Lost Illusions: Eve and David by Honoré de Balzac

Illusions Perdue: Eve et David
Lost Illusions: Eve and David
Also translated as The Trials of the Inventor

 

The grimness continues unabated from The Two Poets: In fact, it spreads.

Lucien is using cheap transportation to work his way back to Angoulême to escape the ruins of his career and his hopes in Paris. He sleeps on the straw in local stables to avoid having to pay for a room. At one point, he jumps up on the back of a carriage to “hitch” a ride to his next destination. Much to his surprise, the occupants of the carriage are his old enemies Count [yes, now he’s legit] Sixte du Châtelet and his wife, Louis de Negrèpelisse [formerly Bargeton]. When Louise invites him inside the carriage, he runs off.

Finally, he stops by a small house and offers his last three francs to the farmer’s wife for a little food and a place to sleep. He is feeling feverish and needs to bed down in a safe place to get better. He also asks to send a letter to David and Eve. Courtois, the farmer, knows David’s selfish father, who is now rich with his vineyard at Marsac.

In fact, from the local gossip, he knows something about Lucien and the fix he has placed his friend David in with his forged checks. Lucien starts getting a foreboding that things are not going too well in his old home town.

Courtois sends for the priest and the doctor, who know even more of the story. The priest goes to Angoulême to talk to his grand-nephew Postel, the pharmacist. You may remember him from The Two Poets as an unsuccessful suitor for Eve’s hand. He is now married to a wife whose has brought him a good dowry and who is jealous hearing of David and Eve.

David Séchard has become increasingly tied up in his invention of a cheaper way to make paper, to the detriment of his regular business. His life savings have been eaten up by his marriage and by the money he sent to Lucien in Paris. I cannot think of any moment in any Balzac story in which a person who has not made adequate provision for the future does not meet with disaster.

When a postdated check that David had made out to Postel for Lucien falls due, Eve sells her dowry, her marriage jewelry, and her silver – without telling David.

Eventually, she intends to confront him. But the David we knew has become a mad inventor, like Claes in Balzac’s The Quest of the Absolute. David counsels patience, because there is sure to be a big payoff in the end. Uh-huh.

David’s print shop has three employees, the Alsatian Kolb, Marion, and Cerizet. The last of these was a smart young printer David had met in Paris. Eve decides to make the best of what she has and finds scraps of paper on which she prints colored broadsheet ballads. These bring in several hundred francs, whereupon she plans something more ambitious: a Shepherd’s Calendar. Work on the calendar project has slowed down, mainly because it appears that Cerizet is dragging his feet.

What has happened is that David’s competition in Angouleme, the firm of Cointet, has stroked the young man’s vanity and divided his loyalty. In fact, they give him extra work to do at night – and pay him well for it. He becomes in effect a spy in the House of Séchard. Eve eventually discovers this and confronts him. But David does not want to fire the young man.

The Shepherd’s Calendar project runs into a surprising hitch: The Cointets are preparing one of their own, and it looks as if it would be out in the market first. The use of Cerizet as a spy is beginning to pay off.

When Eve puts an ad in the Paris Publishers Journal that David and her printing establishment is up for sale, the Cointets are intrigued. They find out from David himself about the invention he is working on. (Cerizet had tried, but could not pierce the secret.) The Cointets propose to rent Séchard’s printing plant for 2,000 francs for six months. David laughs and says to his wife, “Well, so our enemies are installed!” Truer words were never spoken.

Things have not been going well for David and Eve in Angouleme. When David receives Lucien’s letter that he has cashed three checks with Metivier to fall in one, two, and three months respectively. Now Metivier is in cahoots with Postel and the Cointet brothers. We know that this means that David and Lucien’s fates are in the hands of their enemies.

In a moment of lucidity, David says to his wife: “Your brother is an eagle, blinded by the first rays of luxury and fame. When an eagle falls, who can say down how deep a precipice he may drop? A fall is always in proportion to the height that a man has attained.” (Would that David had as much clarity in conducting his own affairs!)

Eve had already spoken to young Eugene de Rastignac, who painted a grim picture. To balance it out, she has written a letter to Lucien’s old friend d’Arthez. From him, he receives a measured response to says, in effect, that Lucien has been ruined by bad company. “In short, he is, if I may say so, an effeminate young man who loves to be admired – the besetting sin of the French character.”

D’Arthez concludes that “in spite of his faults Lucien might succeed in spite of himself if he could only take advantage of a good vein, or if he happens to get into good company; but if he meets a bad angel, he will go down to the depths of hell.”

Here once again we have a typical situation in Balzac, what I call a cabal of the envious. David and Lucien have reached for the stars and wound up instead with handfuls of ashes – because others who have felt envious at their prospects (or, in the case of David, their hopes) have joined together to bring them down.

We saw this especially in Cesar Birotteau when the poor perfumer gives a party and suffers condign punishment by being dragged through a particularly messy and involved bankruptcy proceeding.

Without going into details – which I am avoiding because I can never follow Balzac when he is talking about obscure French banking and money-lending instruments – I can venture to say at this point only that the Cointet Brothers, Metivier, Cerizet, and Pontet have joined together in an attempt to take over David’s business establishment.

Will they succeed? We’ll see.

We are still in Angouleme with David, Eve, and a host of their enemies. Lucien is still holed up in a distant farmhouse recuperating thanks to the kind Courtois family.

Let us take a quick look at the forces arrayed against David and Eve:

  1. The Cointet brothers, the other printing firm in town that wants to put David out of business — after expropriating his invention, if it’s worth anything.
  2. David Séchard Senior, who out of principle does nothing to help his son. His attitude is, “I sent you to Paris to learn the trade and, look, you’ve made a hash of it.”
  3. Cerizet, a turncoat, former employee of David, gone over to the Cointets.
  4.  Postel, the local pharmacist, formerly in love with Eve and still rankling at his loss. Married to Leonie and has one child by her.
  5. Petit-Claud, lawyer, promised the hand of a young woman with a fortune of 30,000 francs a year if he helps destroy David.
  6. Metivier, banker for the printing trade, in cahoots with the Cointets.

On David’s side are his helpers Kolb and Marion, Mme Chardon, and a kindly working-class friend of the family willing to hide David and Eve while they hide out from the law.

In the meantime, there is what Balzac calls a “judicial conflagration” as the amount owed is put in play again and again, accumulating various fees every time it goes around.

What about the invention? I have some personal experience with this as one of my friends is in the same predicament. He has been working for 10 years on an invention that has been successful only in racking up costs and destroying his finances. Inventing something is only part of the game. You have to patent it to protect it from unscrupulous competitors and then you have to market it. Sigh!
Rather than getting enmeshed in all the gory economic details (besides which Balzac’s accounting has been analyzed by those who know better and faulted for hasty presentation), I thought I’d highlight two interesting scenes:

PAYOFF TIME FOR PETIT-CLAUD

The weaselly lawyer who is collaborating with the Cointets to ruin David Séchard finally gets his interview with the rich heiress who has been “promised” to him for his evildoing.

Mlle de la Haye is introduced by Cointet as “the young lawyer of whom I poke … who is willing to take over the affairs of your fair ward.” The description that follows is priceless:

“Mlle de la Haye was a thin, bad tempered Miss with a sullen expression, a bad figure and colourless fair hair; she was, in spite of her aristocratic airs, an excessively difficult girl to marry…. Mlle de la Haye, ignorant of her true position [‘parentage unknown’], was hard to please; she had already refused to marry the richest business man in l’Houmeau. Mlle de la Haye’s expression, at the sight of the weedy little lawyer, spoke plainly enough; and, turning to his companion, Cointet saw exactly the same expression on the face of Petit-Claud.”

To Cointet, Petit-Claud exclaims, “What a plain girl! I have been taken in!” To which I say, one down!

THE ABBÉ MARRON

We have returned to the “present day.” The Abbé Marron arrives in Angouleme at the best of Lucien and the Courtois family to check out the situation. This is what he sees:

“When Abbé Marron reached the Place de Murier, he saw there the three men – each remarkable in his own way – who were bringing all their weight to bear on the present and the future of the poor voluntary prisoner [David Séchard] – old Séchard, Boniface Cointet, and the puny little lawyer. These three men represented three kinds of greed, each as different as were the men themselves. The one was prepared to sell his own son, the other his client; while the tall Cointet was preparing to buy both these infamies, and congratulating himself that he would not have to pay a penny for either.”

Back to Lucien: Lucien has finally arrived in Angouleme, and his arrival causes a local sensation. A local newspaper article (from the Cointets no less!) makes reference to his unpublished book of poems, Marguerites, and his historical novel (revised by D’Arthez) An Archer of Charles IX.

Something of a one-trick pony, Lucien decides to help his friend David by playing the part of the Paris dandy, imitating none other than the vile Henri de Marsay. To update his wardrobe, Lucien writs to his old friend and evil influence from Paris Lousteau (who owes him money) and asks for a killer suit of clothes with all the correct accessories. With this wardrobe, which he actually gets, he attempts to storm the new prefect Count Sixte du Chatelet and his wife Louise Negrepelisse and obtain royal influence to get David’s problems nullified.

And he comes close to doing just that at a big bash on the occasion of weaseling lawyer Petit-Claud’s betrothal to Mme de Senonches’s ward Francoise. The two affianced young people are widely ignored, while all eyes are on Lucien and his wonderful suit of clothes. The Countess even begins to fall in love with him all over again.

At the end, he is assured that David will be forgiven his debts…

But …

Petit-Claud moves quickly to apprehend David. He gets the help of the turncoat Cerizet, who has been romancing a young woman who knows where David is hiding. He steals a note from Lucien to Eve and gets a master counterfeiter at Cointet’s print shop to wash the paper clean and make Lucien appear to say (in his own hand) that the coast is already clear for David. Whereupon David comes out of hiding and is immediately apprehended and led away under restraints.

When he discovers what has happened, Lucien falls into a black depression. He writes to his sister Eve: “While you became better people, I allowed a deadly poison to infect my life. Yes, I have boundless ambitions that will not allow me to accept an obscure life. I have tastes and remembrances of past pleasures whose memory poisons for me the happiness that is within my reach, and that would once have satisfied me.”

He continues:

“I have more than enough talent to succeed, but it only functions spasmodically, and the prizes in a career overcrowded by so many ambitious competitors go to those who know how to conserve their strength and still have some reserves at the end of the day.”

(Could Balzac be writing about himself here?)

Lucien leaves the letter for Eve and disappears in the middle of the night, half thinking to do himself in. Walking out the door, he awakes Kolb, who mutters an insult to the young man and drops back off to sleep.

Just when Lucien finds a nice picturesque place to throw himself into the river …

Lucien was left by the banks of a river, looking for a good place to put an end to his young life. David has been arrested, escaping his hiding place only because a note from Lucien (actually forged by Cerizet) indicated that the coast was clear.

Instead of jumping into the dark waters, Lucien comes upon a parked carriage and an elegantly dressed Spanish cleric who calls himself Carlos Herrera (we will see in our next book that that is not his real name).

Herrera invites Lucien to join him in the carriage. As they roll through the French countryside, Herrera tempts Lucien the way the devil tempted Christ in the desert. In effect, he shows him the high places of the world; demonstrates how his friend’s financial woes are negligible; and that if he follows his advice, Lucien could be a Marquis. Whatever heights he attained in Paris were nothing compared to what was possible – if only he submitted himself to the Spanish abbé’s promptings and, for starters, agree to be his secretary. And that is the last we see of Lucien in this book.

The scene shifts back to Angouleme, where David Séchard finally yields to the deal urged by the Cointet brothers. He signs his invention away and more or less becomes an employee.

At this point, a draft for 15,000 francs – more than enough to clear David – comes from Lucien (and Herrera). This allows David and Eve to move to Marsac and set themselves up in a nice property adjacent to his father’s vineyards. The two finally achieve a modicum of happiness – especially when the wealth of old Séchard is factored with young David being his only heir.

In the end, both Lucien and David have succumbed, with a hint that both have succeeded or at least may succeed in the end.

 

Read it here

Summary by Jim, August 2008

5 comments on “Lost Illusions: Eve and David by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Really it is hard to separate “Eve and David” from the entire “Lost Illusions” Trilogy, one of Balzac’s longer and best works. In reviewing this work, I came across an article “Honore de Balzac’s Gay Anti-Hero” by Robert W. Mach. He goes into extensive details discussing Vautrin’s homosexuality, to which somehow I hadn’t given much thought. It occurred to me in early works, but somehow I didn’t dwell on it. Vautrin befriends to a bizarre degree first Eugene de Rastinac (in “Pere Goriot”), then Lucien at the end of this work, and finally in “Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes” Theodore Calvi. I doubt if he had a sexual relationship with Eugene, not so sure about Lucien since Lucien goes off to live with him for some time, and Vautrin and Calvi are definitely lovers. Considering the times, it is quite interesting how Balzac depicts this most masculine of gay men, very powerful, ruthless, but emotionally connecting to potential lovers.

    This work is often avoided by young, aspiring writers as the vanity of writers and the corruption of the big city are present still with us almost 200 years later. I read a few comments from writers saying they’d put off reading it for years for fear they would get too discouraged to continue as writers. I am left pondering the character of Lucien, who appears to me to be the perfect narcissist and in charge of his own downfall. And I wonder if Balzac had a bit of Lucien in himself.

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  2. I confess that the first time I heard of Vautrin’s homosexuality, it came as a complete surprise to me. In several of Katharine Prescott Wormeley’s circa 1900 translations, she mentions that she omitted portions of the various novels, notably the Vautrin sections.

    In “Scenes From a Courtesan’s Life”, Wormeley omitted the entire final section titled “Vautrin’s Last Avatar” saying that she did not like the direction in which Balzac had taken the character. In the Translator’s Note to “The Deputy of Arcis” she wrote: “The character is made so silly and puerile, and is so out of keeping with Balzac’s strong portrait, which never weakens, that the translator has thought best, in justice to Vautrin, to omit all that is not absolutely necessary to connect the story.”

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  3. scamperpb says:

    How could a translator take such liberties!! Really astonishing and probably wouldn’t happen today, do you think?

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  4. […] with Clotilde, explaining to her that he has got the money to buy back his land (see the story of Eve and David) for the reasons for this) to which her wily father( the Duke de Grandlieu) responds that men of no […]

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