Illusions Perdue: Les Deux Poètes
Lost Illusions: The Two Poets
We are back with one of Balzac’s major works, the Lost Illusions trilogy. The first of the three books, The Two Poets, is set in the old cathedral city of Angoulême in Southwest France.
The novel begins with an old printer named Jérôme-Nicolas Séchard who sets about selling his business to his young son David, who is just getting started in the profession. So that he can live comfortably and drink himself to death on his wines, the old man asks for an extortionate sum of 30,000 francs for the outdated equipment, to be paid over time from the profits of the enterprise. David unwisely accepts, knowing full well that he will be hard pressed to make his payments.
What makes David’s situation all the more difficult is that, because of his father’s negligence, a competitor (Cottet) buys the other printing license for Angoulême and sets up a more modern and lucrative establishment. Cottet worms itself into the good graces of the church, which is resurgent during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and proceeds to cast aspersions on Séchard for being too godless and liberal.
In the meantime, David is joined by his young friend Lucien Chardon, an impoverished but handsome young man from the suburb of Houmeau. We are told early on that he has a beautiful sister named Eve, with whom David is in love.
Balzac begins to describe the setting of Angoulême and how Houmeau serves as the commercial center of the area, where the cathedral city is the aristocratic (though itself frequently impoverished) center.
When Lucien heads home, he makes the point of passing by the residence of Mme de Bargeton (née Nègrepelisse), a woman of artistic sensibilities married to an unfeeling and unthinking sod many years her senior. In a rather nice passage, Balzac describes how her intellectual accomplishments have been left to die on the vine in this provincial city, leaving her susceptible to young men of poetic inclinations.
We become acquainted with Naïs, Mme de Bargeton, the local bluestocking. We know that Lucien Chardon is madly in love with her, but before we return to the present, Balzac introduces a new character, the aging (at age 45) dandy Baron Sixte du Châtelet. The local Collector of Excises in Angoulême, he has wormed his way into Mme de Bargeton’s affections and hopes to complete his conquest of her. Not only is he wise in the ways of the latest fashions, but he has an exotic history, having served as a prisoner in the Arab world before he was rescued by an English ship.
By way of Lucien’s old headmaster, du Châtelet has seen some of his former pupil’s poetry and decided to introduce the young poet to Mme de B in hopes of shining all the more in the reflected glory of his find. Unfortunately for him, Lucien succeeds in winning the heart of Naïs, who goes so far as to insist on the young poet addressing her by her other name, Louise. Naturally, the Baron becomes Lucien’s enemy, at the same time that Mme de B indicates to the baron that he is de trop (no longer wanted). She even goes so far as to insinuate in public that his use of the noble particle du is assumed without benefit of Royal permission.
Lucien wants to introduce his friend David to “Louise,” hoping that his friend share in his glory. But David, modest as ever, begs off and tells his friend that he – Lucien – is on a path to the stars, whereas he is only a humble printer, and nowise as noble or attractive as his friend.
Speaking of nobility, Mme de Bargeton wants Lucien to assume his mother’s surname, de Rubempré, and promises to pull the strings necessary at court to make it happen.
Now there is a dinner party at which Lucien is introduced to the finest families of Angoulême. This is one of Balzac’s masterpieces, as most of the guests are far from elegant (the only one who seems to be is the Baron, dressed to the nines in the latest Paris fashion) or sophisticated. (BTW, the guests include two Rastignacs: I wonder if the male Rastignac is our old friend Eugène from Perè Goriot.)
Lucien is invited to read some poetry. Modestly, he decides to recite several of Chénier’s poems, to the confusion of the audience, who thinks they are Lucien’s. Throughout the evening, there is widespread confusion as to whether Lucien is a Chardon or a de Rubempré; and most of the guests respond rather negatively toward him.
The crowning touch is when several of the guests take an elaborate metaphor that Lucien uses to describe the writing of poetry as similar to conception and slams him by referring to his mother’s profession as a midwife: “But then your excellent mother could assist you!” The local aristocrats congratulate one another on this public repudiation.
At the end of the soirée at which Lucien reads his poetry to no good effect to the gentry of Angoulême, the young poet feels full of rage: “Far from discouraging him, Lucien’s rage and the repulse to his ambition, served only to give him new strength. Like all those whose instinct leads them into a higher social sphere, but reach it before they can hold their own there, he vowed that at all costs he would remain in society.”
On the way back from Mme de Bargeton’s he runs into David and his sister Eve, who had spent the evening more profitably: that is, they decided to marry and turn the print shop into a better living place for David, his new bride, the Mother-in-Law, and the Brother-in-Law (Lucien).
There is a brief flashback in which David foresees no good result in Lucien’s grab for the gold ring: How will he hold his own in the world into which his inclinations are carrying him? I know Lucien! He wants the harvests without the toil – that is his nature.”
When Lucien hears about the lovebirds’ plans, his first though is: How will Mme de Bargeton feel about having a poor printer as her Brother-in-Law? He is too good natured, however, to hurt his friend and sister by throwing this wrench into their plans; and so he accedes to David’s plan.
Balzac here goes into a long disquisition about the way that paper was being manufactured in France. David plans to both improve the quality of paper, hitherto manufactured using linen, by introducing some strong and less expensive vegetable fibers instead (though he never exactly specifies which type of fiber he plans to use).
David goes to his father’s vineyard at Marsac to ask his permission to wed Eve. The old man is miffed that his son does not instead take the option of marrying a rich woman, such as a young widow in her thirties who owns a property conveniently adjoining his vineyard. Papa only sees the marriage and the proposed re-modeling of the print shop as David’s way of defrauding him out of future rents!
Remember Sixte du Châtelet? He still hungers after Mme de Bargeton and badly wants Lucien out of the way. Suspecting that Naïs and Lucien have been misbehaving, he arranges for the town gossip (one Stanislas de Chandour) to barge in at an opportune time. After waiting patiently for the right moment, de Chandour bursts in on Naïs with an imploring Lucien’s head in her compromised lap.
As Balzac writes: “For country life is based on a system of meticulous espionage; in the country everyone lives in glass houses; so little opportunity is there for that intimacy that consoles love without offending virtue, so outrageously scandalous are the constructions placed on the purest relationships, that many women’s reputations are blackened although they are perfectly innocent.”
M de Chandour goes to work, and within a short time the town is polarized between the “she did” and “she didn’t” parties. It is Sixte du Châtelet who casually informs his Naïs that she has been badly compromised.
After du Châtelet leaves, Naïs gets to work. She confesses everything to her sixtyish husband and tells him (truthfully) that she was indiscreet but has not offended morality by outright infidelity. Her bovine hubby is urged to challenge Stanislas to a duel, which he does with considerably more grace than anyone would have given him credit for.
Early the next morning, M de Bargeton sends a bullet into M de Chandour’s neck. Although the gossip’s life is not in danger, his “neck will be crooked for the rest of his life.”
Naïs doesn’t stop there. She arranges for her husband to go to l’Escarbas with M de Bargeton’s family, the Nègrepelisses, while wifey heads to Paris with … with … one M Lucien de Rubempré. There is some danger that M de Chandour’s friends will make trouble for the de Bargetons in Angoulême, so husband and wife both plan to decamp.
This leads to a problem for Lucien, because the nuptials between David and Eve are to be held the day after the trip to Paris. Lucien tells his sister and friend what is happening, and they reluctantly wish him a fond adieu. Originally, David planned to move M Chardon, Lucien and Eve’s mother, into a separate room to be built, but Lucien now suggests she move into the room originally meant for him.
As Naïs has told Lucien: “There [Paris], my dear, is the only life for superior people. We are only at ease among our peers; in any other society one suffers. Besides, Paris is the intellectual capital of the world, the stage of your success; cover quickly the distance that divides you from it. Do not let your ideas stagnate in a country town, get in touch at once with the great men who represent the century.”
And so, on to Paris!
Summarized by Jim, June 2008