By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

5. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 151-192

Part Two: A Great Man in Embryo, 1. First-fruits
In fiction, traditionally it's a wealthy man who lures a poor young girl to the city, where he abandons her. In Lost Illusions, Balzac switches the sexes (although Lucien continues to think of himself as the seducer). This is the chapter in which the title begins to be fulfilled.

The first of Lucien's illusions to be swept away concerns money: He hasn't even reached Paris before he has spent on the road "almost the whole sum which was supposed to last him for a year in Paris." They arrive just before daybreak at the Hôtel du Gailliard-Bois in the rue de l'Echelle, where Madame de Bargeton tells him to take a room above her suite.

Lucien sleeps until four, but Madame de Bargeton is awakened two hours earlier by du Châtelet, who has tracked her down. He talks sense into her, telling her that fleeing Angoulême with a young man after her husband has fought a duel defending her honor is not the way to impress Madame d'Espard or the rest of Parisian society: "If anyone here knew you made the journey in the same carriage, you would be blacklisted by the very people you want to see." Moreover, even if she tries to keep it secret, there are plenty of people from Angoulême in Paris who will know the story. He offers to find suitable lodging for her.

When Lucien awakens and presents himself, she is further convinced that du Châtelet is right. She sees that Lucien "was handsome, but his clothes were ridiculous.... The contrast between Lucien and Châtelet was too blatant for Louise not the be struck by it." She tells him that they can't live together, or even let it be known that they arrived in Paris together. It's for his own good, she insists: "Your future depends on my position, and I must do nothing to prejudice it." He is stunned and hurt, but she assures him that he only needs to spend his nights apart from her: "you can spend the day in my flat without anyone taking exception."

A note arrives from du Châtelet to tell her he has found a flat in the rue Neuve-du-Luxembourg, not far from the hotel. He also invites her to join him at the theater the following evening, and to bring Lucien. And fortunately for her, Madame d'Espard has been touched by a scandal involving her husband, who has "withdrawn from society for no apparent cause" (a note tells us that Balzac tells the story in The Petition of Lunacy). She "felt that she needed the approval of society; therefore she was happy to be able to replace [her husband] in this circumstance by befriending his relations" -- i.e. Madame de Bargeton.

Lucien strolls the boulevards and the rue de la Paix and discovers how out of fashion he is. And that evening at the theater he has a similar revelation about Madame de Bargeton: He becomes "aware that Madame de Bargeton's toilette, though passably ambitious, was behind the times" and that her hairstyle, which "he had found so seductive at Angoulême struck him as being in deplorable taste compared with the delicate inventiveness which lent distinction to the other women present." And she notices that he makes "a prodigiously ridiculous appearance in comparison with the young men in the dress circle." After du Châtelet leaves Lucien at his hotel, he says to her, "That poor lad is incredibly boring." She defends Lucien, "though she did it less for Lucien's sake than for her own."

The next day, she goes to see Madame d'Espard, and sends him a note that she is going to the opera that evening and that Madame d'Espard has invited him to join them. "'Louise does love me then! My fears are absurd,' thought Lucien. 'She is introducing me to her cousin this very evening.'" But a walk in the Tuileries reinforces his awareness that none of his clothes are suitable:
Lucien broke out in a cold sweat at the thought that, the same evening, he was to appear in these clothes before the Marquise d'Espard, a kinswoman of a First Gentleman of the Royal Bedchamber, a woman whose salon was frequented by all sorts of exceptionally illustrious people.
He becomes more painfully aware of the expensiveness of his ambitions, especially after dining in a restaurant where the bill "relieved him of the fifty francs which he had thought would carry hm a long way in Paris. His dinner had cost him as much as a month's existence in Angoulême." But he goes to a tailor and spends two hundred francs more getting outfitted in what he assumes to be the latest style. But the newness and showiness of his clothing betrays him anyway: When he arrives at the Opera, he looks to the ticket taker "like a best man at a wedding," and his claim to be a guest of Madame d'Espard is challenged. Even Madame de Bargeton doesn't recognize him at first, although when she does she compliments him: "You have made good use of your time," she whispers to him.

Ironically, she is the one who at first comes off poorly by comparison with Madame d'Espard in Lucien's eyes.
Lucien, drawing two-fold enlightenment from the beau monde in this pompous assembly and the eminent Marquise, at last saw Anaïs de Nègrepelisse for what she was and as she was seen by the people of Paris: a tall, desiccated woman with freckled skin, faded complexion and strikingly red hair; angular, affected, pretentious, provincial of speech and above all badly dressed! ... Both the dress and the woman in it lacked grace and bloom: the mottled velvet went with a mottled complexion.
But Madame de Bargeton has already realized how unfashionable she looks and has resolved to do something about it, with Madame d'Espard's help.

Meanwhile, Madame d'Espard has noticed that people are looking at them, and she takes a good look at Lucien for the first time and notices that he is "oddly dressed." And when du Châtelet enters, Lucien points him out, causing Madame d'Espard to give "an astonished smile which plainly asked 'Where was this young man brought up?'" The disdain in her expression humiliates Madame de Bargeton -- "the most mortifying sensation for a Frenchwoman and one she does not forgive her lover for inflicting on her."

Madame d'Espard points out Eugène de Rastignac and Madame de Nucingen in another box, explaining that her husband is "a contractor, a banker, a business man, a large-scale broker, a man who imposes himself on Paris society through his wealth -- and they say he has no scruples about the means he uses to increase it." Lucien wonders how the de Rastignacs, "whose income, as we know in Angoulême, is less than three thousand francs, manage to maintain their son in Paris?" Madame d'Espard makes a comment that Lucien doesn't understand, but implies that Rastignac is a skilled social climber. Madame de Bargeton is increasingly concerned about her association with Lucien, and things only get worse when four socially eminent men visit Madame d'Espard's box.

Henri de Marsay is an arbiter of style who "was liked, but he was feared," so that "One can imagine what a poor impression Lucien, starched, stilted, stiff and raw like the clothes he was wearing, made in such company." Félix de Vandenesse is pleasanter and warmer. General Montriveau is one of the leaders of Paris society, and Monsieur de Canalis is a young poet "on the threshold of glory." When she saw them, "Madame de Bargeton no longer wondered why the Marquise was paying little attention to Lucien." In fact, she begins to pity him and ventures to introduce him first to Canalis, as a fellow poet. Meanwhile, de Marsay is studying both Lucien and Madame de Bargeton "with a smile as if they were a pair of curious animals.... Félix de Vandenesse gave him a kindly look, Montriveau an appraising glance which went right through him." Finally, Madame d'Espard invites Canalis to dine with her on Monday with Lucien. And de Marsay says, "if you sponsor Monsieur for his intelligence, I will sponsor him for his good looks."

But this moment of promise ends when du Châtelet enters, using a prior acquaintance with Montriveau as a way to get an introduction to Madame d'Espard. Du Châtelet gives Lucien "one of those curt, cold nods with which one man disparages another." His "sardonic expression" causes de Marsay to whisper to Montriveau, "Ask him who is that curious young man dressed like a tailor's dummy." Lucien realizes that he is outclassed intellectually and "sensed that his appearance was that of a man who had dressed up for the first time in his life."

Madame de Bargeton hasn't quite yet tuned into the situation, and when de Marsay mentions Rastignac, and wonders if he knows Lucien, she says that it's hard not to believe "that the name of the great man of whom we are so proud has not reached his ears: his sister recently heard Monsieur de Rubempré reciting some beautiful poetry to us." But during the next act of the opera, the people in the other boxes are "the scene of animated conversation about Madame de Bargeton and Lucien." And she ponders how much more graciously Madame d'Arsac received du Châtelet than Lucien. The title of the novel begins to be explicated:
Losing his illusions about Madame de Bargeton while Madame de Bargeton was losing hers about him, the unhappy youth ... was fascinated by Madame d'Espard and fell in love with her immediately.... in short, this queenly person made the same impression on the poet as Madame de Bargeton had made on him in Angoulême. 
Moreover, Madame de Bargeton notices: "'He has never looked at me like that,' she thought. 'Good heavens, Châtelet was right!' It was then that she realized her mistake in loving him."

At the next intermission, de Marsay reveals the truth to Madame d'Espard about Lucien: that his name is Chardon, not Rubempré, and that his father was an apothecary. Rastignac has been making fun of Madame de Bargeton as well, with jokes about "that species of mummy whom the Marquise called her cousin and her precautions in taking a pharmacist about with her -- no doubt in order that he might keep her artificially alive with drugs." And behind her fan, Madame d'Espard talks to Madame de Bargeton and confirms the reports she has heard. Her loyalties lie with Madame de Bargeton, as a kinswoman, so she says, "I do not care to have my box filled with wags who are delighted to find me hobnobbing with an apothecary's son. Believe me, the best thing we can do is to leave together this very instant." Which they do, while Lucien's attention is directed toward the performance on stage. In the carriage, she persuades Madame de Bargeton to drop him, and announces that her door will be closed to Lucien.

Lucien's eyes are opened by their desertion and by du Châtelet's attempts to avoid him at the next intermission. He stays for the end of the opera, however, and watching the society people in the boxes thinks, "That is the society I have to tame." The next day, he goes to a more fashionable tailor and orders more clothes, but when he tries to visit Madame de Bargeton he is repeatedly told she is out or is not seeing anyone. He receives a letter from her saying that Madame d'Espard has taken ill and will not be able to honor the dinner invitation; Madame de Bargeton says that she will be keeping her company and can't see him. But he sees them together in a carriage on the Champs-Élysées, Madame de Bargeton having undergone a transformation in style under Madame d'Espard's tutelage. Rastignac and de Marsay, on horseback, accompany them, but when he bows to the women, "Madame de Bargeton pretended not to see him and the Marquise eyed him through her lorgnette, ignoring his salute."
The unhappy poet was seized with a mortal chill when he saw de Marsay staring at him through his monocle: the Parisian lion then let it fall in so singular a fashion that it seemed like the drop of the guillotine blade to Lucien.
He is, however, able to trap du Châtelet, leaving Madame de Bargeton's flat, into talking to him. Du Châtelet tells him the truth: that Rastignac had revealed his background and that de Marsay had provoked the flight of the ladies from the box. And he advises, "You are a man of genius: see if you can't avenge yourself. Society disdains you: disdain society." He tells him to send Madame de Bargeton's letters back to her. She will regard it as the action of a gentleman, and, "Later on, if you need her, she will not be hostile."

After settling up with the tailor, he has three hundred sixty francs left, out of the two thousand he brought with him. He finds a room in the Latin quarter, which David had recommended as being cheap. And in his anger he writes a letter to Madame de Bargeton, "bombastic but full of that sombre dignity which an artist of twenty-one tends to overdo." Among other things, he says, "Yes, Madame, thanks to you, I have nothing left. But the world was made out of nothing." He remembers the apartment David created for him in Angoulême, and weeps, "for he was alone in Paris, friendless and unprotected." A few days later, he writes to his sister, telling her what has happened, but vowing to stay on in Paris and to sell his novel and his book of verses.

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