Drawing of Balzac in the mid-1820s, attributed to Achille Devéria (1820s) (Public Domain / Wikimedia)

New Translation of Balzac’s ‘Lost Illusions’ Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Lost Illusions
Honoré de Balzac
University of Minnesota Press
April 2020

In my History of the Novel studies back in grad school, I learned that Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830) signaled the advent of the modern sensibility: skeptical, selfish, and secular. Of course, these characteristics entered into every type of creative and practical endeavor long before the return of the royal regime to post-Napoleonic France. Yet, the novelists cementing their careers at a third of the way into the 19th century captured the mood. Victor Hugo’s digressive morality tales, Stendhal’s stolid stories of manipulation and betrayal, and Honoré de Balzac’s vast panorama of canny self-made men and slyly conniving women loom largest, two centuries on. They have never gone out of print or gone wanting for leisurely readers.

Balzac’s grand ambitions, begun for the text under review around 1836 (after already three years as a proposal), managed in a workaholic frenzy to rush out within two months the first part, which became Lost Illusions. It would have sufficed as a stand-alone publication. Yet, he persisted. Somehow, as he saw into print 19 other books, he kept at the story of Lucien, the restless, egotistical poet who inevitably winds up in the capital.

That marked phase two in 1839: what translator Raymond MacKenzie aptly conveys, in its self-conscious phrasing as “The Parisian Adventures of a Great Man from the Provinces”. This chronicles Lucien’s career in journalism and his relationship with an actress, Coralie. However, in the manner Balzac elaborated (1799-1850) through his series The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine) the cocky protagonist diminishes into his stage setting.

Rather than focus on a young man’s fall into corruption, Lost Illusions in its lengthy middle stretch enlarges its perspective to chart how literature becomes another commodity within the market. And that system demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections to who-one-knows. Paris’ theatrical realm—one may recall Thackeray’s Vanity Fair conceit (borrowed from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) to frame his cynical take on Becky Sharp’s social-climbing a few years later—enters the sordid scene as an overarching image of the falsity and pretense of the artistic endeavor, peddled for profit. No wonder Marx contemplated a study of Balzac, and Marxist critic George Lukács did him justice.

In section three, it’s back to the inventor from the first installment, David Séchard. Balzac’s subtitle follows his name as this part’s title: “the ordeals of an inventor”. This humble boyhood friend of Lucien has labored long to improve the paper and printing process. Some have found the details Balzac devotes to the technology of this progressive innovation tedious.

Yet, today’s readers—perhaps attending to the intricacies of how the volumes we enjoy and consult have developed, long before bytes and bits—may slow down their hectic pace. Reading Balzac, one can experience that sauntering pace and steady gaze that our forebears gave to their surroundings, speculations, and soul-searching. It’s as with reading Hugo and Dumas, Thackeray and Dickens, George Eliot and Flaubert. These authors crafted their great novels of that mid-century expect us to adapt to serial installments, cliffhanger chapters, and delayed resolution of the wandering narratives that their characters experience, in-depth, and close-up.

For those who patiently adjust to the astute rhythms of Balzac, relevance emerges. Evil businessmen on the make always entertain, if in a repulsive way. A betrayer at the end of part three brings somebody down and steps over him to start his own rise to power. And a false priest, Carlos Herrera, enters late in the saga. He provides—as Balzac linked his novels in that Human Comedy which came to nearly a hundred different types of storytelling—the hook for the four-part sequel, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, published four years later in 1847.

This summation conveys the gist of formation and construction in Lost Illusions‘ triple design. Its appeal for English-language readers goes back to the end of Balzac’s century. Yet the first attempts at rendering it into readable prose feel stiff and stodgy, and too Victorian in voice.

Until now, the go-to 1951 translation arguably remained that from the eminent British poet Kathleen Raine. She followed her first Comedy favorite, La Cousine Bette, which came out in 1948 in English. Updated 2001 in the Modern Library with necessary notes, it nudges out its worthy if sober 1971 contender, the academic and the Herbert James Hunt‘s Penguin Classic.

Therefore, Raymond MacKenzie naturally asks in his introduction to his own production, why another? First, he includes more annotations than the supplements to the Raine edition. His are matched to superscripts in the text itself, unlike the Modern Library’s edition, which provides no clue to what’s hidden away in end-notes. Second, comparing his to hers, I find that MacKenzie opts for a slightly rounded, fuller evocation of Balzac’s varying style and ever-changing moods.

He sustains the hints of a vanished era while inviting a contemporary reader to follow the many references to bygone moments and long-dead celebrities of the tumultuous period around 1821-1822. This was after the era of Napoleon, but not past the threats that those populating Lost Illusions perceived to their nation’s stability and their personal success amidst the grip of capitalism and its secrets.

RATING 8 / 10