Friday, April 13, 2012

Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac’s Biggest and Best?
Lucien Chardon is the strikingly handsome but unfortunately poor son of a pharmacist, with ambitions of becoming a poet. David Séchard is the honest and hardworking heir to his father’s printing company, with aspirations of becoming a scientist. The two childhood friends reconnect as adults and form a strong friendship (in contemporary slang it might be termed a “bromance”), and the bond of brotherhood is sealed when David marries Lucien’s sister. Lucien strives to escape his social class and break into the world of the nobility by winning the love of an aristocratic woman, finding fame and fortune in the Parisian world of letters, and reclaiming the noble surname of his mother’s ancestry. David struggles to keep his printing business afloat while laboring to discover a new and cheaper method of producing paper, an invention which will make him rich. As the two protagonists struggle to realize their dreams, they are rudely awakened from their provincial naiveté to the harsh reality of a competitive society of greedy vultures who wish to prey upon them. The title is a common theme throughout the book, as Balzac strips the respectable veneer off nearly every aspect of 19th century French society, exposing an undercurrent of corruption, duplicity, and iniquity.

It’s possible this is the perfect novel, and the only faults I can find may very well stem from my own ignorance. It is a brilliant work of literature, thoroughly engaging and entertaining, profound in its insights, but at times quite difficult to get through. Balzac’s field of knowledge is so broad and so deep that he is capable of expounding in intricate detail on any topic under the sun. I’m familiar with the printing, publishing, and paper making industries, so I was able to follow those threads, but when he gets into the byzantine workings of the newspaper business, the theatrical world, banking transactions, and legal proceedings, I often felt lost in the sheer overload of information. There is a tremendous amount of wheeling and dealing going on in this book, and at times it’s hard to follow, especially when expressed in the terminology of a hundred-year-old translation. I read a lot of French literature, and I’m pretty familiar with the time period, but this book was a challenge for me, and probably would be for many other readers out there, unless you’re a scholar of French history.

This book is a real centerpiece to Balzac’s magnum opus, the Comédie Humaine, with dozens of characters that either star or make guest appearances in other novels. For those who have never read Balzac before, I wouldn’t recommend this book as your introduction to his writings. First try something less intense like Père Goriot or Eugénie Grandet. But for those who have already enjoyed and appreciated the works of this literary master, then Lost Illusions is definitely worth the challenging read. Your efforts will be handsomely rewarded.

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