I had an email from Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently, in which he said that he had been re-reading Balzac's Illusions Perdues. Nothing, says Taleb, has changed in the book business in the last 150 years!
So I took at look at Illusions Perdues -- except that, not being clever enough to read it in the original French, I had to make do with the Penguin edition, in which the translation (Lost Illusions) is by Herbert J. Hunt.
Hunt's introduction to the book provides a necessary reminder (well, necessary for me) that the literary career was really quite well developed, at least as a possibility, in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Balzac was born in 1799 and died in 1850. In between he packed in an enormous amount of literary work and became both famous and (up to a point) financially successful; he certainly liked to live well, even if he didn't always pay his bills.
Lost Illusions was originally published in three parts between 1837 and 1843. It tells the story of a handsome would-be poet, Lucien Chardon. Lucien is ambitious but naive (sound familar?), and he leaves the provinces to make his way in the glamorous beau monde of Paris. But he finds -- dear me, how distressing -- that talent counts for nothing in comparison to money, intrigue, and unscrupulousness. The novel paints, it is said, 'a scathing view of the world of letters'; and you don't need much insight to guess that many of Lucien's experiences are thinly disguised (if that) versions of what happened to Balzac on his way to the top.
In 1835, a friend of Balzac's tried to interest him in a real-life Lucien Chardon, a young man called Emile Chevalet. Balzac took at look at this wannabe writer and sent his friend a brutal report. 'This young man is characteristic of our times. When one has no particular aptitude for anything, one takes to the pen and poses as a talented person.' Even for those with real talent, Balzac insists, long and patient effort is needed. This point is later driven home in Lost Illusions.
Chapter Nine of Part II of Lost Illusions is perhaps the heart of the book. Its title is Good Advice, and in it Etienne Lousteau makes it plain to Lucien that genuine talent is unlikely to make much headway in the real-life literary world. Here are a few of Lousteau's observations:
'If you reckon to live on what your poetry brings in, you have time to die half a dozen deaths before you make your name.'
'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.'
'The experience of the first person who told me what I am now telling you was wasted on me, just as mine will no doubt be useless to you. It's always the same story, every year the same enthusiastic inrush of beardless ambition from the provinces to Paris.... They all fall into the pit of misery, the mire of journalism, the morass of the book-trade.'
'In short, my friend, the key to success in literature is not to work oneself, but to exploit others' work.'
'The more mediocre a man is, the sooner he arrives at success.... It will be a fight to the death if you have any talent, for you 'd have a better chance without it.'
Hmmm. Now that's really encouraging, isn't it?
Balzac's story, as you will have gathered by now, is repeated perhaps ten thousand times a year. The ambitious young writers (whether male or female) travel to Paris/London/New York (either literally or they send a ms), and discover, to their total amazement, that the world does not read three pages of their masterpiece and go WOW! This is SENSATIONAL!
Young writers always find this hard to believe. Even when they know that it happens every year to ten thousand young hopefuls, and has done for 150 years and upwards, they still find it a bit of a shock when it happens to them.