By Charles Matthews

Monday, May 31, 2010

3. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 73-118

Part One: The Two Poets, 3. A social evening and a riverside stroll
Lucien arrives early -- in fact, first -- at Madame de Bargeton's and is forced to make small talk with her husband, who is not up to the task of ransacking "the immense void within him in order to find something to say." Their awkward conversation proceeds by fits and starts, and Lucien becomes afraid that Monsieur Bargeton's silence is the result of suspicions about his relations with Madame de Bargeton. Finally, du Châtelet arrives, elegantly dressed, and surveys Lucien's clothing to conclude that he has nothing to worry about from this rival. "Lucien, already abashed by the finance official's elegance, told himself he would have his revenge when the gathering saw him with his face radiant with poetry." Finally, Madame de Bargeton enters.
Monsieur du Châtelet gallantly greeted this queenly person with nauseating compliments which drew a pleased smile form her, so happy she was to be praised in front of Lucien. She exchanged but one glance with her dear poet, and the politeness of her reply to the Director of Taxes was a virtual snub since it excluded him from the circle of her close acquaintances. 
A procession of guests enters, each of whom gets a detailed and satiric treatment reminiscent of Dickens or Daumier. "This gathering of odd people, with their strange assortment of dress and make-up, filled Lucien with awe, and his heart beat fast at finding himself the center of attention." He is introduced as "Monsieur de Rubempré" by Madame de Bargeton, but only her husband, the Bishop and a few others continue to call him that; "the greater part of this redoubtable gathering" continues to call him "Monsieur Chardon." He is "unaware that with the exception of Madame de Bargeton poetry was a closed book to the minds of everyone present."

He begins, as David had suggested, by reading from the volume by André Chénier. "Although André Chénier's poems had been published in 1819, no one in Angoulême had heard of him as yet." And as he reads he notices "the reflex action of wide yawns and the consequent exposure of teeth which seemed to be mocking him." Everyone in the audience is bored except for "two or three young people, and the Bishop," and Laure de Rastignac, the daughter of the Baron de Rastignac. Among the rest, some wonder why he read from a printed copy, and one of them explains that he works at a printing office. Finally du Châtelet explains that the poems aren't Lucien's but Chénier's, and the "assembly, with the exception of the Bishop, Madame de Rastignac and her two daughters, who had been impressed by the poetry, believed that it had been hoaxed and took offence at such deceit." Lucien continues to read from the book, however, until Madame de Bargeton is pressured to ask him to recite some of his own verse.

"He gazed at Madame de Bargeton with a somewhat fatuous air and announced the title: TO HER!" She is "visibly embarrassed," and the reaction after he reads the poem, revealing his infatuation, is one of polite hostility: "the ladies, enraged at having no poet at their service to call them angels, rose from their seats with boredom written on their faces and murmured in icy tones: Very good; lovely; perfect." One of them indignantly tells du Châtelet: "Letting a man call her an archangel! As if she were any better than us! And making us mix with such riff-raff: the son of a chemist and a sick-nurse, his sister a laundry-maid and himself a printer's assistant!" So "they set out to humiliate Lucien with their ironic and snobbish witticisms."

One of them, Francis du Hautoy, manages to implicate the Bishop, an admirer of Lucien's, in his plot to humiliate Lucien. He suggests to the Bishop that Lucien's poem was written about his mother. When he is praised by the Bishop, Lucien thanks him, "little knowing that the worthy prelate was about to become his executioner." Madame de Bargeton's triumphant look when the Bishop praises her protégé "struck home like so many javelins into the hearts of her rivals and redoubled their fury." So Lucien sets himself up for the kill, when he says, "Ideas gestate a long time in the womb of thought."
"You will have a painful delivery," interrupted Monsieur du Hautoy.
"Your excellent mother will be able to help you," said the Bishop.
This apparent witticism, so skilfully engineered, was the avenging shaft they had all been awaiting, and their eyes lit up with a gleam of delight. A smile of aristocratic satisfaction passed over everybody's face, and its effect was increased by Monsieur de Bargeton who, in his idiocy, gave vent to a belated laugh.
"My Lord, your wit is too subtle for us at this moment. These ladies do not understand you," said Madame de Bargeton. This single word froze all laughter and made them turn their eyes on her with astonishment. 
Madame de Bargeton urges Lucien to recite his poem "Saint John at Pathmos" to demonstrate that "A poet who draws all his inspiration from the Bible finds his true mother in the Church." But he is unable to recapture the attention of the group, some of which are now playing whist while others gather around the most aristocratic members of the assemblage, the Rastignacs and the Pimentels, to find out what they think of the poetry.

Madame de Bargeton withdraws to her boudoir, followed by Lucien, the Bishop ("whose Vicar-General had explained to him the deep irony contained in his untintended epigram and who wanted to make up for it") and Laure de Rastignac, who expresses "her simple faith in Lucien's genius." But they are in the minority:
The poet had been stripped of all his radiance; the landed proprietors saw no use in him at all; the social climbers feared him as a powerful menace to their ignorance; the women, jealous of Madame de Bargeton -- the Beatrice of this new Dante, according to the Vicar-General -- threw glances of cold disdain at him. 
So Lucien leaves, but not discouraged: His "fury at seeing his ambitious repulsed was giving him new strength." 

Meanwhile, David and Eve had been taking their walk along the river. Balzac is, unfortunately, no better at crafting a sentimental love scene than Dickens was, and some of the dialogue he gives the two lovers is exceedingly stilted, as when David proclaims, "People who love find infinite pleasure discovering the poetry which fills their soul in the undulations of a landscape, the transparency of the atmosphere and the scents which rise from the earth. Nature speaks for them."

Eve has initiated the walk on the pretext of talking about Lucien, which they do. David is concerned about the relationship with Madame de Bargeton because he knows that Lucien "loves to shine" and he fears, rightly, that "society will intensify his desires, which no amount of money will be able to satisfy" -- in short, that he will fall into "the kind of debauchery to which poets are prone," once Madame de Bargeton has cultivated "his taste for luxury." Eve is determined to support him, no matter what, but David warns her that "the amount your work brings in will never be proportionate to his needs." Eve is offended by his discouraging words, but he uses the need to support Lucien as a reason to propose marriage to her: They'll support him together. "Lucien could live on my second floor while I built him a flat above the penthouse at the end of the courtyard, unless my father were willing to build a second storey." That way, Lucien would have the privacy and independence he needs to write.

David admits that he's poor, and that "my father has taken pleasure in ruining me," but he tells Eve that she has "a genius for thrift" and that with her help, he can fulfill a project he's been working on. And he tells her that he has an idea for a cheaper way of making paper, based on her father's own idea of using "certain fibrous plants" instead of the cotton and linen rags currently used to make it. At this moment, Lucien returns from Madame de Bargeton, evidently downcast. He tells them what happened, and reveals his plan to marry Madame de Bargeton once her husband dies. They decide it's a good time to tell Lucien that they are planning to marry, but the effect on him is not what they think: He worries that "If Madame de Bargeton consents to become Madame de Rubempré, she will never want David Séchard as a brother-in-law!" But when they disclose their schemes to provide a place for Lucien to live, he brightens. David "prophesied such happiness for the family and such independence for his brother-in-law that Lucien fell under the spell of David's voice and Eve's caresses" and "forgot the painful crown of thorns which Society had crammed down on his head."

David goes to see his father to talk about his engagement to Eve and to see if he would be willing to add a second story to the house. When he arrives, his father is excitedly describing how successful his grape harvest has been and how much money he will make from it, but when David mentions his coming marriage, his father does an about-face: "Get married, all right. But as for giving you anything. I haven't a penny." He's upset at David's marring "a girl from L'Houmeu, you, a well-set-up business man" and demands the rent David owes him: "Sure enough, if you marry this girl from L'Houmeau, I'll square accounts with you. I'll sue you for my rent, for I can see no good coming from this." So David tells him he'll build the second story himself, and his father accuses him of holding out on the rent money. "David returned home in a sad mood:  he realized that if misfortune came he could not count on help from his father."

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