By Charles Matthews

Sunday, June 6, 2010

9. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 294-328

Part Two: A Great Man in Embryo, 16. Coralie; 17. How a news-sheet is edited; 18. The supper; 19. An actress's apartments
Coralie, smitten with Lucien, looks out at him from behind the curtain, as Camusot and his father-in-law, Cardot, who is keeping another actress, return to their box. As for Lucien, "the demon of lust whispered shocking thoughts in his ear." He quickly forgets any scruples he may have had about Lousteau's bedding Matifat's mistress. Lousteau, witnessing what's going on, eggs Lucien on: Coralie, Lousteau tells him, is 18, and her mother sold her to a man named de Marsay three years ago. She loathed de Marsay, and puts up with Camusot "because he doesn't pester her. So you are her first love." He also warns Lucien that the play will be a failure if he doesn't return Coralie's affections because, distracted by Lucien, she's blowing her lines.

Lucien, dazzled by the prospect of a fling with Coralie, tells Lousteau "more things are happening to me in one evening than ever did in the first eighteen years of my life." And he tells about his affair with Madame de Bargeton and how Châtelet helped break it up. Lousteau decides that he'll write some nasty gossip about Châtelet for the paper and that Lucien should review the play. The paper's short on copy and needs it. Lucien agrees.

Du Bruel comes to ask Lucien to tell Coralie he'll go to her place with her after supper. He agrees, and Coralie "from that moment acted with wonderful verve." At the curtain call, Coralie is wildly acclaimed and when Camusot throws a bouquet of flowers at her, she picks it up and holds it out toward Lucien.

Florine's apartment is beautifully furnished, which explains to Lucien why Lousteau can put up with the disorder of his own quarters. While they're gathering there, a dancer from the opera, Tullia, rushes in to tell Finot that the opera has agreed to provide a hundred subscriptions and the boxes he wants, which puts him in a bind because he had been planning to run a scathing piece on the company if it didn't meet his demands. So Lucien and Lousteau get to work and knock out their copy to replace it. Lucien's is a clever paean to the play, especially to Coralie and, to a slightly lesser degree, to Florine. Balzac tells us that the review "started a revolution in journalism by the revelation it gave of a new and original style." Meanwhile, Lousteau's attack on Châtelet compares him to a heron trying to swallow a cuttle-bone, i.e., Madame de Bargeton. The effect it had in the Faubourg Saint-Germain "was one of the thousand and one causes for further severity of the laws passed against the Press." Finot announces, after Lucien reads his piece to the others, that he's now a member of the staff of the newspaper.

At supper, Coralie instructs Florine to get Camusot so drunk that he'll have to spend the night in Florine's flat. And Lucien congratulates himself on having made friends with Lousteau, "without suspecting that Lousteau already feared him as a dangerous rival." And Claude Vignon, a guest at the supper, delivers a scathing attack on the press and its power:
Napoleon gave the explanation of this phenomenon -- moral or immoral, whichever you like -- in a superb aphorism...:  In corporate crimes no one is implicated. A newspaper can behave in the most atrocious manner and no one on the staff considers that his own hands are soiled.... We shall see the newspapers, which originally were run by men of honour, fall subsequently into the hands of the greatest mediocrities possession the patience and india-rubber faint-heartedness lacking in men of fine genius, or into the  hands of grocers with money enough to buy the products of the pen.... But we shall all write for them, like the people who work at a quicksilver mine knowing that they'll die of it. 
And he prophesies pointedly about Lucien that newspaper work will "dry up his brains, corrupt his soul" and "let him die of hunger if he's thirsty, and of thirst if he's hungry." To which Balzac comments, "Thus it happened, by the blessing of chance, that no information was lacking to Lucien about the precipice over which he was to fall." D'Arthez had warned him of the same thing, and even Lousteau had depicted "literature and journalism in their true light." But Lucien is intoxicated by the wit of the company and heedless of any warnings: "he felt a terrible itch to dominate this world of potentates and believed he had the power to overcome them."

With Florine's help, Camusot drinks himself literally under the table, and Lucien and Coralie escape together. But he has drunk too much himself and after being "disgustingly sick" in the stairwell of Coralie's house, is put to bed by Coralie and her housekeeper, Bérénice.  When he wakes about noon the next day, she gets in bed with him. He goes back to sleep about five o'clock in the afternoon, but is awakened by the arrival of Camusot. In a scene out of a French farce, he hides behind a curtain but leaves his boots behind. Coralie pretends that they are boots she's been trying on for a trouser role, and Camusot falls for it. When they go off to dinner, Bérénice releases Lucien from his hiding place.

Lucien admires Coralie's beautifully appointed apartment, and Bérénice brings him food. Then he naps until Coralie comes back from the theater and spends another night with her. The next day they go out in a carriage Camusot has bought for Coralie:
In one of the lanes of the Bois de Boulogne their coupé encountered the barouche of Mesdames d'Espard and de Bargeton who gazed at Lucien with astonishment: he darted at them the contemptuous glance of a poet who foresees the fame in store for him and intends to exploit his power. 
It is "one of the sweetest moments in his life, and perhaps decided his destiny." The desire for revenge makes him forsake the disciplined life prescribed by the Cénacle. At dinner with many of the same people who had been at the post-theater supper, Lucien displays a new self-confidence: "he sparkled with wit and became the Lucien de Rubempré who for a few months was to be a shining light in the literary and artistic world." But he also begins to make an enemy of Hector Merlin, "the most dangerous of all the journalists present at the dinner." And at the gaming table he loses all of his money, though Coralie replaces it.

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