I started to read Balzac’s Les Illusions Perdues in college, dropped it, and finished it a few years later. I found it dull. I guess I had some illusions of my own. I have just finished reading it again, and I think it’s one of the greatest novels I know. (Franco Moretti regards it as the greatest novel.) Reading it is like being dropped into the heavy molten magma of life, as the editor of my Modern Library edition refers to it. Or was it lava?
This long story has three parts and turns on the adventures of Lucien Chardon, a vain but talented provincial young man, our poet, who has the singular luck of being gifted with the brilliant good looks of Apollo. He and his friend, David Sechard, dream of success: he as a poet lionized in Paris; David as an inventor rich on the basis of a new paper manufacturing process. Lucien makes his way to Paris as the would-be lover of the local aristocratic belle, but she dumps him when the dazzling city shows him up as something of a provincial clod. He has much to learn.
Lucien falls in with some serious intellectual types, pledged to poverty and truth, but he quickly moves on to richer pastures, despite a few moral qualms. He rises like a rocket in the cut throat world of journalism, moves in with a young, gorgeous, adoring actress, wreaks havoc with the reputations of his former patroness, and plots his entry to the ranks of the nobility on the basis of his mother’s family name. Meanwhile, his enemies, who have no illusions, plot his ruin. His fall is as rapid as his rise, and in his selfishness, he manages to drag down his old friend by forging some checks in his name. The third part of the book narrates his ignominious return home, and the struggles of David to make good on his inventions.
The brutally sharp dealing and downright fraud by which David Sechard is parted from his money and his patent rights is portrayed in detail that is both excruciating and exasperating. Clearly, Balzac was writing from more than a literary point of view – he is passionate in his portrayal of the materialistic and cyncial values of the actors. In the end, David comes out all right, but not wealthy, and is happily married to Lucien’s beautiful sister.
Lucien resolves on suicide, but those who find his note understand that if he does not end his life immediately, he will be safe. His shame and remorse won’t last too long – he’ll start building castles in the air again. As it is, on the brink, he is picked up by a traveller, Vautrin, Cheat-Death, Carlos Herrera, the ominous, Machiavellian, homosexual operator who moves in and out of Balzac’s Human Comedy. Herrera buys Lucien’s body and soul for the amount of David’s debts and the promise of revenge.
Next stop, A Harlot High and Low or Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, where the adventures of Lucien continue!