Following on from part one.
This is such a wow of a novel. I gather that Balzac, in writing the vast book series, of which this is one, wanted it to be a document, as much as work of fiction. And so it is. There is a level of detail about subjects like accounting in early nineteenth century France and the legal system that is hard to believe one could get away with selling in a work of fiction. Then there is the paper industry – the Chinese were to blame then as now, the difficulties of cheap labour competition – the bookselling industry and its corrupt links to the reviewing industry. And the reviewing industry’s corrupt links to just about anybody. Reviewers who often scraped together the funds for their precarious existence by selling their review copies and the tickets they received as bribes from theatre managements.
Then there is his cynical eye, unblinking in its observation of the appalling nature of Parisian society, not to mention the hand-me-down version as practised by the best of provincial society. There are ‘good people’ depicted here, but they are all self-deluding dills and one wants nothing more than to bang their heads together or make them sit in the corner with their backs to class until they reform, or write a hundred times on the blackboard ‘I will get real’. Being ‘good’ is no way to escape the scathing judgement of Monsieur Balzac.
That said, there is one strange small group of men who stay true to their dedication to real literature, as opposed to the rascally reviewers with whom Lucien goes astray. And I feel like Balzac sees himself there. They have no weaknesses, they never betray themselves or each other. They worship no false gods, not fashion, not wealth, not status. None of the things that are like oxygen to Lucien.
I think Balzac needs them to balance David and Lucien’s sister. David is perfectly able to see Lucien as he really is, but he can’t do the right thing with that information. David’s ruination is that he knows everybody else without knowing himself at all. At least Lucien’s sister steps up to face the facts, way too late for it to help their dire situation, but still. David remains in fourth grade writing those lines and sitting in the corner while she’s going to get out of primary school for sure…if she doesn’t die of starvation first.
So Balzac wanted a tiny bit of this novel to show that there were real people out there, real writers, who did the right thing routinely, without question and they knew Lucien too, really knew him, but never deluded themselves. A fine little band of writers who are prominent in the story only briefly, but you always know they are there, never changing how they are. Despised by the status seekers. But we readers know differently.
I’ve always thought in the past that a modern writer – and I suppose I mean timeless – is one who is not profligate in their words. Chekhov most obviously. Camus. But here is Balzac, a tap that never turns off, surely paid by the word if ever a writer’s output indicated that. And it is all so now. I kept thinking that, oh, here is the Chinese problem, here is Air bnb. Ruination of people by gambling, a contemporary curse. The insane addiction to status, which destroys human beings now and did then. The doubtful nature of friendship – now on social media, where it is such a bargaining tool – and then.
Oh, oh, oh. Do read this marvellous book about what human beings are, right this very moment, written by somebody the better part of two hundred years ago. See your foibles and weaknesses, your dishonesty and willful lack of judgement, your capacity to give up everything for status, your waste of money on fashion, your betrayals and your lies. The book is a mirror. See what we do.