Labour of love

Lisa Appignanesi on the passionate revelations of Honoré de Balzac

I first read Balzac in one of those pared-down editions put out by Larousse classics and intended for use in lycées. These were small, uniformly designed paperback volumes in purple and a sludgy cream that loved the stain of adolescent fingers. Le Père Goriot, Balzac's Lear of middle-class meanstreets, slimmed down from about 450 pages to two volumes of about 100 each. There was room, however, for editorial paraphernalia: chronologies, charts of the entire Human Comedy, lists of questions dutiful students could answer if prodded by diligent teachers. On the very first page there was also the Larousse logo of a long-haired sprite with a child's windmill in hand. She said something like, "I sow in all seasons." Printed beneath her stood the warning I remember best of all: "Export to Canada forbidden under pain of law." I lived in what was then still known as French Canada. I imagined I was reading a forbidden text.

Balzac's world certainly felt altogether more daring than the English ones I usually inhabited. Austen and the Brontës were tame by comparison. It wasn't just the muddy Paris streets teeming with types, both extravagant and extravagantly ordinary, up and down the social scale - master criminals, prostitutes, misers, impoverished students, abandoned fathers, fashionable ladies, rapacious dandies. Dickens provided some of that urban cornucopia. But Dickens didn't do sex. And Balzac most certainly did - or rather, sexual mores and all the complexity of their attendant psychology.

In the Balzacian universe, love didn't swing between the unrequited and marriage - that vague neverland of a propertied happily-ever-after that seemed often to be not only the end of a book, but of life. Love was far more diverse in its forms, could even sometimes, as the Machiavellian criminal, Vautrin, makes clear, be homosexual. Marriage was various, too. For old Goriot's daughters, it was a mere stepping stone to those more interesting loves called affairs. Frown as Balzac sometimes might at excesses and adulteries by bringing his sinners low, frown as the carefully phrased questions at the back of the school books inevitably did, there was no hiding the rampant play of desire and its diverse manifestations in this densely populated world. For a girl growing up before the late 1960s brought permissiveness, that alone was a revelation. Balzac was to provide many more.

In the mid-1970s, a group of us banded together to form a publishing cooperative, Writers and Readers. Had we had a founding text, Balzac's Lost Illusions would have served. It is here that Balzac lays bare the corruptions of the literary world - a Grub Street in which writers, whether artists or journalists, sell their wares side by side with their kin, the whores of the Palais Royal. Opinions and talent, like bodies, are there for the buying. "Dame reputation, whom so many men lust after, is almost always a crowned prostitute," Balzac tells us. Those who provide the crown are journalists and publishers, an envious and hungry lot, happy to create celebrity, happier still to tear it down. Plus ça change . . .

Even though Lost Illusions is set in the days of Louis XVIII and the post-Napoleonic restoration in which Balzac grew up, the atmosphere is patently that of the time in which it was written. Published in three parts between 1837 and 1843, the novel is infused with the atmosphere of the "bourgeois king", Louis-Philippe's July Monarchy, during which his cabinet head, François Guizot, brazenly proclaimed, "Français, enrichissez-vous." Balzac was all for enrichment: it fuelled his writing - his Napoleonic labours at the desk that would equal, he hoped, those of that earlier provincial upstart, Bonaparte - as well as his innumerable schemes for overcoming debt. These included the printing and publishing business described in mesmerising detail in Lost Illusions, which is his very own portrait of the artist as a young man.

His artist is split into two, as Balzac himself was. Lucien Chardon - who would like to be a noble De Rubempré - is a provincial poet of some talent, great ambition and greater beauty. His path to Paris and fame seems to lie at first in the gift of the wealthy, well-connected and literary Madame de Bargeton. Lucien's weakness is that he loves the good life and is easily swayed - so easily that no sooner does he see his lady love amid the Parisian crème , than she loses all her charm. His other half, David Sechard, the poet-inventor, physiognomically Balzac's look-alike, is the faithful stay-at-home who perseveres with his single aim - to invent a formula for producing cheap paper.

Not that good triumphs in Balzac's universe. Both men's dreams are battered out of them by the dire realities of debt and deferred bills of exchange, of fathers who are misers or failures. "Debt," as Balzac once said (and I wanted to put on our publishing enterprise's letterhead), "is what our creditors do not have the imagination to understand."

There is one writer in Lost Illusions who wins through. It is part of Lucien's sentimental education to recognise that Daniel d'Arthez, head of the cénacle of great men, has shown him the right, solitary path, though Lucien has not had the willpower to pursue it. In my memory, D'Arthez, the artist of rigorous integrity, who holds himself aloof from the world of getting and spending, was a hero; Lucien a vain narcissist, a pop idol for a day.

Rereading the book, I realised I had forgotten that Lucien was a mere babe of 19. It makes me feel far more kindly about his excesses and failings, the social whirl, the desire for instant gratification that takes him away from his desk. Balzac is as pitiless with him as one can only be with a despised self. D'Arthez, on the other hand, now feels more like a punishing prig, a judicious Houyhnhnms. What remains constant about the book is Balzac's energy and the acuteness of his observation. Like no one else, he has an eye for the social humiliations the wrong choice of lover or hat can bring. Then, too, the way he charts the insidious reportage of the tabloid press, its making and breaking of reputations, is masterly. There are no lost illusions to be had about Balzac's genius.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Zadie Smith on EM Forster

EM Forster's novels have been criticised for their chaotic structure but, argues Zadie Smith, his deliberate rejection of a controlled style reflects the messy complexities of the human heart

Zadie Smith

01, Nov, 2003 @12:58 AM

Doris Lessing on Lady Chatterley's Lover

In the popular imagination, Lady Chatterley's Lover is a period sex romp. But, writes Doris Lessing, DH Lawrence's landmark novel, created in the shadow of war as he was dying of tuberculosis, is an invocation to intimacy and one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written.

Doris Lessing

15, Jul, 2006 @10:55 PM

Rereadings: Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy was fascinated by complex and untidy details, what he called the 'anecdotes of history'. Colm Tóibín hails his late masterpiece, Hadji Murad

Colm Tóibín

15, Feb, 2003 @5:21 PM

The tragedy of Gramsci's prison years

Christian Spurrier on the tragedy of Gramsci's prison years as revealed in letters to his wife and sons.

Christian Spurrier

11, Feb, 2006 @11:50 PM

Rereading: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

In real life Effi Briest would have suffered less, argues Giles MacDonogh, as he rereads Theodor Fontane's masterpiece

Giles MacDonogh

02, Aug, 2003 @12:27 AM

Sylvia Paskin: The cloak of love

Sylvia Paskin on the all-encompassing passions of the Turkish Chekhov.

Sylvia Paskin

24, Sep, 2005 @12:17 AM

Article image
Rereading: In Search of Lost Time Volume One - The Way by Swann's

After re-reading The Way by Swann's, Melvyn Bragg takes issue with the view of Proust's Odette as fickle and shallow

Melvyn Bragg

12, Jul, 2003 @12:45 AM

To London, for love

It was the city of fog, industry and repression, but for French poets in the last century the capital held an abiding romantic allure, writes James Campbell.

James Campbell

20, Nov, 2004 @1:07 AM

Caryl Phillips on the enduring appeal of ER Braithwaite

ER Braithwaite's classic tale of a West Indian teacher in an East London school, To Sir With Love, still has much to tell us about race and class in Britain, says Caryl Phillips.

Caryl Phillips

22, Jul, 2005 @11:21 PM

Article image
Review: Power and Glory by Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicolson paints a compelling portrait of Jacobean England in his history of the making of the King James Bible, Power and Glory, says Nicholas Lezard

Nicholas Lezard

23, Apr, 2004 @11:53 PM