Lost Illusions [Honoré de Balzac]

Lost Illusions

Like some sort of mash-up of Aeschylus and Gossip Girl, ‘Lost Illusions’ is a tragedy of Ancient Greek proportions in which the levels of subterfuge, deception and double-agency would have the scriptwriting staff at the CW drooling. Sadly my French isn’t quite up to tackling 700 page 19th Century novels, and it’s always tricky when you’re appraising style in a translated book to know how much to attribute to the author and how much credit/blame lies with the translator – Herbert J. Hunt in this case (whose name I can’t read without thinking of ‘Lolita’. I’m sorry.) What’s striking about the edition I read (Penguin Classics 1971) was that for the great majority of the time I felt as though I was reading something contemporary. Suffice to say, I think Mr. Hunt did a stand-up job of preserving Balzac’s characters, themes and tone while translating the French into something readable and relevant to the late 20th Century and beyond.

Balzac exaggerates the characteristics of the members of his French troupe to caricature levels. The first character we’re introduced to is Monsieur Séchard: an old miser straight out of Aristophanes – the innocent, hard-working old man claiming to have his son’s best interests at heart while extorting and hoarding every Franc he can. His son, David Séchard, and David’s wife Eve are nothing short of saints – trodden on and punished relentlessly for nothing but generosity and hard work. In the protagonist Lucien we find two extremes; he vacillates between sympathetic underdog and being the most hateful, selfish and generally infuriating son of a bitch. Publishers and journalists are more or less all snakes in the grass, who come together with those in High Society circles to play the collective antagonist. And then, right at the end when all hope seems lost, we’re introduced to this random priest guy – the Canon of Toledo, who is Balzac’s deus ex machina.

What sounds like it could have been an old timey pantomime is set in a world so richly and delicately painted, with such a compelling plot, that I finished the book knowing I had read a masterpiece – and that’s the first time I have ever felt that way; it really moved me. Balzac’s ability to work profundity into both comic and tragic scenes really gets you thinking about politics, philosophy, social inequality… the list goes on. But the true mark of genius is that all of this is couched in a really enjoyable novel.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Try reading ‘Dyskolos’ (‘The Misanthrope’) by Menander. His protagonist Knemon was in my head at any time old Monsieur Séchard was on the scene.

What do you think?

What are your favourite epics – either classic or contemporary? Let me know in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for new books to add to my ‘To-Read’ list!

Until next time x

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