingly done; but it is blended with better matters. Sixte du Chatelet is a considerable addition to Balzac’s gallery of the aristocracy in transition – of the Bonaparte parvenus whom perhaps he understood even better than the old nobility, for they were already in his time becoming adulterated and alloyed; or than the new folk of business and finance, for they were but in their earliest stages. Nor is the rest of the society of Madame de Bargeton inferior.

But the real interest both of Les Deux Poétes, and still more of Eve et David, between which two, be it always remembered, comes in the Distinguished Provincial, lies in the characters who gave their name to the last part. In David, the man of one idea, who yet has room for an honest love and an all-deserved friendship, Balzac could not go wrong. David Séchard takes a place by himself among the sheep of the Comédie. Some may indeed say that this phrase is unfortunate, that Balzac’s sheep have more qualities of the mutton than innocence. It is not quite to be denied. But David is very far indeed from being a good imbecile, like César Birotteau, or a man intoxicated out of common-sense by a passion respectable in itself, like Goriot. His sacrifice of his mania in time is something – nay, it is very much; and his disinterested devotion to his brother-in-law does not quite pass the limits of sense.

But what shall we say of Eve? She is good of course, good as gold, as Eugénie Grandet herself; and the novelist has been kind enough to allow her to be happier. But has he quite interested us in her love for David? Has he even persuaded us that the love existed in a form deserving the name? Did not Eve rather take her husband to protect him, to look after him, than either to love, honor, and obey in the orthodox sense, or to love for love’s sake only, as some still take their husbands and wives even at the end of the nineteenth century? This is a question which each reader must answer for himself; but few are likely to refuse assent to the sentence, “Happy the husband who has such a wife as Eve Chardon!”

The bibliography of this long and curious book – almost the only one which contains some verse, some of Balzac’s own, some given to him by his more poetical friends – occupies full ten pages of M. de Lovenjoul’s record. The first part, which bore the general title, was a book from the beginning, and appeared in 1837 in the Scènes de la Vie de Province. It had five chapters, and the original verse it contained had appeared in the Annalaes Romantiques ten years earlier with slight variants. The second part,  Un Grand Homme de Province, likewise appeared as a book, independently published by Souverain in 1839 in two volumes and forty chapters. But two of these chapters had been inserted a few days before the publications in the Estafette. Here Canalis was more distinctly identified with Lamartine than in the subsequent texts. The third part, unlike its forerunners, appeared serially in two papers, L’Etat and Le Parisien, in the year 1843, under the title of David Séchard, ou les Souffrances d’un Inventeur, and next year became a book under the first title only. But before this last issue it had been united to the other two parts, and had appeared as Eve et David in the first edition of the Comédie.

George Saintsbury

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.

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