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Lost Illusions (Modern Library Classics)

Lost Illusions - Honoré de Balzac, Kathleen Raine Readers' Advisory information Subject headings: coming of age, first love, disastrous relationships, young lust, period piece: Paris 1820’s, foolish choices Appeal factors: drama! drama! drama!, romances, failed romances, scheming, occasional lessons learnedPace: moderateTone: cautionary, tragic- occasionally over the top but mostly seriousStoryline: single narrator, fun-to-dislike main characterWriting style: omniscient reliable narrator This is a beautifully written book, but OMG, some readers are going to hate main character Lucien Chardon! I kind of hate him. He is a whiney, immature, ungrateful, gullible, vain, thoughtless, two-timing, petty, egotistical, superficial, unrepentant, spoiled little brat. Yeah, I think I do hate him. Yet… through much of the novel, I was routing for him to succeed! The problem is, I hate him because I see in him all the unforgivable failings I had at his age. Despite all his faults, he isn’t evil, he’s just a self-centered youth- as we’ve all been at one time- trying to gain a foothold in a hostile and corrupt world. That doesn’t excuse him (or myself), but I think some of these character traits must be hardwired into the human personality, programmed to emerge when it is time to leave the nest and establish one‘s independence. As an upstart poet, Lucien dreams of fame and fortune in the literary circles of Paris of the 1820’s. His path is littered with conniving agents, exploitative publishers, jealous colleagues prone to plagiary, corrupt editors, backstabbing critics, fickle bookshop owners, and social climbers who see him as a threat. As I read this, I kept hearing Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction pre-execution sermon from Ezekiel 25:17 in the back of my mind- as Balzac no doubt intended me to."The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you. Unfortunately, my Bible doesn’t say it as cool as that, and Lucien isn’t as badass as Samuel L. Jackson. Still, this book was a pleasure to read, and should be especially fun for anybody interested in the inner workings of the publishing world-1820 or present day. I have no experience with that industry, but it seems like everything Balzac describes could be true today. More importantly to the general reader, Lost Illusions is a compassionately told coming-of-age story. Lucien begins, still quite naïve at twenty-one, working in a printshop in the countryside town of Angoulême. In his spare time, he dreams up beautiful poetry and writes novels, which everybody in his little cow town tells him are fantastic… but what do they know? His stuff isn’t actually all that great, but as a big fish in a tiny pond, he starts to believe he could take the Parisian literary world by storm.Okay…show of hands: how many people reading this were at the top of their class in high school, but got a rude awakening in college, when they discovered how many other bright and talented people are out there? Yeah, me too. Just because Mom puts your drawings up on the refrigerator doesn’t mean the Metropolitan Museum of Art will come knocking on your door. That‘s a hard lesson for some. The first casualty in this book is Lucien’s idealism, when he realizes that lofty ideas don’t pay the bills. His initial Parisian friends are a group of starving artist writers, and for a while, they all seem very romantic to him… the idea of being monastically dedicated to one’s craft. He rooms with Daniel d’Arthez- a truly magnificent talent, who spends each waking moment and every precious penny perfecting his sublime prose. In comparison, Lucien can see how inferior his own stories are, but he lacks the dedication or patience to develop his writing. He soon tires of living in squalor, being socially shunned by the beautiful actresses who work in the theater district not far from his apartment (chicks want guys with skills). When the opportunity arises, Lucian sells out and takes a job writing snarky celebrity gossip and trash novels. In short, he goes all Stephenie Meyers on us, except Stephenie at least got paid. Lucien isn’t even smart enough to be a successful sell-out. He becomes part of the machine without hardly knowing there is a machine. You see, at this point, he just thinks Paris is a big city with no compassion. That’s only the half of it. Actually, the place is filled with sharks single-mindedly hunting starry-eyed newbies like himself. Balzac details how fresh talent routinely gets ensnared in contracts with grotesquely unfair terms of employment. Publishers then encourage a lavish lifestyle in their writers, advancing them pay at exorbitant interest. All the while, the new guy gets assignments on the gossip columns, spreading malicious rumors designed to achieve the publisher’s various social and political aims. Once the writer accumulates enough ill will, the publisher steps in and preserves his own reputation by publicly renouncing the columnist and firing him- leaving him deep in debt and with a demolished reputation, so he can’t establish a competing publication. A rare talent might be spared this fate, but Lucien isn’t that good. This is a very routine business model for scoundrels like Leusteau, whom Lucian initially takes as a friend. Naturally, Lucien’s got no idea any of this is going on, so it is painful to watch the scheme unfold.Oh… I see I am sinking into a blow-by-blow summary of the book. That’s no good. It’s just that there are so many twists and turns I want to tell you about. Some funny, some tragic. Lucien’s first love: the snobby and capricious Louise d‘Bargeton… what a disaster! I’m sure everybody has an embarrassing first love story, but Lucien will have you grinding your molars on just about every page. He tries to compete with the much wealthier and more sophisticated Sixte du Châtelet for Louise’s affections…it isn’t pretty. There’s a dual with pistols… oh, make that two duals with pistols, sneaking around in the middle of the night, riding carriages under assumed identities, checking into hotels under aliases, syrupy sappy love letters, sugary embarrassing poems about “all the angels sing her praises, and the flowers bloom for but a chance to see her face!” ROTFLMAO! Yeah, we’ve all been there. There are lots of illusion to be lost here, and Louise performs the task ably. She feeds his tender heart into the wood chipper -not once, but twice!Then there are all the lost illusions with society: Lucien joins the company of gentlemen he looks up to, only to find they are not gentlemanly at all. He works earnestly for a political newspaper, only to discover the cynical motivations for their politics. He holds men of title and position in high regard, only to discover the titles are empty, and their positions ill-gained. These are such timeless themes. There are echoes of this in probably a thousand novels, The Citadel, The Jungle, House of God and The Idiot, just off the top of my head. I’m sure you can think of more. This novel isn’t special because the themes are original. It is special because Balzac tells the tale so well. He managed to make me feel sorry for Lucien, little twerp that he is. He made me feel outrage at devious bastards like Cointet brothers. He made me feel like I really have a sense of what Paris in 1820 might have been like (in fact, he goes into a lot of fun details about the legal and financial institutions extant in France of 1820. There’s a whole subplot about what amounts to an illegal wire transfer- before the age of wire transfers! ) The story is an old one, but it still stirs a sense of tragedy. This is a wicked world we live in. I’d rather be in a kinder place, where idealistic fools like Lucien aren‘t slaughtered like sheep to make rich men richer, but alas, that happens all the time. I don’t have children, but I can only imagine what it must be like to send them out into the world, knowing what a hostile place it is, and knowing that however much they might have already guessed at its corruption, there’s still so much more for them to learn. Author Honoré de Balzac’s bio at the front suggests that some of this story is autobiographical. I can believe it; it’s written with such heart.Lest you walk away from this review thinking Lost Illusions is just an endless parade of defeatist doom and gloom, I can tell you that it definitely is not. The end makes up for everything. For one thing, Lucien comes to realize the value of friends whom you can trust and family who will stick by you through rough times. Lucien returns to Angoulême, and sees the unsophisticated townspeople with new eyes. He appreciates his hard working mother and doting sister, as he never had before. Is this starting to sound like a “Hallmark theater” ending? That's what I thought, but suddenly everything takes an unexpected turn. Lucien tries to save his brother-in-law's business and botches it badly. He goes off into the sunset to commit suicide, and that's when things get crazy. You know how sometimes when you're at the last 50 pages or so of a 700+ page book, and you kind of feel like things are winding down, and you can start writing your review? Well, I was starting to feel like that and then BLAMMO! In comes this insane Spanish diplomat character, who may or may not also be one of Satan's agents, sent directly from hell to negotiate for Lucien's soul. He floors everybody with a convoluted and compelely non-sequitur story about some assistant undersecretary at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has a paper-eating fetish, and who starts a war because he can't help himself from eating a secret peace negotiation his king had signed... but he actually did quite well for himself later in life, after marrying a wealthy woman.Wait! So is France at war now? Oh, no... all this happened ages ago! I was shaking, with tears rolling down my face, wondering WTF is this???!?!?!?! It was wonderful. THEN THE DIPLOMAT KEEPS GOING, with a rant for the ages about how France [of 1820] has lost its morality, and how the justice system is really just a means for the rich to maintain the status quo; how the social caste system will excuse any moral offense, if only the perpetrator is wealthy, famous, or beautiful; and how the church and king put on airs of morality and civility, but by their actions anybody can see that material success is the supreme justification of any action whatsoever; and how there is no significant difference between Napolean, the Medici Family and common criminals- they all just prey on the middle class, who deserve everything they get, if they put up with it. It's just so... so, delicious. Maybe I will develop a paper eating fetish, just so I can eat this book, and feel its papery awesomeness flowing through my veins. When the story finally wraps up, some of the bad guys win, some of the good guys lose, but Lucien's sister Eve, and her husband David- the only genuinely respectable people in the entire novel- are at least happy. This has got to be one of the best novel endings I have ever read. Seriously, this is going on my "desert island picks" shelf. And WTF haven’t heard of this novel before? There are "classics" out there which aren't half as good as this. The bright side, I suppose, is that its obscurity means that the vast universe of books still contains some surprises. Highest Possible RecommendationListen to me read this review HERE.It's all part of my My Big Audio Project.