By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 29, 2010

1. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 3-32

Part One: The Two Poets, 1. A provincial printing-office
We begin, as the chapter heading indicates, in the print shop in Angoulême run by Jérôme-Nicolas Séchard, which is outfitted with "antiquated equipment." Séchard, who is illiterate, worked as a pressman in the print shop and bought it from the owner's widow; he has weathered revolution, wartime and restoration. He sent his only son, David, "to the town lycée, not so much in order to have him educated as to prepare the way for a successor," and then to Paris to learn "more advanced typography," with the understanding that he would also "amass a fair sum of money in the capital." 

Another print shop opened up in the town at about the time David returned from Paris. The aging Séchard had begun to drink more and more, and he decided to retire, and to sell the business to David. "If in the beginning he had thought of David as being an only child, he late had only looked on him as an obvious purchaser whose interests were opposed to his own: he wanted to sell dear, whereas David would want to buy cheap; therefore his son was an enemy to be vanquished." So Séchard tries a hard sell on David, overvaluing his mostly dilapidated equipment and stock. (A note: Balzac uses a Latin phrase, pede titubante, in this scene, for which I haven't been able to find an exact translation -- the Penguin edition's translator, Herbert J. Hunt, leaves it in Latin. I think it means that Séchard is staggering drunkenly, because the word "titubation" refers to a medical condition in which one staggers or reels. Pede, I think, is an inflected form of pes, or foot. Confirmation or contradiction of this translation would be welcome.) David is well aware from his experience in Paris that the shop is hopelessly antiquated, but Séchard argues "that provincial people were strongly rooted in their habits, and that any attempt to provide them with better products would be wasted."

David is "one of those shy and sensitive people who shrink from argument," and his father gets the upper hand in the deal:
Until such time as David Séchard had paid off the thirty thousand francs, profits were to be equally divided; once he had repaid this sum to his father, he would become the one and only owner of the printing-office. David ... decided he would be able to make good and accepted the terms. His father, accustomed to the niggling cautiousness of the peasant class, and knowing nothing of the wider scope of Parisian calculations, was astonished at so prompt a conclusion.
When David asks for money to help pay the wages of the shop's workers, however, his father refuses. He assumes that David has saved money from what he earned in Paris, and when David protests, "I had to live, and I had to buy books," he retorts, "People who buy books can't be much good at printing them." David starts to challenge his father, but "The noble-hearted young man decided to shoulder the burden." He is left with only a young woman named Marion to help with the business by doing odd jobs. Séchard retires to a vineyard he has bought "at Marsac, a little village some ten miles away from Angoulême."

David makes a major  mistake in running the business: "He maintained in political and religious matters a neutrality which was most injurious to his interests. He was living in a period when provincial tradespeople had to line up with a party in order to get customers." His rivals, the Cointet brothers, are on the monarchist side, and they steal away customers of the same political views by telling them that David's "father had sided with the Terrorists, ... was a drunkard, a Bonapartist, an old miser who sooner or later would surely leave piles of gold to his heir." The Cointets, "considerably enriched by the sale of prayer books and works of piety," offer to buy the advertising journal that Séchard printed in order to get a monopoly on official notices that had to be published. Séchard leaves his vineyard for a time and offers to sell the print-shop to the Cointets for sixty thousand francs; he settles for selling the advertising journal for twenty-two thousand, with the proviso that David would never "print any periodical whatsoever, under a penalty of thirty thousand francs' damages." In short, he sells David out, giving his interest in the business over to his son but keeping the rent on the house in which the shop is located.

David has reunited with a friend from the lycée, Lucien Chardon, the son of a pharmacist in Angoulême who had been working on a cure for gout. The father's death had  left the family in dire straits because his expectation of financial reward for the cure had led him to spare "no expense for the education of his son and daughter, so that budgeting for the family constantly ate away the income from his chemist's shop." His widow sold the chemist's shop, but the amount she received was barely enough for herself, let alone her family. She "became a nurse for women in labour, and her gentle manners gained her the preference over all others in the rich households." Lucien's sister, Eve, took a job supervising women in a laundry, and she and her mother supported Lucien, in whom they believed "as fervently as Mahomet's wife believed in her husband: there were no bounds to the sacrifices they made for his future." David hired Lucien as a proofreader, "and paid him a wage of forty francs a month, which saved him from despair."

Both David and Lucien were poets, with the difference that "Although he had been destined for the highest speculations of natural science, Lucien had an ardent thirst for literary glory, while David, whose meditative genius predisposed him to poetry, felt drawn towards the exact sciences." David also fell in love with Lucien's sister, Eve. David and Lucien were incompetent at running the printing shop, and when their rival, the Cointet brothers, realized that, they stopped competing with them: The Cointets realized it was better to have an incompetent rival muddling along than to let David be bought out by someone who really knew how to run the business.

David was sturdy and robustly built, with "the ardent melancholy of a mind capable of scanning the horizon from end to end and taking cognizance of all its undulations, one which readily found disillusion in imagined joys after subjecting them to the hard, clear light of analysis." Lucien had an almost feminine beauty and "the depravity of outlook characteristic of diplomats, who believe that any means however shameful they may be, are justified by success."
Although the printer seemed to enjoy the robust health of a peasant, he was a man of melancholic, even sickly genius and was lacking in self-confidence; whereas Lucien, possessing more initiative but less stability of mind, displayed an audacity which tallied ill with his languid, almost frail though femininely graceful physique. 
One day a stranger enters the print-shop and asks for an estimate on printing a memoir. David declines without even looking at the copy, saying that they didn't print "such sizable manuscripts" and suggesting he go to the Cointets. Lucien, however, looks at it and suggests the man leave it overnight so they can come up with the estimate. The man asks if he isn't Lucien Chardon, and says that he's happy to meet "a young poet of such brilliant promise. I come from Madame de Bargeton." He learns that the manuscript is a treatise on the cultivation of silkworms that the man wants published.

When the man leaves, David confronts Lucien with the fact that his friend is in love with Madame de Bargeton. Lucien admits it. He also reveals that he is scheduled to be reading his poems at her house tonight, but that he has told her that he won't do so unless David is also invited. He's awaiting her decision. David is moved by his friend's action.
This ambitious young man, who had just gained admission to the Bargeton mansion by making his poetic reputation a bridge between town and suburb, was as anxious about his patroness's decision as can be a court favourite apprehensive of disgrace when he has tried to extend his power. These words must seem obscure to those who have not yet observed the manners peculiar to cities divided into an upper and a lower town. 

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