A Distinguished Provincial at Paris is Part 2 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.
As I said in that post, Lost Illusions is 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, Lucien is contrasted with Daniel d’Arthez representing the noble ideals of literature, and Etienne Lousteau who represents the sordid cynicism of Parisian journalism.
BEWARE, THIS FULL OF SPOILERS
The infatuated would-be poet Lucien and Mme de Bargeton are on their way to Paris, and the journey chews up all of the money that he had scrounged from David even before they arrive …
At the cheerless hotel they have company. Not just Louise’s staff Albertine and Gentil but, much to her dismay because she thought their adventure was a secret, also M. du Chatelet who has used his resources to keep close watch on proceedings. It doesn’t take him long to sabotage the affair, and before long Lucien has to write an embarrassing letter to his sister Eve:
My Eve, I am writing this letter for your eyes only. I cannot tell any one else all that has happened to me, good and bad, blushing for both, as I write, for good here is as rare as evil ought to be. You shall have a great piece of news in a very few words. Mme. de Bargeton was ashamed of me, disowned me, would not see me, and gave me up nine days after we came to Paris. She saw me in the street and looked another way; when, simply to follow her into the society to which she meant to introduce me, I had spent seventeen hundred and sixty francs out of the two thousand I brought from Angouleme, the money so hardly scraped together. ‘How did you spend it?’ you will ask. Paris is a strange bottomless gulf, my poor sister; you can dine here for less than a franc, yet the simplest dinner at a fashionable restaurant costs fifty francs; there are waistcoats and trousers to be had for four francs and two francs each; but a fashionable tailor never charges less than a hundred francs. You pay for everything; you pay a halfpenny to cross the kennel in the street when it rains; you cannot go the least little way in a cab for less than thirty-two sous.
Lost Illusions (Kindle Locations 2785-2787).
This is a very common theme in Balzac’s stories: the provincial who goes to Paris to seek his fortune ends up financially crippled by the unexpected cost of living in the society to which he aspires. At first, Lucien is prudent. In his letter to his Eve he declares that a woman as inconstant as Mme. de Bargeton is not worth grieving for, and he is optimistic about the sale of his book and eventual fame and fortune. He spends his days in work and study at the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve and Blosse’s reading-room so that he does not need to use candles or oil in his wretched room, and he dines at Flicoteaux’s, a cheap restaurant which has long been a source of sustenance for the impoverished artist in Paris. Before long he makes the acquaintance of the journalist Etienne Lousteau, and he is hopeful that Etienne’s connections will help him find work.
But alas, before long, the temptations of the theatre cannot be resisted and that’s the end of 60 francs, while his would-be friend Etienne’s fortunes have improved so he has no need to dine at Flicoteaux’s. With his money running out, Lucien tries to find a buyer for his historical work ‘in the style of Scott’. His attempts to find a publisher are met with scorn and he is outraged by the offer from the rogue Doguereau, who recognises his talent and tries to bind him with a contract designed to keep him in penury. Still stung by his disappointment he meets up with the writer Daniel d’Arthez, destined for greatness but at that time on his way to the pawn shop because he is as poor as Lucien is. He tells Lucien
‘There is no cheap route to greatness,’ Daniel went on in his kind voice. ‘The works of Genius are watered with tears. The gift that is in you, like an existence in the physical world, passes through childhood and its maladies. Nature sweeps away sickly or deformed creatures, and Society rejects an imperfectly developed talent. Any man who means to rise above the rest must make ready for a struggle and be undaunted by difficulties. A great writer is a martyr who does not die; that is all.–There is the stamp of genius on your forehead,’ d’Arthez continued, enveloping Lucien by a glance; ‘but unless you have within you the will of genius, unless you are gifted with angelic patience, unless, no matter how far the freaks of Fate have set you from your destined goal, you can find the way to your Infinite as the turtles in the Indies find their way to the ocean, you had better give up at once’.
Lost Illusions (Kindle Locations 3082-3088).
This counsel appeals to Lucien’s heroic instincts and he latches onto d’Arthez and follows his advice unquestioningly. Among the group of d’Arthez’s followers are other intellectuals who feature in La Comedie Humaine: the journalist Bianchon, the philosopher Giraud, the artist Bridau and the poet Ridal, and when Lucien finally runs out of money it is they who guess that he is in dire straits and come to his rescue. He, too proud to ask for help from his friends, had already written to his family, and both David and Eve – each unknown to the other – send him money they can ill afford. (Eve is expecting a baby and running the printing-house while David is spending all his time on experiments in paper-making). Lucien’s friends tease him when he repays the debt at once, and chide him for his plans to give up writing novels and turn to journalism instead…
For Lucien’s ambition is never far away, and when Etienne reappears at Flicoteaux’s, Lucien abandons d’Arthez. Balzac uses the voice of Etienne here to expose the cynicism of the literary scene: plays that were never performed because it was impossible to break into the clique of influential actors; a novel sold to Doguereau for a pittance; theatre tickets and review copies of books that could be resold in exchange for favourable reviews; reviews of books never read. Lucien is appalled, but undaunted sets off with Etienne for the Wooden Galleries of the Palais Royal, a ‘squalid bazaar of booksellers’ …
In Part 2 Balzac charts Lucien’s downfall, as we knew he would. The story begins in optimism, and it ends in deep despair.
At the Wooden Galleries, two booksellers jostle for custom opposite one another: Ladvocat and his younger rival Dauriat. Blondet the critic makes an appearance as Lucien learns more of the skullduggery that goes on behind the scenes, and he’s stunned to see how Nathan, a succesful author of great talent, kowtows to Blondet.
Lucien felt like an embryo among these men; he had admired Nathan’s book, he had reverenced the author as an immortal; Nathan’s abject attitude before this critic, whose name and importance were both unknown to him, stupefied Lucien. ‘How if I should come to behave as he does?’ he thought. ‘Is a man obliged to part with his self-respect?–Pray put on your hat again, Nathan; you have written a great book, and the critic has only written a review of it.’
Lost Illusions (Kindle Locations 3913-3916).
Yes, it is here that Lucien wises up about the true state of affairs for an author in Paris:
The provincial took a terrible lesson to heart. Money! That was the key to every enigma. Lucien realized the fact that he was unknown and alone, and that the fragile clue of an uncertain friendship was his sole guide to success and fortune. He blamed the kind and loyal little circle for painting the world for him in false colors, for preventing him from plunging into the arena, pen in hand.
Lost Illusions (Kindle Locations 3923-3926).
Dauriat the bookseller mocks Lucien and his poetry, for his trade is speculation in books, and the idea that he might help a novice writer is naïve. Etienne sets him straight about the situation (which is perhaps not dissimilar to how things are for today’s hapless authors).
‘Why do you choose to suffer? You find your subject, you wear out your wits over it with toiling at night, you throw your very life into it: and after all your journeyings in the fields of thought, the monument reared with your life-blood is simply a good or a bad speculation for a publisher. Your work will sell or it will not sell; and therein, for them, lies the whole question. A book means so much capital to risk, and the better the book, the less likely it is to sell. A man of talent rises above the level of ordinary heads; his success varies in direct ratio with the time required for his work to be appreciated. And no publisher wants to wait. To-day’s book must be sold by to-morrow. Acting on this system, publishers and booksellers do not care to take real literature, books that call for the high praise that comes slowly.’
Lost Illusions (Kindle Locations 4015-4021).
There are more surprises in store for Lucien when off they go to the theatre where a deal is stitched up: Finot has agreed to buy a 1/3 interest in Dauriat’s paper so that he can have editorial control and spout his own opinions. But he doesn’t have the 30,000 francs, so he enlists Etienne’s help. In return for kickstarting Etienne’s career by making him editor, Etienne is to get his mistress, the actress Florine, to ‘persuade her patron’, the druggist Matifat, to put up the money in return for a 1/6 interest. Lucien remonstrates and is very smartly told that actually the deal benefits everyone: it helps Florine’s career; and Matifat won’t have to pay bribes for Florine to get good reviews.
Meanwhile another actress, Coraline, has taken a shine to Lucien, and his disgust when he realises that she too is using a wealthy lover, Camusot, doesn’t last long. He agrees to write a kindly review of her performance (which up to then has been pathetic because she’s lovestruck) and the evening ends with the couple flirting together at supper. In Florine’s boudoir, Lucien writes his first article to general applause which – fatally – provokes Etienne’s jealously.
There is a lot of witty repartee in these scenes and some of it is a bit hard to follow; some of Balzac’s trademark little rants can be a bit tedious once he’s made his point. But it’s clear enough that by now the innocent Lucien is corrupted by the glamour and excitement of it all, despite all the warnings he’s had from both his well-meaning mentor d’Arthez and the cynical Etienne Lousteau. He’s enjoying a taste of luxury, he is captivated by Coraline, and the witty conversation around him appeals to his ego. When he and Coraline become lovers he is only too easily persuaded not to upset the arrangements with Camusot. He also tastes sweet revenge when walking in the park with Coraline, where he is able to snub Mme. de Bargeton.
But Balzac isn’t finished with Lucien. He must eventually go back to his lodgings where he finds that d’Arthez and his friends have edited his novel and turned it into a real work of art. Overcome by gratitude he rushes off to catch up with them, but isn’t chastened enough by their dismay at seeing his ‘journalism’ in print. Things start to get out of hand when Coraline impulsively confesses her love for him to Camusot. Camusot who genuinely loves Coraline allows her to keep the household but still, Lucien is thoroughly alarmed at the idea of living on his paltry salary and hers. They end up in debt, and worse, they both become victims of professional jealousy which ruins them both.
The ins and outs of Lucien’s corruption as a writer become more and more complex and the reader gets the feeling that a good deal of this is personal with Balzac. Lucien writes good reviews of bad books, sees his honest reviews of bad theatre massaged so that nothing interferes with the free seats for reviewers, and worst of all sees his good review of d’Arthez’s book trashed. Unaware until too late that there are plots to destroy him everywhere, he is hopeless at detecting insincerity, and he has no idea how to manage the complicated business of borrowing money in Paris when his debts get out of hand. He swings from one side to another in politics and of course ends up disastrously choosing the wrong side. Unaware just how much he needs genuine friends, he estranges them with an ostentatious lifestyle, and tragically he finds one day that he has to choose between Coraline and d’Arthez.
It ends badly for Lucien as we always knew it would.
On to Part 3!
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 (Barnes & Noble classics)