Review: Lost Illusions – Honoré de Balzac

Discovering Honoré de Balzac’s series of novels, The Comedie Humaine, has been perhaps the most satisfying of my reading experiences this year.  The first book I read in the series was Père Goriot and in researching that I found that it was only one of 95 finished works. Evidently a life’s task to read them all.

There are many resources on the net to help you navigate this vast panorama and good place to start is the list of links in the Balzac Yahoo Group.  Project Gutenburg even has a vast list of the characters in the series available for download.  And if you have an Amazon Kindle you can download complete sets of Balzac’s novels for a very small amount of money.

I read Lost Illusions a couple of months ago and found it to be an engrossing read.  The book is summarised extremely well on the Old and Sold website here and in many other places and so I won’t repeat the exercise here.  I’ll just provide a few thoughts on the reading experience – much of which applies to all classics.

To read Balzac, you need lots and lots of time.  This edition of Lost Illusions is over 700 pages of smallish text, and when you start a book like this you have to think in terms of a week or more to be devoted to it.  Its no good having short reading sessions – you really have to settle down for an hour if you’re going to make headway and I even found myself setting myself targets of reading a chunk of 50 pages at a time in order to make sure I actually got through it.  This is not to say that its not enjoyable (in fact I found it totally engrossing), but its with any classical book by authors like Dickens, Trollope or Zola, you do have to slog through it.

When you read a classic, you become aware of the sheer quality of the writing.  It takes time to develop a character and these people really knew how to do it.  Rather than a “snapshot” of a main character, you get a substantial part of their lives, showing the changes they go through, the effects of time and chance on their character and the ups and downs of their relationships.  Lucien Chardon led a tumultuous few years during the course of Lost Illusions and we see him experiencing everything life can throw at him – from huge social and literary success through to abject failure and penury seeing him at his most proud and also at his most humiliated.   Its a roller-coaster ride, if rather a slow one, but the reader is drawn on through page after page in order to find out what happens next.

The leisurely style allows Balzac to meander, to ponder, to draw out every possible aspect of people and situations.  This is an in-depth exploration, not a brief impressionistic study.  I find as I read books like this, that they make me reflect and think about the processes underlying the story.  Balzac offers an insight into life, and although the events described happened two centuries ago, you realise that the book is modern – the impact of city life on those who were not brought up to it, the awakening ambition of someone who begins to attract approval from those in a higher social situation than himself, the desire to form relationships with those who can advance your cause  – and the consequent letting go of those who helped you at an earlier stage of your career.  Lucien is obnoxious in his treatment of his old friends and readers are led into a wicked sense of schadenfreude as his ascent slowly turns into decline.

I can’t help consider who the Balzac’s of today would be.  Obviously my thoughts turn to Jonathan Franzen, the subject of my last review, and I have to say, yes, there are similarities: the large canvas, the passage of years, the rise and fall of the main characters.

I enjoyed reading Lost Illusions and will continue to read more books by this great author – and will take advantage of buying about 60 of them for my new Kindle.

10 comments to Review: Lost Illusions – Honoré de Balzac

  • I’m a big fan of Balzac and have been working my way through La Comedie Humaine with the Yahoo group (though I have trouble keeping up with the rest of the group). This is one I have yet to read, though I have it waiting for me on the Kindle. BTW a visit to La Comedie Humaine at http://balzacbooks.wordpress.com/ is also useful if you’re seriously into Balzac – it has summaries of the stories the group has read.
    Cheers
    Lisa
    PS I hope it’s not too cold and difficult where you are? We are seeing horror stories about the UK snow on the TV here.

  • I ve not read much Balzac working through all the books in series is a real challenge ,I hope at some point to read some more of him I pick one of his novel recently and hope to get to it next year at some point ,all the best stu

  • Tom

    Hi Stu – Balzac can be a bit of a slog if you’re not in the mood. But you’re used to long books aren’t you – you did much better with Don Quixote than I did

  • Tom

    Hi Lisa – thanks for visiting. The page you link to is really good and a real labour of love. I can see how the whole series becomes pretty compulsive,particularly as you get to know the characters and realise that they keep cropping up throughout the series. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with a group read as I think one or two a year would be enough for me if I was still to keep up with other reading.

    Weather not too bad now and Britain is slowly returning to normal I think – our airports have been a cause of great shame I think

  • This is definitely my favourite Balzac (of those I have read so far) and I am always pleased when somone mentions it. It is also one of my favourite books in general. It’s not the one I would recommend someone not familiar with Balzac to start with, Le Père Goriot is probably a mch better choice as so many of the people of La Comédie humine appear, some only in the background. I always had a tendency to prefer the Parisian novels although Eugénie Grandet is very good. He is a fascinating writer and most of his books are very good but sometimes the style is lacking, like in Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes. Did you get to it?. This is one where you feel immediately he has written it for the newspaper under pressure… I still have at least 10 I haven’t read yet. It is fascinating that everybody seems to prefer another one, don’t you think? I really should read him again… soon. Thanks for reminding me. Didn’t you review a Zweig’s Balzac? (I have been on your blogg many times and enjoy it but haven’t left a comment so far). there is always a first time.

  • Tom

    Caroline – thanks for leaving a comment. I enjoyed Lost Illusions greatly and my next Balzac is going to be Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes which I have downloaded to my new Kindle. I understand that this book is next in the series after Lost Illusions. I think it would take me more than the rest of my life to read the series, but I intend to make some progress over the coming years

  • David Haynes

    Thanks for your nice little review on LOST ILLUSIONS. Your point is particularly accurate with regard to the attitude and approach one must adopt when taking on the classics of literature (or any serious art form for that matter.)
    Work is required of the audience, thought and patience. The reader may well ask the question:is it worth it?
    And as a life long (60 years) reader of great literature (with particular interest in 19th Century World Lit) I have
    generally found most of the time the answer is a resounding YES! They are called “classics” for a reason.
    In a word they provide a pure enjoyment which once experienced leads to less than satisfaction with lighter fare.
    I am relatively late in getting to this great “Life Force” that is Balzac. But he is my current fixation.
    I started with Un Peau de Chagrin and then went through Eugenie Grandet, and Lost Illusions, and am currently reading
    the second volume of that series A Distinguished Provincial in Paris. Plan to continue on with 2 volume set of
    Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes, and end up with Pere Goriot and Cousin Bette.
    After that I’ll take off for some other landscape for a few months.
    But I can see that I now have another old friend like Dickens, Tolstoy or Trollope who I will be dropping in on over the
    years ahead.

  • Tom

    David – thanks for droppping by. I enjoyed reading your comment and am pleased that you thought it worthwhile leaving it. Balzac is a relatively new discovery for me but I am enjoying him immensely. So I share your “current fixation”! I think I need to make more progress in reading La Comedie Humane in all it’s multi-faceted glory.

  • Kat

    I just finished reading Lost Illusions and serendipitously found your review.

    I agree that it is a book you have to sit down with and read huge chunks of. It does at the same time go very fast. There is something about nineteenth-century fiction: leisurely reading that requires long attention spans but much of it is fast-paced.

    Still, this one WAS very long. It is the longest by Balzac I’ve read.

    I don’t know who the Balzacs of today would be, either.

  • Tom

    Hi Kat – Glad you enjoyed Lost Illusions. The expert on this series is Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations (link on this page). He told me about the series and I have been enjoying them ever since

Leave a Reply