By Charles Matthews

Monday, June 14, 2010

17. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 440-462

Part Two: A Great Man in Embryo, 37. Finot's finesses; 38. The fateful week
Having burned his bridges, Lucien is left with friends only on the right. But even on that side, he attracts suspicion and jealousy, so he "clung to his one desire -- to get his ordinance, realizing that with his name restored he could make a fine marriage." Unfortunately, among his new enemies and former friends, Lousteau is aware of this ambition.

At the theater, Lucien runs into Finot, accompanied by Des Lupeaulx, who praises Lucien's ability to charm Mademoiselle des Touches ("who's already regarded as your future wife in social circles") as well as Mesdames d'Espard, de Bargeton and de Montcornet. But behind Lucien's back, Des Lupeaulx confides to Finot that the Marquise, Madame de Bargeton and Châtelet "have thrown him into the royalist party in order to eliminate him.... I'm in their confidence, and they detest the little fellow to an amazing extent." And Finot confides that his former friends are doing their part to demolish Lucien, who still has a contract with Lousteau and needs every penny he can earn, and that they "are engineering a flop for Coralie: he'll see his mistress hissed off the stage." Lucien doesn't suspect a thing.

And so comes what Balzac refers to as Lucien's "fateful week," his equivalent of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Coralie is going to work at a new theater, the Gymnase, her old one having gone bankrupt. And to make sure she's well received, he humbles himself and goes to Camusot with the remaining notes from Fendant and Cavalier. In order to protect Coralie from humiliation, Camusot agrees to give Lucien four thousand five hundred francs for the notes, endorsed "for value received in silk stuffs." Lucien then goes to the claqueur Braulard and pays to have them applaud Coralie.

The evening before Coralie's performance, d'Arthez's book is published, and Martainville, the editor of Le Réveil, orders Lucien to write a review denouncing it, largely to get back at another member of the Cénacle, Léon Giraud, whose new journal is becoming a serious rival to theirs. It doesn't matter that d'Arthez in fact shares their royalist opinions: He is simply the most convenient target. Lucien refuses to write the article, but Merlin and Martainville pressure him to do it by threatening to join in the attempt of the Liberal papers to mock Coralie's performance. Lucien has no choice: He reads d'Arthez's book and finds it "one of the finest in modern literature..., but in the end he wrote a mocking article of the kind at which he was so skillful and laid hold of the book as children lay hold of a beautiful bird to pluck its feathers and torture it."

Sickened by what he has written, he takes the article to d'Arthez and confesses what he has been forced to do. D'Arthez is moved by Lucien's dilemma and by his loyalty to Coralie, reads the article, and proposes to rewrite it himself: "I can make your article more honourable both to you and to me. Besides, I alone am thoroughly aware of my shortcomings." But he is also harshly critical of Lucien's moral weakness: "Repentance is a virginity which our souls owe to God: a man who twice repents is therefore a reprehensible sycophant. I'm afraid you only look on penitence as a prelude to absolution."

Coralie, terrified by the prospect of failure, fails. The claqueurs Lucien has hired are ineffective against their opponents, and the reviews are terrible. Coralie falls ill and withdraws from the play, to be replaced by Florine, "who took over her part and made her reputation in it, for she saved the play." Lucien vows to her, "I shall be the Comte de Rubempré. I shall make a fortune and marry you!" But Coralie knows he's only being foolish, which he proves by going out that evening and losing two thousand francs at the gambling tables.

Finot reports to Lucien that his attack on d'Arthez's novel, though revised by the attackee himself, is causing "scandal and uproar": "People are saying that Marat was a saint compared with you. They're getting ready to attack you, and your book won't survive it." (Lucien has been going over the last proofs of his novel before publication.)

Coralie is "in bed, pale and ill," and Bérénice warns Lucien that she will die if he doesn't find a new part for her. He goes to a soirée at Mademoiselle des Touches, where Madame de Bargeton gives him good news: He is to go tomorrow to the Chancellery, where the King has signed the decree making him Comte de Rubempré. Unfortunately, this is not only a hoax engineered by Madame d'Espard, but an article he has written making fun of the King and the Keeper of the Seals has just appeared in Lousteau's newspaper. So when he arrives at the Chancellery, he is denounced by the Secretary-General and shown the decree which the Lord Chancellor has torn to pieces. Des Lupeaulx, who has accompanied him, tells Lucien, "You've compromised me, Mesdames d'Espard and de Bargeton, and Madame de Montcornet, who had answered for you, must be furious."

Stunned, Lucien is walking past a bookstore when he sees that his novel has been published, "underneath a strange and to him unknown title." He hadn't been told of its publication, "and the newspapers were saying nothing about it." And then Michel Chrestien and Léon Giraud approach him on the street, and Michel spits in his face. Lucien slaps his face and challenges him to a duel.

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