What I Learned From Reading Balzac’s Lost Illusions


Narcissism, dilettantism, charlatanism – just a few of the many -isms that the mid-19th century French novelist and failed businessmen Honoré de Balzac deigned to explore in his jarring portrayal of one provincial writer’s ascent into the Paris literati. Balzac’s protagonist, a poet/anti-hero of incomparable handsomeness and sincere talent named Lucien Chardon, or Lucien de Rubempré, is intoxicated by delusions of grandeur, intent on committing any impropriety necessary to secure what he firmly believes to be his rightly deserved place both amongst the royalist bourgeoise and the artistic fraternity confined within the City of Light.

I’m sure this sounds familiar to even the most puritanical TC readers, if such a person exists.

Along the way, Chardon, who seeks to shed his country-bumpkin upbringing by reverting his surname to that of his mother’s, a once lauded member of the gentry bearing the name Rubempré, is transformed by the ills of big city living. He succumbs to fashion, promiscuity, bribery, favoritism and hangovers that last till 8 pm. An inveterate social climber oblivious to the feelings of others, Lucien spurns anyone in his way, whether or not they once graciously stooped so low as to actually offer him a leg up, and switches political affiliations from the far- left to the ultra-right in order to gain entry into the otherwise impossibly exclusive salons of the fading monarchists.

Maybe I’m being harsh.

As Benjamin Kunkel noted in his 2005 Salon essay “Reading Lost Illusions, the thought of actually reading Lost Illusions is a scary prospect for most writers. And not just because it’s 700 pages of utter discouragement for anyone who, faced already with dwindling job prospects, would even imagine making a living writing much of anything, let alone fiction. The novel, just one piece within Balzac’s 95-part La Comédie Humaine, deals with the insecurities of just about every writer or artist on the face of the planet: the vanity that comes with success, the thrills of leisure, the attention of shallow women, the destructive but oh-so- beautiful sensation that’s generated from living a life of unadulterated pleasure, without even the faintest conceit of concern for those around you. In short, the egotism of youth, and the feeling that one never gets old, that we only get better looking, and smarter, with age, as if old age promised anything but continued decomposition, or that writing secures anyone a place in eternity.

Balzac (odd how that name did not endure) impresses one urgent point: we are not nice people. We are indolent, self-serving and vain, and quite a few of us will fuck anything or anyone to get our way. Also: spite. Writers cannot wait to exact their revenge on anyone who ever crossed our path – laugh now, drunk, supposedly witty guy, the butt of your joke is furiously recording everything you just said in iPhone’s ‘Notes,’ like the creepy little Pointdexter that he or she is. And with a detail that is frightening in both scope and the sheer insanity of all the minutiae that normal, well-adjusted people rightfully forget, vengeance has been brought down from the heavens. Or from the petty digressions of a comical, lonely, attention-starved sociopath.“You may very well be a great writer but you will always be a little humbug!,” says Michel Chrestien, a member of the dour, vaguely sentimental intellectual group the ‘Cenaclé,’ of which Lucien soon withdraws from in favor of the libertine journalists who shower him with equal parts praise and envy. He’s undertaken writing slander for money, forging signatures, gambling, and dueling with his friends. And Balzac is relentless in pursuing Lucien for the scum that he is. And that we quite possibly still are, even some 160 years later.

The rough and tumble realities of ‘big city living’ is little more than an exhausted trope at this point, but it certainly stands the test of time. Will you screw someone over, if it affords you an opportunity for success? Are you even willing to get exactly what you want? Is it tenacity and strength of will that converts erstwhile hobbyists into real artists? And furthermore, if a blog is written in the coffee shop and no one retweets it, will your Tumblr get a book deal (speaking of exhausted tropes). Are we considered artists when a paycheck arrives, or is it precisely at that moment when, after becoming cognizant of a certain bankable style, that we cease to be much of anything at all?

Questions for pretentious grad students at liberal arts colleges (preemptive safeguard: ?, hackneyed assumptions: ?) naturally, but maybe also janitors, software engineers and car salesmen, too.

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