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The Book You're Not Reading: Lost Illusions

Oh, Lucien*.

Of course, that's part of the problem. The world isn't really meant for guy's named Lucien, especially guys named Lucien who want to be poets, and especially guys named Lucien who want to be poets in Paris.

Lucien is that pretty guy in high school that you sort of want to date, but you also sort of don't want to date, because he's pretty and sensitive and you've caught him crying a couple of times. And recognizing that I'm feeding into corrosive ideas of gender roles -- crying men aren't sexy. Well, maybe one masculine tear, or that tiny hitch of a sob in the voice. That might be sexy is pretty freakin' sexy. But guys like Lucien cry all the time. They cry when you pay attention them. They cry when you don't pay attention to them. It's irritating that Lucien's skin is often described as clear and glowing; since he cries so much, I had hoped he would be suffering from dehydration.

Lucien is also the...one hesitates to say "hero" of Lost Illusions, since he cries too much to be a hero and, at least as far as page 214 is concerned, he's yet to do anything heroic, other than spend heroic amounts of money he doesn't have on clothes he doesn't need because he's already made a laughing-stock of himself in Paris because he's a weeping poet named Lucien. Lucien starts out in a small country town, and he's easy to notice there because he has all of his teeth and doesn't smell of manure. But when he follows his lover, a married woman also from the country town, to Paris, all of his shortcomings appear starkly, as in bas relief.

As one character asks, after Lucien shows up in clothes entirely too new and trying entirely too hard, "Do ask who is this extraordinary young man who looks like a tailor's dummy?"

Balzac also gives us this telling description, describing a Parisian sizing Lucien up and finding him lacking: "This lion of Paris let his eyeglass drop in such a way that to Lucien it suggested the blade of the guillotine."

Balzac isn't necessarily fond of Lucien, either, which is one of the joys of the novel. After the above cutting encounter, Lucien says:

"Oh, God, what am I doing here? But I will triumph! I will ride along this avenue in a caleche with a footman! I will possess a Marquise d'Espard!" Which is all well and good, and sounds triumphant in the way that Scarlet O'Hara's "As God is my witness!" speech is heroic, but the Balzac tells us:

"And flinging out these words of rage, he went to dine at Hurbains for forty sous."

Any one who wants to be a writer should probably spend some time reading Balzac's Lost Illusions. Any one who thinks that he's going to be a famous writer should probably have the book forcibly read to him. All others should just read the book because it's blisteringly funny and mean and heartbreaking.

At least up to page 214.

* So, as it turns out, I wrote a bunch of nonsense about Lost Illusions back in 2006. Read my stupidity here: http://britadventuress.livejournal.com/tag/lost+illusions