5. Lost Illusions, by Honore de Balzac
What I love most about Balzac's novels, and there's much to love, is that you are grounded in the specific details of time and place. The fictional world is created in full, and you can easily enter that world. We are talking about France in the 19th century. Every aspect of society is penetrated by Balzac's historical realist style, and unlike the novels of Charles Dickens, good and evil are not so neatly separated. We find shades of grey in Balzac's world, and we also find characters who are deftly interwoven into a historical and cultural tapestry.
If you've never read anything by Balzac, read this novel. Lost Illusions tells the story of a young provincial poet making his way in Parisian society during the 19th century. It records with precise historical detail the gritty environs of Paris and the upper class drawing rooms. Lucien and his adventures will pull at your heartstrings. As one reviewer puts it, "Endlessly fascinating, but what a painful experience it is to read this book."
Balzac's contribution to the history of literature is immense. As the grandfather of French Realism, he wrote 92 novels for a project he called The Human Comedy, which charts the lives of recurring characters in self-contained fictional universe. He compared himself to a scientist in this project, or what today we would call a "social scientist," documenting the customs, politics, and mores of Parisian society.
Balzac's Human Comedy greatly influenced future writers, and his realist style continues to pervade literary conventions despite the many schools that have come and gone. A generation after Balzac, in France, Emile Zola followed a similar method of introducing recurring characters into a grand opus, except he would pay more specific attention to genealogies. In America in the 1930s and later, William Faulkner staged many of his novels in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, employing a similar motif.
The social-historical style of Balzac aims to provide every detail about a character, their family background, appearance, dress, behaviors, as well as their thoughts. This can sometimes be challenging to a modern reader who may have little patience for the gradual development of a story. These stories are in fact "histories," however, and reading them you learn just as much about Paris in the 19th century as if you were reading a historical account. Balzac aims to fill in this universe in all its facets, and this feat alone places his fiction on another scale.
For example, at the beginning of Lost Illusions, we learn about Jerome-Nicolas Sechard, the father of David Sechard, who is Lucian's best friend. While David Sechard is a major character of the novel, his father is not. Nevertheless, we get a detailed report of his father's life in the printing trade, with all sorts of facts about the press industry in the 19th century. We also learn about his character, which is similar to many characters you will read in Balzac's novels; he is what may be called the Balzac prototype; a greedy, miserly old man who is obsessively preoccupied with money. Balzac had so much insight into this type of obsessive character that it seems at times the animal nature of man is revealed. Balzac himself may have reflected this kind of character in his extraordinary literary output, the obsessive quality is also the author's.
At any rate, Jerome-Nicolas Sechard pressures his son, David, who is studying to be a chemist, to buy his printing press. This is a clear loss for David because the printing press no longer earns any profits, is run down and poorly managed. But David acquiesces to his father, and buys the printing press at a loss.
David saw that it was no use arguing with his father. He must take it or leave it--it was a question of yes or no. The old bear had included in his inventory the very cords on the ceiling. The smallest job-chases, wetting boards, paste-pots, rinsing-trough and brushes, were valued with miserly exactitude. The total amounted to thirty thousand francs, including the printer's license and the good-will. David wondered whether the thing was feasible or not. Seeing that his son remained silent about the total, old Sechard grew uneasy, for he preferred a violent argument to a silent acceptance. In dealings of this sort, bargaining proves that a customer is capable of looking after his interests. "A man who agrees to everything will pay you nothing," old Sechard was thinking. While he was trying to fathom his son's mind he went over all sorts of worthless odds and ends needed for running a country printing-house. He led David now to a glazing-press, now to a cutting-press used for the work of the town, pointing out its usefulness and good condition.
The irony is that even though David agrees to buy the printing press, his father still doesn't trust him. Lucian, meanwhile, David's best friend, and the central character of the novel, is a poet. He has literary ambitions and a dreamy, idealistic nature. After receiving some attention in Paris for his poetry, Lucian convinces David to steal away with him to the metropolis.
What follows is Lucian's mostly inept attempts at becoming well-known, famous, or fashionable in Parisian high society. For awhile he entertains the drawing room of wealthy patron, Mme de Bargeton, and then falls in love with her.
There is a rhythm in Lost Illusions that makes the book hard to put down, mounting hopes and aspirations, and sudden free-falls. Provincial life is contrasted with city life, and here Balzac paints an indelible portrait of Paris with the main character lusting for the attention of the upper class, all the trappings and illusions of fortune. But instead Lucian finds himself at the other end of the spectrum, not among the aristocracy, but among beggars and prostitutes.
This post is part of the series 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius