Lost Illusions: A Distinguished Provincial at Paris (Illusions Perdues: Un Grand homme de province à Paris)
The central part of Illusions Perdues, which in reason stands by itself, and may do so ostensibly with considerably less than the introduction explanatory which Balzac often gives to his own books, is one of the most carefully worked out and diversely important of his novels. It should, of course, be read before Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes, which is avowedly its second part, a small piece of Eve et David serving as the link between them. But it is almost sufficient by and to itself. Lucien de Rubempré ou le Journalisme would be the most straightforward and descriptive title for it, and one which Balzac in some of his moods would have been content enough to use.
The story of it is too continuous and interesting to need elaborate argument, for nobody is likely to miss any important link in it. But Balzac has nowhere excelled in finesse and success of analysis, the double disillusion which introduces itself at once between Madame de Bargeton and Lucien, and which makes any redintegratio amoris of a valid kind impossible, because each cannot but be aware that the other has anticipated the rupture. It will not, perhaps, be a matter of such general agreement whether he has or has not exceeded the fair license of the novelist in attributing to Lucien those charms of body and gifts of mind which make him, till his moral weakness and worthlessness are exposed, irresistible, and enable him for a time to repair his faults by a sort of fairy good-luck. The sonnets of Les Marguerites, which were given to the author by poetical friends – Gautier, it is said, supplied the “Tulip” – are undoubtedly good and sufficient. But Lucien’s first article, which is (according to a practice the rashness of which cannot be too much deprecated) given likewise, is certainly not very wonderful; and the Paris press must have been rather at a low ebb if it made any sensation. As we are not favored with any actual portrait of Lucien, detection is less possible here, but the novelist has perhaps a very little abused the privilege of making a hero, “Like Paris handsome, and like Hector brave,” or rather “Like Paris handsome, and like Phoebus clever.” There is no doubt, however, that the interest of the book lies partly in the vivid and severe picture of journalism given in it, and partly in the way in which the character of Lucien is adjusted to show up that of the abstract journalist still farther.
How far is the picture true? It must be said, in fairness to Balzac, that a good many persons of some competence in France have pronounced for its truth there; and if that be so, all one can say is, “So much the worse for French journalists.” It is also certain that a lesser, but still not inconsiderable number of persons in England – generally persons who, not perhaps with Balzac’s genius, have like Balzac published books, and are not satisfied with their reception by the press – agree more or less as to England. For myself, I can only say that I do not believe things have ever been quite so bad in England, and that I am quite sure there never has been any need for them to be. There are, no doubt, spiteful, unprincipled, incompetent practitioners of journalism as of everything else; and it is of course obvious that while advertisements, the favor of the chiefs of parties, and so forth, are temptations to newspaper managers not to hold up a very high standard of honor, anonymity affords to newspaper writers a dangerously easy shield to cover malice or dishonesty. But I can only say that during long practice in every kind of political and literary journalism, I never was seriously asked to write anything I did not think, and never had the slightest difficulty in confining myself to what I did think.
In fact Balzac, like a good many other men of letters who abuse journalism, put himself very much out of court by continually practising it, not merely during his struggling period, but long after he had made his name, indeed almost to the very last. And it is very hard to resist the conclusion that when he charged journalism generally not merely with envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, but with hopeless and pervading dishonesty, he had little more ground for it than an inability to conceive how any one, except from vile reasons of this kind, could fail to praise Honoré de Balzac.
At any rate, either his art by itself, or his art assisted and strengthened by that personal feeling which, as we have seen counted for much with him, has here produced a wonderfully vivid piece of fiction – one, I think, inferior in success to hardly anything he has done. Whether, as at a late period a very well-informed, well-affected, and well-equipped critic hinted, his picture of the Luciens and the Lousteaus did not a little to propagate both is another matter. The seriousness with which Balzac took the accusation perhaps shows a little sense of galling. But putting this aside, Un Grand Homme de Province à Paris must be ranked, both for comedy and tragedy, both for scheme and execution, in the first rank of his work.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.