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c. 1821 / Paris

Honoré de Balzac Assays a Crowd



During the course of his first aimless walk across the boulevards and along the Rue de la Paix, Lucien, like all newcomers, was much more interested in things than in people. In Paris the scale of everything is the first thing that strikes one: the luxury of the shops, the height of the houses, the affluence of the carriages, the contrast, everywhere seen, between great wealth and extreme poverty. Astonished at that crowd, in which he himself was a stranger, that man of inspiration felt himself immensely diminished. People who have a measure of local celebrity in a provincial town, and who at every step encounter some proof of their own importance, can never reconcile themselves to this sudden and total extinction of the basis of their self-esteem. To be somebody in one’s own town and nobody in Paris—these are two conditions that call for gradual adjustment, and those who pass too abruptly from the one state to the other fall into a kind of annihilation. For a young poet who had always found a response to all his moods, a companion to listen to all his ideas, a friend in whom to confide his smallest experiences, Paris could only be a terrible desert. Lucien had not yet been to collect his best blue suit, so that he was acutely conscious of the shabbiness (to say the least of it) of his clothes, as he once more approached his lover Mme de Bargeton’s door, at the time at which she was expected back; here he found Baron de Châtelet, who carried them both off to dinner at the Rocher de Cancale. Lucien was stunned by the whirl of Paris and could say nothing to Mme de Bargeton—for there were three in the cab—but he squeezed her hand, and she responded in friendly fashion to all the thoughts that he expressed in this way. After dinner Châtelet conducted his two guests to the Vaudeville.

It was on this memorable evening that Lucien secretly repudiated a number of provincial ideas of life. The horizon had widened, society took on new proportions. The proximity of so many pretty women of Paris, so elegantly and daintily dressed, made him notice how dowdy Mme de Bargeton’s clothes were in comparison, although she had done her best. Neither the material, the cut, nor the colors were fashionable. The hairstyle that had made such an impression in Angoulême here looked in strikingly bad taste in comparison with the delicious inventions that he saw on all sides.

“Will she always look like this?” he wondered, not knowing that the day had been spent in planning a transformation.

In the provinces there is no question of choice or comparison; one is used to seeing faces, and they come to seem beautiful through familiarity. Transported to Paris, a woman who passes for pretty in the country will not be worth a glance, for she is only beautiful by the application of the proverb, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Lucien’s eyes made the same comparison that Mme de Bargeton’s had made on the previous evening between himself and Châtelet.

On her side Mme de Bargeton gave way to strange reflections on the subject of her lover. For all his striking beauty, the poor poet cut a sorry figure. His coat too short at the cuffs; his country gloves and his waistcoat that was too small for him made him look prodigiously silly beside the young men in the balcony. Mme de Bargeton thought he looked positively pitiable. Although the vulgar will not have it that sentiments can change so suddenly, it is nevertheless a fact that two lovers often separate more quickly than they were drawn together. In Mme de Bargeton and Lucien, a secret process of disillusionment was at work, and the cause was Paris. The poet’s view of life had widened, just as society had taken on a new aspect for Mme de Bargeton. For both of them, some small accident would be enough to sever the bonds that united them. Nor was that blow, so terrible for Lucien, long delayed.

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About the Text

From Lost Illusions. Once referring to himself as “secretary of French society,” Balzac published roughly ninety novels and novellas that comprise La Comédie humaine, a portrait of France during the years 1815-1848 that introduces an estimated 2,472 named characters and 566 unnamed. Having stated that he wrote one third of Lost Illusions in eight days, he added, “I wrote fifteen hours a day…without taking anything but coffee.”

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
John Berger, 1987
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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