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

Reviews and Reviewers – Introduction


by Stephen Randorf.

Not all readers check out the reviews for an author’s book before they purchase it. And authors often regard them, the reviews, as a nuisance, especially when they are critical. But for the readers who do read them, I believe what they want, what they are looking for, is some idea of what the book is about: Is this the type of story that I have liked in the past? Will I like these characters? Is this book or author similar to something else I have read? How long exactly will it take me to read this? However, for authors, particularly those in the burgeoning crop of indie authors, such reviews (any reviews) are quite significant for the sale and promotion of their books.

The use of opinions by other like-minded people to judge whether a book is worth their time to read or not – that is – to take that long journey through the pages of someone else’s words and thoughts and come out with a good feeling afterward, is not something new. But I doubt most readers understand the significance of these reviews to the authors. A 5 star review or even a 1 star review? An author parades them like a badge of honor. “Look! See? People like what I have done.”

So I have collected a few interesting thoughts and opinions of reviews from the publishing past of authors and critics who are long since gone. This discussion will be directed more toward reviews and reviewing in general than anything specific to writers of crime fiction.

The first one up in the queue will be Honore de Balzac and his novel Lost Illusions (1837), which is concerned with the commercialization of the publishing industry in the early eighteen hundreds. His characters are used as stand-ins for the wider commercialization of the growing bourgeois class in France at that time. This novel, a wonderful novel and of considerable length, is filled with an interesting cast of characters, including poets, publishers, critics, and reviewers. As one such character in the novel, a reviewer, states: “It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds of others.” He is referring to taking bribes and selling review copies on the side.

And then I move on to Soul and Form, a short book and one of the earlier ones by Georg Lukacs, an Hungarian writer who frequently wrote on theories of the novel and questioned the commercialized state that our world has moved into. Many of his books are a bit dry and hard trudging, but in Soul and Form his writing is much more lyrical, and in this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form.) he uses a dialogue method to review a volume of Laurence Sterne’s work. As we will see he does this by presenting two young men who intellectually compete for the attention of a woman. This dialogue format gives us – the reader – dramatic tension, and with each young man taking opposite sides of each argument, both the pros and cons of Sterne’s work are fully discussed. It is only this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form) which I will be referencing.

I personally love the book reviews by Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) almost more for his clear use of language than their content. I think he is read less today because of the fact that most of the books and authors which he reviewed have either become mainstays in our culture and have been written about more fully by others or that the author reviewed has slipped into obscurity and no one cares to write anything more about him. I am grouping Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) in this same category of reviewers. He is another writer who one wishes to read just for the pleasure of his use of the American language. Most of Brook’s commentary concerns the early American authors of the 1800’s. Did you ever wonder where the farmers in rural New England or the South bought their copies of The Vicar of Wakefield, Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy? There is a book I would like to tell you about.

Finally, we have Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) and his circle of friends, including Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. And what is there to be said about these people? Perhaps that they took literary criticism to the extreme? They argued that the merits of a book should be judged on a moral basis by what it contributes to society. If it does not contribute in a positive, moral way, then is it lacking. This may appear like a good argument at first or at least one worth giving some thought to, after all, most of us writers would like to believe that literature does matter, but what happens to books and novels, under that criteria? What happens if they fall short of this measure? Or what if an author does not wish to influence society in any way? What becomes of their work? Or of them?

There was a time when critics, these critics and their school of thought, actually had an influence on what books should be read and what books were harmful to society. These men might not have been alive when this attitude was institutionalized by others, such as Maxim Gorky, or when fine writers such as Isaac Babel and others who were silenced or disappeared, but they did plant the seed. I will not be discussing the extremes in which others took this school of thought, but I do think that there is a door which we can open safely to consider the idea that literature does matter, and it can be discussed as a counterpoint to the idea of “art for art’s sake” as Vissarion Belinsky did.

Topic headings:
Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.
Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviewing.
Edmund Wilson & Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers.
Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea (or when critics go wild.)

Works Cited:
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
———. The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
Lukács, Georg. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York: Farr,
  Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague ;
  Paris : Mouton, 1969.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf