Eve and David is Part 3 of Balzac’s Lost Illusions trilogy, which 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. To make sense of what follows you need to read my summary of Part 1 and Part 2.
In this part we return to the lovers Eve and David, both of whom are so far too kind and generous for their own good. This part of Lost Illusions is – just like Parts 1 & 2 – 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. In this part of the story, David is keen to make money quickly so that he can support his new wife in the style she deserves – and he wants to be able to support Lucien too. (Some people never learn).
BEWARE, THIS FULL OF SPOILERS
The public’s insatiable appetite for journalism in this post Restoration period meant that demand for paper outstripped supply, and David is confident that he can invent a method of making cheap paper that will make his fortune. But in the meantime he and Eve are living in grinding poverty, David making things worse still by not telling Eve about the true state of affairs. In her ignorance, Eve is not as frugal with the housekeeping as she needs to be and before long she has to sell her wedding silver in order to pay their debts.
While David busies himself with his inventions in the shed Eve takes on the management of the business, teaching herself typography and making the alarming discovery that there is not enough to pay the wages of their three employees, Cerizet, Kolb and Marion. It is she who understands the tactics of their rivals the Cointet Brothers: they leave just enough of the available printing work to keep Sechards open, but not enough for a genuine rival to want to take their place. Nevertheless, she takes the initiative and uses off-cuts to print some simple popular legends which sell well. Alas, as we learned in Part 2, this was the time when Lucien appealed for money for his Parisian debts, and – each unknown to the other – David and Eve both send sums of money they can ill afford to help him .
Eve decides to follow up the success of the legends with a ‘shepherd’s calendar’ – but Cerizet works slowly and her confinement is approaching. It turns out that Cerizet is fraternising with their rivals who decide to put a stop to Eve’s initiatives in case she is successful. They pay Cerizet to moonlight for them, and they decide to print a ‘shepherd’s calendar’ of their own. Their ruse is only frustrated by a stoic effort by all at Sechards but Eve still has to sell her calendars at a reduced price and, realising that her compositor is a traitor, and that she has few choices left, she places an ad for the sale of the business in the newspaper. The Cointets see an opportunity and things begin to look up a little when a deal is stitched up to lease the business.
And then Lucien brings disaster on them again with a further claim on their money because he has named David as his guarantor. Once again Balzac’s story reveals the malignant envy of the Cointets, their spy Cerizet, the loan-shark Metiver and Pontet the Pharmacist who has never forgiven David for marrying Eve. The ins and outs of the illegal banking system and the corruption of the country lawyer Petit-Claud are much too
complicated tedious to be bothered with here, and the upshot is – as we knew it would be – that things go from bad to worse. Eve’s pleas to Old Sechard only exacerbate their problems, and even the magistrate knows that the court case is a mockery:
M. Petit-Claud is bringing us to bankruptcy,” she cried.
“Petit-Claud is carrying out your husband’s instructions,” said the magistrate; “he is anxious to gain time, so his attorney says. In my opinion, you would perhaps do better to waive the appeal and buy in at the sale the indispensable implements for carrying on the business; you and your father-in-law together might do this, you to the extent of your claim through your marriage contract, and he for his arrears of rent. But that would be bringing the matter to an end too soon perhaps. The lawyers are making a good thing out of your case.”
“But then I should be entirely in M. Sechard’s father’s hands. I should owe him the hire of the machinery as well as the house-rent; and my husband would still be open to further proceedings from M. Metivier, for M. Metivier would have had almost nothing.”
“That is true, madame.”
“Very well, then we should be even worse off than we are.”
“The arm of the law, madame, is at the creditor’s disposal. You have received three thousand francs, and you must of necessity repay the money.”
“Oh, sir, can you think that we are capable—-” Eve suddenly came to a stop. She saw that her justification might injure her brother.
“Oh! I know quite well that it is an obscure affair, that the debtors on the one side are honest, scrupulous, and even behaving handsomely; and the creditor, on the other, is only a cat’s-paw—-“
Eve, aghast, looked at him with bewildered eyes.
“You can understand,” he continued, with a look full of homely shrewdness, “that we on the bench have plenty of time to think over all that goes on under our eyes, while the gentlemen in court are arguing with each other.”
Eve went home in despair over her useless effort. That evening at seven o’clock, Doublon came with the notification of imprisonment for debt.
Lost Illusions (Kindle Locations 7797-7810).
There is but one advantage that David has. In country towns where everyone knows everyone else there is a general reluctance to get involved in the tawdry business of debt collection and both Justices and bailiffs prefer to frustrate the process. David’s loyal worker Kolb sets off to pretend to betray him so that he can find out what traps lie in wait while David hides out. They go together to Old Sechard’s with David’s invention to no avail: the old miser is as keen as ever to swindle his son.
Meanwhile, Lucien makes his way back from Paris on foot, learning en route that David is in deep trouble. He repents, again, (he’s very good at repenting) and Balzac excels himself with the sentimental forgiveness scene when the prodigal son returns. But of course Lucien’s repentance doesn’t last. He is soon bored by the quiet life; is absurdly pleased by the Cointet’s cunning stratagem to laud him in their newsletter; and is mightily peeved when Eve tries to warn him that the Cointets have their own malicious reasons for trying to butter him up. She is even more suspicious when he is invited to a soirée by the Comte du Chatelet, but Lucien won’t be told. He gets a smart set of clothes via Etienne Lousteau in Paris and – seduced by the blandishments of Petit-Claud – is confident that Louise will do what he wants because she still carries a torch for him, and indeed for her own reasons she agrees to help out the young inventor. Lucien’s plan might, therefore, have worked – but Petit-Claud is always one step ahead of him. A simple forgery by the turncoat Cerizet, and David is lured into captivity with premature promises of relief.
It’s David in a dank and gloomy cell who’s in dire straits, but it’s Lucien who decides to end it all in the river. Not content to let him do that, Balzac introduces a new character, Abbé Carlos Herrera who talks him out of it with a rather long sermon, complete with political commentary. He is not an abbé, he is a diplomat, and for some reason he wants Lucien to be his secretary, and even more enigmatically he provides enough money to clear David’s debts. (He apparently turns up again in Scenes of Parisian Life).
But it’s too late. In gaol David has come to his senses, realising that he can’t possibly afford the process of registering the patent and marketing his idea, so he is putty in Petit-Claud’s hands. He signs away his invention but Cerizet’s ambitions are frustrated by the wily Petit-Claud who blackmails him over the forgery.
The upshot is that the business belongs to the Cointets and David is an employee. Still they try to rip him off, and at last Petit-Claud does the couple a favour. He reveals the Cointet’s duplicity and tells them that because of the legal costs involved they are better off to settle: ‘a bad compromise is better than a successful lawsuit. (Kindle Loc. 9587). (And, speaking from experience, that advice is usually just as true today as in Balzac’s day, and you are just as unlikely to be given it by a lawyer).
With what’s left of the abbé’s money David and Eve buy themselves a vineyard adjacent to Old Sechard, where it has to be hoped that the young couple make a better go of this business than the printing enterprise. The Cointets, of course, end up filthy rich and in positions of political power.
I must admit that I’m not as fond of Lost Illusions as I am of Balzac’s other stories in La Comedie Humaine. The characters are all a bit too black-and-white, and Balzac goes into rather too much long-winded detail about banking and printing and paper and whatnot. Here and there he has a little rant, because for him, all this was personal. While the plot is rather too intricate, the outcomes are entirely predictable: it’s more like a complicated version of an old English morality tale where the bad guys always win than a proper novel.
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 like me you really dislike reading from a Kindle and you want a print version …
Fishpond: Lost Illusions (Barnes & Noble classics)