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16.8.17

À mon chevet: 'Les deux poètes'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
By the beginning of September, Lucien had ceased to be a printer's foreman; he was M. de Rubempré, housed sumptuously in comparison with his late quarters in the tumbledown attic with the dormer-window, where "young Chardon" had lived in L'Houmeau; he was not even a "man of L'Houmeau"; he lived in the heights of Angoulême, and dined four times a week with Mme. de Bargeton. A friendship had grown up between M. de Rubempré and the Bishop, and he went to the palace. His occupations put him upon a level with the highest rank; his name would be one day among the great names of France; and, in truth, as he went to and fro in his apartments, the pretty sitting-room, the charming bedroom, and the tastefully furnished study, he might console himself for the thought that he drew thirty francs every month out of his mother's and sister's hard earnings; for he saw the day approaching when An Archer of Charles IX, the historical romance on which he had been at work for two years, and a volume of verse entitled Marguérites, should spread his fame through the world of literature, and bring in money enough to repay them all, his mother and sister and David. So, grown great in his own eyes, and giving ear to the echoes of his name in the future, he could accept present sacrifices with noble assurance; he smiled at his poverty, he relished the sense of these last days of penury.

Ève and David had set Lucien's happiness before their own. They had put off their wedding, for it took some time to paper and paint their rooms, and to buy the furniture, and Lucien's affairs had been settled first. No one who knew Lucien could wonder at their devotion. Lucien was so engaging, he had such winning ways, his impatience and his desires were so graciously expressed, that his cause was always won before he opened his mouth to speak. This unlucky gift of fortune, if it is the salvation of some, is the ruin of many more. Lucien and his like find a world predisposed in favor of youth and good looks, and ready to protect those who give it pleasure with the selfish good-nature that flings alms to a beggar, if he appeals to the feelings and awakens emotion; and in this favor many a grown child is content to bask instead of putting it to a profitable use. With mistaken notions as to the significance and the motive of social relations they imagine that they shall always meet with deceptive smiles; and so at last the moment comes for them when the world leaves them bald, stripped bare, without fortune or worth, like an elderly coquette by the door of a salon, or a stray rag in the gutter.

-- Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions: The Two Poets (trans. by Ellen Marriage)
I am returning to an ongoing project to read all of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine, picking up where I had left off, near the end of the Scènes de la vie de province section. This excerpt is from the first part of a long novel that concludes that section, Lost Illusions. This features especially the advent of one of Balzac's most important characters, Lucien de Rubempré, who rises from the penury of a fallen quasi-aristocratic family through the sacrifices of his sister, Ève, and his best friend, David Sechard, a printer in Angoulême who hires Lucien to work for him. Although born as Lucien Chardon, the character takes on the aristocratic name of his mother's family, de Rubempré. The story mirrors the life of Balzac, who was also born into a modest family of artisans. He also worked as a printer early in his life, and he also changed his name (he was born Honoré Balssa) and added the noble particle "de" to it.

Lucien rises out of his low position because of his good looks, as a lonely woman at the top of the social ladder embraces his talent as a poet. It will ruin his life. The television show 30 Rock explored a comic version of the phenomenon Balzac is describing here. Liz Lemon's boyfriend, played by Jon Hamm, is so handsome that he lives in what she calls "the bubble" (related clip below). Everyone he meets bends over backwards to gratify and help him, and he has no idea that he is actually stupid and helpless.

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