By Charles Matthews

Friday, June 4, 2010

7. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 244-266

Part Two: A Great Man in Embryo, 9. Good advice; 10. A third variety of publisher; 11. The Wooden Galleries
Lousteau sums up Lucien's position simply: "You have the stuff of three poets in you; but, if you reckon to live on what your poetry brings in, you have time to die half a dozen deaths before you make your name." In short, he needs contacts in the publishing world, and he needs to know how it works: "In literature, as in the theatre, much happens behind the scenes." And he urges Lucien to get out while he still can: "Don't throw honour away, as I do, in order to live." He explains that he was penniless even after his first play was presented, and that he now lives primarily not on writing but on selling the tickets that theater owners give him in exchange for favorable reviews and the books that publishers send him for review. Actresses also pay for reviews, even unfavorable ones, because they know that it's better to be criticized than to be ignored. His mistress is an actress, though he once "dreamt of splendid love affairs with the most distinguished women in high society." And he has no scruples left: He will write a negative review of a book he admires if the editor tells him to because the publisher wouldn't send an extra copy of it.

Lucien still refuses to believe that he will end up like Lousteau, who tells him "I feel sorry for you. I see in you what I used to be, and I'm sure that in a year or two you'll be as I am now." So Lousteau agrees to act as a kind of mentor: "I'll introduce you this evening to one of the kings of the book trade and a few journalists."
Excited by the prospect of an immediate wrestle between mankind and himself, the inexperienced young man had no idea how real was the spiritual degradation which the journalist had denounced. He did not know he had to choose between two different paths, two systems for which the Cénacle and journalism respectively stood: the one way being long, honourable and certain, the other beset with reefs, dangerous, full of many runnels in which his conscience was bound to get bedraggled.... At the moment he could see no difference between d'Arthez's noble friendship and Lousteau's easy-going comradeship.
So he dresses himself up in his finest and, looking like "a Greek god," goes to Lousteau's "dirty and dreary" quarters. "What a difference there was between this cynical disorderliness and the decent poverty in which d'Arthez lived!" comments Balzac, continuing to lay the moralizing on a little bit too thickly. While Lucien is there, a bookseller named Barbet comes to inspect some review copies Lousteau is selling him. On most of them, the pages are still uncut, which causes Lucien to ask how Lousteau will write reviews of them if he hasn't read them and is now selling them. Barbet looks at him in astonishment and says, "It's plain to see that this gentleman hasn't the misfortune to be a man of letters." After the complex deal is finished -- it involves using "bills" (IOUs) in lieu of cash -- Lousteau explains how reviewing works:
Take Travels in Egypt: I opened the book and read a bit here and there without cutting the pages, and I discovered eleven mistakes in the French. I shall write a column to the effect that even if the author can interpret the duck-lingo carved on the Egyptian pebbles they call obelisks, he doesn't know his own language -- and I shall prove it to him. I shall say that instead of talking about natural history and antiquities he ought only to have concerned himself with the future of Egypt, the progress of civilization, the means of winning Egypt over to France which, after conquering it and then losing it again, could still establish a moral ascendancy over it. Then a few pages of patriotic twaddle, the whole interlarded with tirades on Marseilles, the Levant and our trading interests.
And if the author had done that, Lousteau explains, he would have criticized him for not paying "attention to Art" and giving the reader a picturesque travel book instead. He reveals that his mistress, Florine, reads the novels she gets and that he writes an article based on her opinions, except "When she's been bored by what she calls 'literary verbiage' I take the book into serious consideration." Lucien, "still imbued with the doctrines of the Cénacle," is startled by all this cynicism and asks "what about criticism, the sacred task of criticism?" Lousteau is beyond any such notions.

He shows Lucien a trick: He has marked a line between the string, wrapped around Lucien's manuscript of his poems, and the paper. It will reveal whether Dauriat actually removes the string and reads the manuscript. And they go off to "the Wooden Galleries, where the supposedly up-to-date publishers then reigned in all their glory." Balzac devotes a chapter to depicting the shambling, filthy, fleamarket-like, prostitute-filled galleries.

No comments:

Post a Comment