A Distinquished Provincial in Paris by Honore de Balzac is part two of his Lost Illusions trilogy. The very erudite C. K. Scott Moncrieff called it "the greatest novel of all time" (though he never read War and Peace). Upon completion of the trilogy I will attempt to explain why I think Moncreiff said this.
One of my reasons for reading now Lost Illusions, though Moncreiff's remark was enough, is that per my research it is the longest of the ninety one compotents of Balzac's La Comedie Humaine. I am not committing myself yet to trying to reading the full Human Comedy but I will be regularly reading Balzac from now on. The task is not as daughting as it sounds as lots of the components are novellas and short stories. Balzac's work is an incredibly rich source of knowledge about how real life worked, especially how the rich, middle class and poor made and spent money, about the interiors of buildings, clothing, furniture, food and much much more.
In Two Poets, work one of Lost Illusions, we meet a young poet from the provinces, Lucian. As Two Poets closes Lucian is on his way to Paris, intent on making his mark as a poet. His good friend David helped finance his move to Paris. Anka Muhlstein in Mousier Proust's Library talks about a homosexualilty in Balzac and refrences this work, among others. (In works of older novels you should not be too quick to see expressions of love between men as indicative of sexuality but you should likewise not repudiate it. Likewise, you have to accept that great love relationships between middle aged or older men and women in their teens were not always meant to be farcical or depraved. Maybe there are national differences in literature concerning this. In Japanese novels,for example, of the pre-world war II era girls as young as thirteen are seen as appropriate love and sexual interests for fifty year old men. In Balzac, and in Japanese literature, a nubile young daughter was an economic object of potentially high value.)
A Distinquished Provincial in Paris is a classic account of the corruption of a young poet from the provinces by the mother of all big cities, Paris. One of the great things about Balzac is about how much detail he provides about daily life. Lucien only has enough money to just get by in Paris if he lives in the cheapest of quarters and eats where poor writers dine. Balzac takes us deeply and wonderfully into several different segments of Parisian society in A Distinquished Provincial in Paris. In exploring the city, in the company of a man he met at the writer's cafe, enters into a portion of Paris known for prostitutes. In Balzac the mistress of the minister of finance and a street walker are both selling themselves, one just has a better marketing scheme. He begins to become close to some of the courtesans (mistresses of wealthy men) and we learn a lot about the economics of being and having a mistress. We see the status markers among mistresses when one of Lucian's courtesan friends demands and gets a coach from her lover. The motivation for having a mistress is far from just sexual. A beautiful mistress decked out in the most expensive clothes marked her keeper as a man of wealth and taste. Of course it might also let others see him as a strutting self deluded fool.
Mean while, Lucian becomes a journalist when he finds no market for his book of poems. From the bookseller he offers his poetry to he learns how book publishing and selling works in Paris. Balzac really goes into great depth about the business side of publishing and I found this portion of A Distinquished Provincial in Paris very fascinating. Lucian is offered a job as a journalist. Newspapers were coming into their own as a cultural and politcal powers and as we would expect Balzac takes us deeply into the "real world" of newspaper work in Paris. Lucian learns all sorts of ways to make extra money, from selling tickets to theatrical productions which producers give him in exchange for good reviews to taking bribes for a favorable take on a politician. Lucian loved the power this gives him and as he moves in higher realms of society he begins to feel shamed by his provincial background and his tastes become more and more expensive. There are deep issues concerning the permeation of all levels of a French society by literal and quasi-prostittutes. Of course Lucian is prostituting his literary skills. So far we don't know if his skills are real or an illusion.
A Distinquished Provincial in Paris is a fascinating work and is very valuable just for the data on the French publishing industry Balzac provides. As I read it I really felt transported to Paris. There are romantic melodramas but Balzac needed to sell his books!
I have begun the final work of the trilogy, Eve and David, and am looking forward to seeing how things turn out for Lucian.
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