Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Honoré de Balzac: Lost Illusions

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.


Bob Liter said...

It seems, judging from the post, that I am lucky not to consider myself a genius. I'm just a retired journalist who has seven novels published on the Internet but can't get a print publisher to show any interest.

I don't worry about it too much. That's because I know I'm not that talented.
Bob Liter

Anonymous said...

Sadly, of course, this onslaught of mediocrity is encouraged by the market itself, which goes out of its way to publicize some 16 year-old with a sword-and-dragon book.

archer said...

One reason I like practicing law is that the rules are fairly objective. If you win, you win. If you bring in more money than X, you're better than X. If you bribe someone, you get disbarred, at least if you get caught. And there is trough enough for all. Vague subjective critical crap is not part of my working day.

That said, I have completed one awful novel, half of a better one, and a novelette. I withhold judgment on the novelette, except to say that it is a luminous, taut, gripping, profoundly moving and insightful masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading this right now, and after every session, I do a once through on my own character. Lucien is so self-indulgent that I get the feeling that Balzac is being merciless on the shallow personality of his main protagonist, and even when he reaches his utter low and is recovered by the strange miller and repents to the priest that they call, Balzac reminds us that his repentence means nothing because Lucien is only trying to absolve himself for selfish purposes. I think that here we have the absolute subject of Lost Illusions. It's not as much a story about a writer as it is a story about one man's weakness. The depressing aspect of this book, is that Lucien just doesn't improve, and always, always, always fucks up and thinks the wrong way.

Anonymous said...

I'm only a little way through the book, but loving the evocation of small-minded provincial life - a subject very close to my heart since I am from the provinces.
And I'm small minded...
Although the idea that mediocrity often triumphs over real talent is in one way rather depressing, it lends me hope since I am yet another person with loads of talent but not much success as measured in conventional terms (money, cars, women, bling, noteriety and so on. However the message I take from Balzac is that if I persevere with my hair-brained schemes in spite of all good-sense advice to the contrary and real-life inpingements on my fantasies, I may yet achieve my goals. Furthermore, if I can't eventually become successful through having any real talent, there's always the Eragon route. Mediocrity: Bring it on!

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