By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

25. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 589-682

Part Three: An Inventor's Tribulations, The "Fatal Member of the Family", 22. An unexpected triumph; 23. How the triumph had been staged; 24. A rare kind of devotion; 25. The pride of his province?; 26. The snake in the grass; 27. Lucien takes his revenge; 28. The peak of disaster; 29. A last farewell; 30. A chance encounter; 31. The story of a favourite; 32. A history lecture for the ambitious -- by a disciple of Machiavelli; 33. A lecture on ethics -- by a disciple of Mendoza; 34. A Spanish profile; 35. Why criminality and corruption go hand in hand; 36. On the brink of surrender; 37. The effect of a night in gaol; 38. A day too late; 39. The history of a business venture; 40. Conclusion
And so all the plot-knots have been knotted: The Cointets, Petit-Claud and old Séchard have made their plans for seizing David and his process, Lucien has returned and is ready prey for those conniving against David, and David is in deep trouble. Now it remains for the novelist to untie all the knots. He has several choices at this point: He can play the sentimental moralist and mete out justice, dispensing punishment for avarice (the Cointets and old Séchard), vanity (Lucien) and guile (Petit-Claud) and rewards for virtue (Eve and David). Or he can be the cynical realist and demonstrate what we know from the real world: that the vicious aren't always punished or the virtuous rewarded.

But Balzac chooses neither path to his dénouement. The novel, after all, is called Lost Illusions, and the readers should be under no illusion that their hopes for the characters will be fulfilled. Instead, Balzac becomes the cynical moralist (or sentimental realist) and gives us an ending with overtones of Goethe and Voltaire.

So Lucien opens the Angoulême newspaper and finds himself a celebrity: An article acclaims both his volume of poetry, Les Marguerites, but also his novel. He is called "a rival of Petrarch!!!" It also mentions the patronage of the former Madame de Bargeton, now Madame la Comtesse du Châtelet, and even revives the idea of his assuming "the name and title of the illustrious Rubempré family." Eve, of course, sees through this bit of puffery: The newspaper is owned by the Cointets, she points out, and under the circumstances, "here you must be on your guard about the slightest things." Lucien is only momentarily brought back to reality: A letter addressed to him arrives, inviting him to dine with Monsieur le Comte Sixte du Châtelet and Madame la Comtesse du Châtelet. Old Séchard is impressed: "They're talking about you in the town as if you were a somebody." But Eve protests, "You're surely not going to accept this invitation?" She suspects a conspiracy is afoot. Lucien replies that his influence with the Comtesse could save David: He'll tell her about the invention and she'll help get money from the government to fund it. And that night, Lucien is serenaded by the young people of Angoulême, who hurl flowers and laurel wreaths through the windows. He beams in triumph, but his mother and his sister are troubled with doubts.

As well they might be: the whole thing has been staged by Petit-Claud, who is in the midst of his negotiations for the hand of Françoise de La Haye. The Sénonches have, in fact, moved into the house formerly occupied by the Bargetons, and it is there that the solicitor is introduced to the Comtesse du Châtelet, in "the boudoir in which Lucien's misfortunes had begun and in which they were about to reach their consummation." Petit-Claud asks how she wishes Lucien to be received now that he has returned -- with "contempt or adulation." They decide on the latter, and Petit-Claud knows that he has succeeded. So the article, the serenade, and the invitation to dine with the Comte and Comtesse are the result. Petit-Claud also brings a deputation of Lucien's former schoolfellows to see him and to stage a banquet in his honor. And when Petit-Claud reveals to Lucien that he was the one who wrote the fawning newspaper article, he gains his complete trust.

Lucien writes to Lousteau to order fashionable clothes in exchange for forgiving the thousand-franc debt Lousteau owes him. Eve is astonished when she sees Lucien in the clothes that are sent. And at Lucien's instruction Lousteau also places an item in the Paris newspapers about how well-received his return to Angoulême has been. The banquet is a huge success as well, and even David, in his hiding place at Basine Clerget's, hears the music. Petit-Claud walks Lucien home afterward, telling him that tomorrow he will sign a contract of marriage to Mademoiselle de La Haye and that the Comtesse will be there, so that Lucien, who has praised her in a toast at the banquet, should also attend.

At that moment, David appears, even though Eve has written him warning him not to try to contact Lucien or let him know where the hiding-place is. But David has been in hiding too long, so he persuades Basine that he can slip out, see Lucien and his wife and child, and return safely. Petit-Claud watches as David and Lucien go in the house. Cérizet, who has been hiding nearby, has figured out David's hiding place, so he and Petit-Claud set a trap for David. The solicitor, though he has sworn he's a royalist in order to gain the hand of Mademoiselle de La Haye, is in fact a secret member of the Opposition. He now plots to buy the Séchard printing-office to start a Liberal newspaper under Cérizet's editorship. And the next day, Cérizet tells Petit-Claud that he has a plan to get David arrested.

Meanwhile, Lucien has David that his plan is to seduce the Comtesse and "persuade her to ask the Ministry to allot you a subsidy of twenty thousand francs for your researches." He goes to the Sénonches to witness the signing of the marriage contract of Petit-Claud and Mademoiselle de La Haye. He makes a huge impression on the Angoulême aristocracy in his finery, and makes a sensation when he is reunited with Madame du Châtelet. Once again, he uses the bishop as a foil in his encounter with her in the same boudoir. He whispers to her that he loved her, and the bishop "hastily regained the salon, realizing that his dignity might be compromised if he stayed with this pair of former lovers." Everyone else stays away until du Châtelet intervenes. But the Comtesse tells her husband, "I am talking to Monsieur de Rubempré about matters which are important to you. It's a question of rescuing an inventor who is about to fall victim to the basest form of intrigue, and you must come to his help." When du Châtelet tells Lucien, "From tonight your brother-in-law may consider himself out of danger," Cointet and Petit-Claud are shocked. But Petit-Claud assures Cointet that he still has a trick in store.

The trick is Cérizet's: He has seduced one of Basine's laundresses, getting her pregnant, and she reveals David's hiding place. From Petit-Claud, he obtains a letter Lucien has written to him on Eve's writing paper. He knows how to wash the paper to remove what Lucien has written and forges a note to David from Lucien saying that he can come out of hiding. The laundress is to tell Basine that Eve wants to see her, and while she's out, knock on the door of David's hiding place and give him the letter. The plan works, and David is arrested. When Eve and Lucien come across the bailiffs taking David away, she asks why he came out of hiding. It was Lucien's letter, he says. Eve faints, and Lucien, who "could not fathom the misunderstanding due to the forged letter," tells his mother that it's his fault. "Thunderstruck by his mother's maledictory glance, he went upstairs to his room and locked himself in."

In his room, Lucien writes a farewell letter to Eve in which he says, "in many a family there is a fatal being who, for that family, is a sort of blight. That is what I am in this family." He is "so afraid of the future that I don't want to have a future." Resolved to commit suicide, he tells her not to search for him. He remembers a deep pool near the Charente where he plans to fill his pocket with stones and drown himself, but on the way there he comes across a traveler who has disembarked from the stagecoach to Paris, going on foot while the coach makes its way slowly up a long hill. The man, who appears to be a Spanish priest, offers Lucien a cigar which he declines: "No cigar-smoke can blow away my sorrows," he says, and rejects the priest's offer to console him.
"Oh! I'm an out-an-out atheist. I don't believe in God, or in society, or in the possibility of happiness. Take a good look at me, father, for in a few hours' time I shall no longer exist. I shall never see the sun again!" said Lucien, somewhat bombastically, pointing to the heavens. 
The priest then tells Lucien that he needs a secretary, and offers to hire him, so Lucien joins him in the stagecoach and tells him the story of his life. Along the way, they pass the family home of the Rastignacs, which Lucien points out: "The first time he mentioned the name, the Spaniard gave a start." In a footnote, the translator tells us that the priest is actually "the master-criminal Vautrin in disguise" and that Vautrin had been involved with Rastignac in Balzac's Old Goriot.

The priest, aka Abbé Carlos Herrera, aka Vautrin, now reassures Lucien, "If the good Monsieur Séchard has made a discovery, he'll be a rich man. Rich people have never been put in prison for debt." And he proceeds to outline a very Machiavellian view of the world.
"Do you know why I'm giving you this little lecture on history? It's because I believe you to be inordinately ambitious."
"Yes, father, I am." 
"I could see that," the Canon went on. "But at this moment you're saying to yourself: 'This canon from Spain is inventing anecdotes and squeezing the juice out of history in order to prove to me that I've been too virtuous.'" 
Lucien smiled at seeing his thoughts so well divined. ... Caught in the spell of this cynical conversation, Lucien was all the more inclined to cling on to life again because he felt as if he had been snatched by a powerful arm from a suicide's watery grave.
Herrera-Vautrin's counsel is "secretiveness." And he tells Lucien, "Obey me as a wife obeys her husband, as a child obeys his mother, and I guarantee that in less than three years' time you'll be the Marquis de Rubempré, you'll marry into one of the noblest families in the Faubourg Saint-Germain and one day you'll have a seat on the bench of Peers." And if Lucien makes "this pact with me," he says, he will send fifteen thousand francs on the coach to Bordeaux to Lucien's sister. Lucien's skepticism about this offer vanishes when the "priest" shows him the money he is carrying with him on the stagecoach.

And so Lucien-Faust makes a deal with Vautrin-Mephistopheles.

Back in Angoulême, Petit-Claud is proposing another deal: a partnership between David and the Cointets. And Eve sees no choice but to accept it, for as the solicitor tells her, "If you try to safeguard your invention, your life will go on as it is now: nothing but legal wrangles." Of course, Boniface Cointet has every intention of screwing the Séchards on the deal. But the sordidness of the prison has already worn David down when Eve comes to see him there with the proposal. She is followed by Petit-Claud who, when he asks why David left his hiding place, hands him Cérizet's forged letter from Lucien. The solicitor pockets it "as if through absent-mindedness," thereby disposing of the evidence.

The money Herrera-Vautrin sends to Eve, however, arrives too late. The contract has been signed, on terms far more favorable to the Cointets than to David. And finally, the Cointets are able to buy David out of any share in the profits from the invention. "I'll accept any settlement that will leave us in peace," he says. So David and Eve retire to Marsac, where Eve has used part of the money Lucien sent to buy a tract of land next to old Séchard's. Kolb has learned the winery business from the old man, and when Séchard dies in 1829, David and Eve inherit "about two hundred thousand francs in real property." Boniface Cointet becomes a multimillionaire and a Peer of France. Petit-Claud becomes Attorney-General.
David Séchard has a loving wife, two sons and a daughter. He has had the good taste never to talk about his experiments. Eve has had the good sense to make him renounce the disastrous vocation of inventor.... He cultivates literature as a relaxation while living the happy, leisurely life of a landowner developing his estate. 
In other words, like Candide, he cultivates his garden. And as for Lucien-Faust, his story continues elsewhere in the Comédie humaine.

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