Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.

Georg Lukacs praises the novel Lost Illusions by stating that “its portrayal of the time rises to a solitary height far above any other French literary work of the period” (Lukacs 49). Lukacs also states that “Balzac’s many-sided, many-tiered world approaches reality much more closely than any other method of presentation” (Lukacs 58).

Of course it is important to Mr. Lukacs and for the Marxist side of his argument that this novel has the solid stamp of realism. If he is to show that the world of literature is being commodified by a capitalist structure, then he needs to demonstrate how this has come to be. To do so, he uses Lost Illusions and shows us how “the writers and journalists are exploited” and that “their talent has become a commodity, an object of profiteering by the capitalist speculators who deal in literature” (Lukacs 50).

But, for the purpose of the discussion here, we will be using this “portrayal of the time” and its realistic nature to look at a few specific comments made by several of Balzac’s characters as it relates to critics and reviewers.

Many readers, such as myself, are drawn to Balzac’s novels because his characters are so wonderfully drawn. To quote Mr. Lukacs again: “The bond which links each character with the whole of the story is provided by some element in the make-up of the character itself . . . but it is the broader inner urges and compulsions of the characters themselves which give them fulness of life and render them non-mechanical, no mere components of the plot” (Lukacs 54).

So let me start this discussion with a brief summary of the plot and the two main characters.

This novel centers on Lucien de Rubempré, who is new to the world of authorship and publishing—and to Parisian life. When Lucien comes to Paris, he leaves behind in the provinces a boyhood friend, David Sechard. Although this friend does not play a direct role in Balzac’s criticism of reviewers, David Sechard does play an interesting role in the world of publishing.

This novel takes place during that great period when the public had a growing interest in books, mainly because of their availability, and that in turn sprung an even greater book printing industry. However, paper at that time was made from linen and cotton rag. Books were expensive, but not so much that they were out of purchasing range for the middle class or the growing bourgeois, nor were they priced so high as to halt their demand, but because of the expense and growing demand for linen and cotton rag, a substitute material, one that was more economical to produce, was desperately being sought after. And if a new product was discovered, the inventor would become quite wealthy. Balzac portrayed David Sechard as such an inventor. I only take the time to mention this because of Sechard’s ingenious ideas for a substitute product for cotton rag. And what kind of pulp does this provincial genius use to make paper? Ragweed and thistle.

So let us move on to the cynicism which so many of his characters openly express through the conversations between publishers and critics and, for our purpose, conversations with Lucien de Rubempré. Balzac, as an authoritative narrator, sums up his theme late in the novel:

   Criticism of today, after making a burnt-offering of a man’s book, proffers a
   hand to him. The victim must embrace the officiating priest under penalty of
   running the gauntlet of pleasantry. If he refuses, a writer passes for an un-
   sociable man, quarrelsome, eaten up with self-conceit, unapproachable,
   resentful, full of rancour. Today, when an author has received treacherous
   stabs in the back, avoided the snares set for him with infamous hypocrisy
   and suffered the worst possible treatment, he hears his assassins wishing
   him good-day and putting forth claims to his esteem and even his friend-
   ship (Balzac 441).

A reviewer for a small newspaper, Etienne Lousteau, explains to Lucien how their world works. The next quote shows how petty a newspaper reviewer can be when he does not get an extra review copy to sell on the side.

   ”I am forced to bark at the publisher who sends too few copies of his books
   to the paper: the paper takes two and Finot sells them; I also require two
   for sale. Even if he brings out a masterpiece, a publisher stingy with copies
   gets a drubbing. It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds
   of others. And don’t imagine that the political world is much cleaner than
   the literary world; in both of them bribery is the rule; every man bribes or
   is bribed. When a publisher is bringing out a more or less important work,
   he pays me not to attack it. And so my income is in direct ratio to the
   prospectuses of forthcoming books” (Balzac 246).

Later, the reviewer Lousteau explains how he writes the review for a non-fiction book:

   ”Pooh! You’ve no idea how they’re dashed off. Take Travels in Egypt: I opened
   the book and read a bit here and there without cutting the pages, and I
   discovered eleven mistakes in the French. I shall write a column to the
   effect that even if the author can interpret the duck-lingo carved on the
   Egyptian pebbles they call obelisks, he doesn’t know his own language – and
   I shall prove it to him” (Balzac 246).

Of course the remark about not cutting the pages meant that he could resell the book as if it were new. This newspaper reviewer also had an interesting way to review novels, by letting a friend read them in his stead.

   ”As regards novels, Florine is the greatest novel-reader in the world. She
   analyses them for me, and I knock off an article based on her opinion. When
   she’s been bored by what she calls “literary verbiage” I take the book into
   serious consideration and ask the publisher for another copy. He sends it
   along, delighted at the prospect of a favourable review” (Balzac 259).

And to this Lucien protests.

   “Great Heavens! But what about criticism, the sacred task of criticism?”

Lousteau goes on to explain:

   “My dear chap,’” said Lousteau. “Criticism’s a scrubbing brush which you
   mustn’t use on flimsy materials – it would tear them to shreds” (Balzac 259).

Several pages forward, a reviewer discusses a critical review he wrote on Lucien’s own work and the column length of that review, by which a reviewer’s payment is measured.

   ”One hundred francs a column,” Blondet replied, “It’s not a great deal when
   ones’s obliged to read a hundred books in order to find one worth writing
   about – like yours. Your work gave me great pleasure, you have my word
   for it.”

   ”And it brought him fifteen hundred francs,” said Lousteau to Lucien”
   (Balzac 269-270).

Again, in Balzac’s world, it all comes back to getting paid.

At one point in the novel, Lucien was asked to review a book, a well written book, for which he exclaimed, “It is a fine book!” And then he was given this advice:

   “Oh come, my dear, learn your trade,” said Lousteau with a laugh. “Even
    if the book’s a masterpiece, your pen must prove that it’s a piece of
   stupid nonsense, a dangerous and unwholesome work.”

   “How can I do that?”

   “By making every quality a defect” (Balzac 355-356).

Lousteau goes on for several lengthy paragraphs to explain exactly how Lucien should do this.

There are many other comments concerning critics and reviewers in the novel. Most of them pertain to the theater, noted actresses, and playwrights; and demonstrate that they too were not immune to this world of bribery where “every man bribes or is bribed.”

With a title such as Lost Illusions, one can guess how the exploits of these characters will end. For a hint, half way through the novel, we are told:

   ”It is difficult to keep illusions on any subject in Paris,” answered Lucien
   as they turned in at his door. “There is a tax upon everything —everything
   has its price, and anything can be made to order—even success”
   (Balzac 387).

~  ~  ~

Project Gutenberg has this novel online free to read or download, but I prefer the more current Penguin 1971 version. I am not sure which is a more accurate translation. However, in most cases, I found the language more expressive and engaging in the Penguin edition. I also like the periodic breaks with the inserted chapter headings.

For an interesting website on the history of paper, go to:   http://www.conservatree.org/learn/Papermaking/History.shtml

Works Cited:
Balzac Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth,
   Penguin, 1971.
Lukacs, Georg. Studies in European Realism. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf