The Two Poets is Part 1 of Balzac’s Lost Illusions trilogy, and it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die as ‘a kind of westernised Arabian Nights’ and a central work in La Comedie Humaine. Like many of Balzac’s stories, it’s about money: the want of it, how people are cheated out of it, what they waste it on, how easy it is to be snared by debt, and how they must use their own wits and skills to survive without it.
BEWARE, THIS FULL OF SPOILERS
The story begins with the unedifying tale of Jérôme-Nicolas Séchard, an ageing printer who has managed to survive the turmoil in Revolutionary France by providing refuge to a couple of its potential victims. He is too old to be press-ganged into The Requisition during The Terror, but his entire staff was, leaving his business on the verge of collapse. Notwithstanding that, since he’s a greedy fellow, he accepts a commission from a Representative of the People to publish the Decrees of the Convention. The need to hide from the zealots of the Terror provides a neat solution to the problem that he’s illiterate and has no one to set the type. A nobleman, M. le Comte de Maucombe – who wishes neither to lose his lands nor his head – comes to the rescue by taking on the job. When the political pendulum swings the other way and Bonaparte took over as First Consul, the Comte departed and an Abbé who refused to take the oath took his place.
Séchard is an ignorant, greedy, dissolute man so it might seem a bit odd that he shells out the wherewithal to send his son David to school. However, Séchard was looking to the future, intending that David would take over the business and keep his father in the style to which he was accustomed. David is summoned home in 1819, not to inherit the business or to be a partner, but to buy it from the grasping old man. Alas his father’s parsimonious ways meant that the printing equipment is as good as obsolete and their competitors the Cointet Brothers are in the ascendancy. But David is a generous soul, and despite his misgivings, agrees to pay the old skinflint 30,000 francs over time, to be paid for out of profits. The most humiliating aspect of the fraud for David is his realisation that his own father is cheating him, not only over the printing works but out of his dead mother’s money too.
Séchard retires to the countryside on a vineyard he has bought, coming back every now and again to keep an eye on proceedings at the printery. He is not best pleased to see that very little is happening there. As we have already seen, David is naïve, and he has failed to court the patronage of either Liberals or Royalists, while the Cointet Brothers have judiciously cornered the business of the local Monarchists and thus have the prefectorial and diocesan monopoly. Things go from bad to worse when Séchard manipulates the sale of the last remaining newspaper to the Cointets (keeping the money for himself) and David is soon left with nothing much but a monthly debt to his father.
Not content with his folly so far, David then hires his (equally impecunious) friend Lucien to work at the printery. They aim to succeed in complementary ways: Lucien as a poet, and David as a man of science. David falls in love with Lucien’s (equally impecunious) sister Eve while Lucien falls for a married women by name of Mme Naïs (a.k.a. Anaïs or Louise) de Bargeton, whose literary pretensions predispose her to become fond of a poetic young man . Alas, he has a rival. Baron Sixte du Châtelet, who has adroitly managed the peaks and troughs of the revolutionary era. He has hopes of Mme de Bargeton because her husband is getting on in years, and he thinks there is every chance that she will be a wealthy widow before long.
The truth about Lucien’s lowly origins are revealed at Mme de Bargeton’s salon, but to avoid acknowledging her social lapse, she elevates Lucien as an intellectual. She persuades him to become a Royalist, and she promises him her patronage if he will change his name to his mother’s, de Rubempré. Lucien in his naïveté asks for the same patronage for his friend David, and isn’t smart enough to recognise the treachery in Nais’ patronising reply. It matters not, because David thinks himself unworthy and refuses the offer anyway.
(Eve, meanwhile, is too proud to let her interest in David show, because (unlike David) she knows the value of old Séchard’s vineyard and she doesn’t want him thinking she’s after his money. (This expectation of future money for David is the teaser that Balzac offers, to let his readers believe that everything might be alright in the end.)
The Cointets wisely leave them alone lest a more able competitor arrive on the scene.
As always, Balzac’s characterisation of what passes for society in Angouleme is brilliant: this is Lucien’s rival, the husband of Mme de Bargeton on the night that Lucien is launched as a poet in the ‘select coterie’:
M. de Bargeton’s intellect was of the limited kind, exactly poised on the border line between harmless vacancy, with some glimmerings of sense, and the excessive stupidity that can neither take in nor give out any idea. He was thoroughly impressed with the idea of doing his duty in society; and, doing his utmost to be agreeable, had adopted the smile of an opera dancer as his sole method of expression. Satisfied, he smiled; dissatisfied, he smiled again. He smiled at good news and evil tidings; with slight modifications the smile did duty on all occasions. If he was positively obliged to express his personal approval, a complacent laugh reinforced the smile; but he never vouchsafed a word until driven to the last extremity. A tete-a-tete put him in the one embarrassment of his vegetative existence, for then he was obliged to look for something to say in the vast blank of his vacant interior. He usually got out of the difficulty by a return to the artless ways of childhood; he thought aloud, took you into his confidence concerning the smallest details of his existence, his physical wants, the small sensations which did duty for ideas with him. He never talked about the weather, nor did he indulge in the ordinary commonplaces of conversation—the way of escape provided for weak intellects; he plunged you into the most intimate and personal topics.
(The Two Poets, Section 7, Loc 1129 on my Kindle)
Lucien initially wimps reading his own poems, but his choice of Andre de Chenier’s made no difference, the de Bargeton Salon is not interested in poetry anyway. However, the gossips are keen to hear the poetry that has cost the lady her reputation, and so he is persuaded to recite his gushing ode To Her. Because they want to puncture the bluestocking pretensions of their hostess, they then proceed to humiliate Lucien and his humble station. The poor man is completely out of his depth, and (like so many of us falling victim to similar nastiness) manages only to think of witty ripostes as he walks home afterwards. Little does he know that a bit of sarcasm is to be least of it.
Meanwhile, David has been paying court to Eve (who finally accepts him) and he then launches into a discourse on paper manufacture. This is not as unromantic as it sounds, because David has been trying to persuade Eve to discourage Lucien from his vain ambitions in Angouleme. He offers to set up a household for them all, and plans to fund it with an innovation in printing – replacing flax and using hemp as the Chinese do. Off he goes to get parental consent for the nuptials, and that’s all he gets from the old skinflint. David has to use his dwindling resources to build a second storey on his house in preparation for the wedding, but disaster is looming.
Lucien has some reservations about his sister marrying a mere printer, because he is convinced that his own marriage to Mme de Bargeton can’t be far away. This is because her husband is in his dotage and she is besotted with Lucien since he read his soppy poems at her salon. But his furious rival, the Baron Sixte du Châtelet, supplements the gossip about them with inventions of his own, which are then relayed by the town gossip, Stanislas de Chandour who stumbles in on an unfortunate moment. Mme de Bargeton- who is actually innocent of any indiscretion – persuades her husband to seek satisfaction in a duel.
All this leads to a crisis, and just as David has spent almost all he has, Mme de Bargeton decides to flee to Paris with her toy-boy and Lucien needs money to go with her. On the eve of his sister’s marriage to his now debt-laden friend, Lucien makes his fateful decision.
Money, and the want of it. So many of Balzac’s stories focus on this because he was always in financial bother himself…
On to Part 2, A Distinguished Provincial in Paris…
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Title: Lost Illusions
Translated by Ellen Marriage
Publisher: Many Books, 2004
Source: Downloaded for free from Many Books
There are heaps of editions available for free online, (I find the formatting best and most reliable at Many Books and give them a small annual donation to encourage them) but if you want a print version …
Fishpond: Lost Illusions: Part I, Two Poets