Monday, October 08, 2007

August/September: Lost Illusions

It dawned upon me this last year that for as much as I love all things French, I really have never read any French literature. Much of my infatuation with literature in my early college years was spent on American Lit...Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner. This was due heavily to the professors of my university's English Department. The American Lit professors were the best and evoked so much more passion for literature than I recall of the English Lit profs. Anyway, I've become increasingly partial to early 19th century literature, particularly realism, and this realization struck me recently...there are so many great French writers whom I know only by name and not by first-hand expereience of their work. I've even touched several of their tombs/memorials at the Panthéon in Paris. Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo, Stendhal, Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, Moliere, Proust, Maupassant, Verne, Tocqueville, Dumas, etc.

So, I have started stockpiling French books (I absolutely cannot step foot into a bookstore without buying three books and if I go online, I usually end up ordering at least four at a time!) and because Balzac's Lost Illusions was one of the first I purchased and he is often regarded as one of the founders of realism in Europe, I decided to start there. The book is roughly 630 pages and sadly, it did take me about two months to read it...why must we work for a living, damnit?! Given my love of the French language, I thoroughly enjoyed saying the characters names and titles aloud...Marquise d'Espard, Blondet, Lousteau, Finot, Vernou, Dauriat, Gabusson, Fulgence Ridal, Meyraux, de Marsay, Camusot, Baron Sixte du Châtelet, etc. Names of streets, newspapers, and the highly common inclusion of French phrases and terms...all delighted my reading further.

Lost Illusions follows the young and ambitious Lucien from the provinces of France to the city of Paris. Lucien is a writer, hoping to find fame and wealth in Paris. However, he finds reality...struggle, greed, corruption, and class barriers. Despite his initial struggles in Paris, Lucien is fortunate enough to find a wonderful group of friends who possess much ambition and integrity tempered with patience. However, Lucien does not possess the integrity or patience of his friends and he thus turns to journalism to expedite his success. This is where Balzac shines...his gritty commentary on the corruption behind journalism and the inner-workings of corruption in general. Lucien is manipulated and manipulates, and despite his widely recognized writing talent, Lucien's fame and wealth do not last long.

Balzac's social commentary is prominent, fascinating, and apparently historically accurate. I enjoyed glimsping into the journalistic circles of the early 19th century. Although I enjoyed Balzac's writing style, he never really penetrated the surface of his characters. Their unique qualities and propensities were made clear but there was not the depth that George Eliot or Charles Dickens write their characters with. There are also too many convenient coincidences throughout the novel. It seemed to me that Balzac didn't want to go to the trouble to more fluidly introduce/incorporate chance encounters and events, so they become abrubt and somewhat distracting.

Despite such, I enjoyed Lost Illusions, particularly the middle section of the book (three parts comprise the entire novel). What Balzac lacks in creating depth for his characters, he makes up for with his detailed social commentary. It is perhaps unfair for me to comapre him to Eliot or Dickens, as their styles are different, and as such, offer a different "reward" to the reader. With that said, I have Balzac's Père Goriot sitting on my shelf and look forward to reading that at some point.

I have been particularly ruminative over the point in which Lucien abandons his friends of integrity for a chance at quick fame and wealth. Balzac makes it clear in the novel that these former friends of inegrity go on to true and lasting fame/success but only because of their steadfast integrity and patience. I couldn't help but think of my own past and very distinct times in my life in which I disregarded a patient path of integrity for an expedited long shot at some form of material fulfillment. Ah, hindsight. But really, in reading Balzac's biography, he spent his 20s trying and failing in many career and personal endeavors before dedicating himself fully to writing. And Balzac was a prolific writer, living on coffee and writing like mad for three days straight and then collapsing for three days. No doubt, Balzac's own failings became the material for his writing.

4 comments:

carra said...

This is a nightmare I just wrote a very sensible and grown up comment and ended up loosing it...
Anyway, I never read Balzac myself, I heard about him a lot good and bad, i recently read Zola in French and he was driving me crazy, no matter how beautiful and interesting story was I got tired and stopped. I suppose will have to finish it some time! As for Balzac, once I'm back in France (in the far future) I'll pick up a book or two by Balzac... BTW I love your review...

b said...

carra...ugh. that is infuriating. it's funny you mention Zola because i just ordered one of his books recently to add to my collection of books! although Balzac may not make my favorite authors list, i really did enjoy his style and the social commentary. thanks for the comment. i think my "reviews" are weak, at best, however! :)

carra said...

Zola is good, you're going to love it... I am sure of that! What book did you get?

Richard said...

Don't think I have read Balzac (I have read some Voltaire - not as good as I expected). My main French author was Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas (though I read them in English. However, I am currently trying to read Le Rayon Verte by Jules Verne in French, but not succeeding so well, since it is easier to pick up an English book instead).