History: Illusions perdues was written by the French writer Honore de Balzac between 1837 and 1843. It consists of three parts, starting in the provinces, thereafter moving to Paris, and finally returning to provincial France. Thus it resembles another of Balzac’s greatest novels, La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep), in that it is set partly in Paris and partly in the provinces. It is, however, unique among the novels and short stories of the Comedie Humaine by virtue of the even-handedness with which it treats both geographical dimensions of French social life.
Plot: Lucien Chardon, the son of a lower middle-class father and an impoverished mother of remote aristocratic descent, is the pivotal figure of the entire work. Living at Angouleme, he is impoverished, impatient, handsome and ambitious. His widowed mother, his sister Ève and his best friend, David Séchard, do nothing to lessen his high opinion of his own talents, for it is an opinion they share.
Even as Part I of Illusions perdues, Les Deux poètes (The Two Poets), begins, Lucien has already written a historical novel and a sonnet sequence, whereas David is a scientist. But both, according to Balzac, are "poets" in that they creatively seek truth. Theirs is a fraternity of poetic aspiration, whether as scientist or writer: thus, even before David marries Ève, the two young men are spiritual brothers.
Lucien is introduced into the drawing-room of the leading figure of Angoulême high society, Mme de Bargeton, who rapidly becomes infatuated with him. It is not long before the pair flee to Paris where Lucien adopts his maternal patronymic of de Rubempré and hopes to make his mark as a poet. Mme de Bargeton, on the other hand, recognises her misalliance and, though remaining in Paris, severs all ties with Lucien, abandoning him to a life of destitution.
In Part II, Un Grand homme de province à Paris, Lucien is contrasted both with the journalist Lousteau and the high-minded writer Daniel d’Arthez. Jilted by Mme de Bargeton for the adventurer Sixte du Châtelet, he moves in a social circle of high-class actress-prostitutes and their journalist lovers: soon he becomes the lover of Coralie. As a literary journalist he prostitutes his talent. But he still harbours the ambition of belonging to high society and longs to assume by royal warrant the surname and coat of arms of the de Rubemprés. He therefore switches his allegiance from the liberal opposition press to the one or two royalist newspapers that support the government. This act of betrayal earns him the implacable hatred of his erstwhile journalist colleagues, who destroy Coralie’s theatrical reputation. In the depths of his despair he forges his brother-in-law’s name on three promissory notes. This is his ultimate betrayal of his integrity as a person. After Coralie’s death he returns in disgrace to Angoulême, stowed away behind the Châtelets’ carriage: Mme de Bargeton has just married du Châtelet, who has been appointed prefect of that region.
Meanwhile, at Angoulême David Séchard is betrayed on all sides but is supported by his loving wife. He invents a new and cheaper method of paper production: thus, at a thematic level, the commercialization of paper-manufacturing processes is very closely interwoven with the commercialization of literature. Lucien’s forgery of his brother-in-law’s signature almost bankrupts David, who has to sell the secret of his invention to business rivals. Lucien is about to commit suicide when he is approached by a sham Jesuit priest, the Abbe Carlos Herrera: this, in another guise, is the escaped convict Vautrin whom Balzac had already presented in Le Père Goriot. Herrera takes Lucien under his protection and they drive off to Paris, there to begin a fresh assault on the capital.
Review: The novel has four main themes.
(1) The lifestyle of the provinces is juxtaposed with that of the metropolis, as Balzac contrasts the varying tempos of life at Angoulême and in Paris, the different standards obtaining in those cities, and their different perceptions.
(2) Balzac explores the artistic life of Paris in 1821-22, and furthermore the nature of the artistic life generally. Lucien, who was already a not quite published author when the novel begins, fails to get that early literary work published whilst he is in Paris and during his time in the capital writes nothing of any consequence. Daniel d’Arthez, on the other hand, does not actively seek literary fame: it comes to him because of his solid literary merit.
(3) Balzac denounces journalism, presenting it as the most pernicious form of intellectual prostitution.
(4) Balzac affirms the duplicity – and two-facedness – of all things, both in Paris and at Angoulême: e.g., the character of Lucien de Rubempré, who even has two surnames; David Séchard’s ostensible friend, the notary Petit-Claud, who operates against his client, not for him; the legal comptes (accounts) which are contes fantastiques (fantastic tales); the theatre which lives by make-believe; high society likewise; the Abbé Carlos Herrera who is a sham priest, and in fact a criminal; the Sin against the Holy Ghost, whereby Lucien abandons his true integrity as a person, forging his brother-in-law’s signature and even contemplating suicide.
Opening Line: “At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses; and, notwithstanding its paper industry, that linked Angouleme so closely with Paris printing, wooden presses – of the kind to which the figure of speech “to make the press groan” was literally applicable – were still in use in that town.”
Closing Line: “As for Lucien, his return to Paris belongs to the Scenes de la vie Parisienne.”
Quotes: “This fine thing reputation that is so much desired, is nearly always crowned prostitution.”
Rating: Awful, couldn’t read.