Lost Illusions


Honore de Balzac

Introduction by George Saintsbury

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INTRODUCTION

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 Poetes and Eve et David (a much better title than that which has been preferred in the Edition Definitive) together in one volume, and reserving the greatness and decadence of Lucien de Rubempre 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 Miseres 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 Comedie has worked, that it should, dealing as it does wholly and solely with Parisian life, be put in the Scenes 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 Sechard; 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 Sechard 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 Sechard’s swindling of his son, is a doubling, it is true, upon that of La muse du Departement, 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 Poetes, 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 Sechard takes a place by himself among the sheep of the Comedie. 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 Cesar 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-inlaw does not quite pass the limits of sense.

But what shall we say of Eve? She is good of course, good as gold, as Eugenie 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 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 Miseres 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 Rubempre 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 Honore 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 a Paris must be ranked, both for comedy and tragedy, both for scheme and execution, in the first rank of his work.

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 Scenes 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 Sechard, 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 Comedie.

George Saintsbury

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005