Novels about writers are sometimes decried as running the risk of being boring, self-indulgent, or failing in imagination, as if their author was doing nothing more than lazily transcribing from his or her own life.
And perhaps to some degree that risk is quite real, since the main activity of a writer is often solitary, quiet, assiduous, and looks dull from the outside… Planning, note-taking, researching, thinking, revising, scrapping and starting again – hardly the stuff of high drama.
Maybe that’s why popular films about real-life, historic writers almost never show them actually writing – how static would that be? – but focus instead on purported love affairs, drinking habits, squabbles, disasters, controversies – and are often accordingly lightweight melodramas. With some exceptions.
It makes sense, of course, if we think in terms of Peter Brooks’s description of plot as “a kind of divergence or deviance”, at least appearing to “start from that moment at which story or ‘life’ is stimulated from quiescence into a state of narratability”. The plodding aspect of a writer’s life – the relative quiescence of working habits – does not easily make for a striking narrative in itself.
Yet plenty of novelists have managed at least one well-plotted work with a writer as protagonist or substantial character, and some of them stunningly so.
One of these is the great Honoré de Balzac, particularly in his Lost Illusions, which was written between 1837 and 1843. It’s the first of his Human Comedy novels to deal with the character Lucien Chardon, also known (controversially within the story) as Lucien de Rubempré.
At the story’s outset, Lucien is an ambitious young writer with an already-completed volume of poems as well as a historical novel – both in search of a publisher. He’s exceedingly handsome, but poor and from the provinces, son of a chemist’s widow, and his mother and sister have both gone out to work to support the family – primarily him, because they believe in his talent and importance, and think he’s destined for great things.
Of course, in Restoration France, such poverty and such beginnings don’t augur well for him, and his plot doesn’t really begin to move until he’s taken up – controversially – by a lady of the local aristocracy who values poetry and invites him to give a reading at her salon. Stifled in the provinces, that lady’s “brilliant intellectual gifts”, Balzac tells us,
and the wealth that lay like undiscovered ore in her nature, profited her nothing, underwent the transforming operation of Time and changed to absurdities. For our absurdities spring, in fact, for the most part, from the good in us, from some faculty or quality abnormally developed.
Madame is thus ripe to respond to Lucien, however beneath her station:
… she thirsted for any draught but the clear spring water of her own life, flowing hidden among green pastures. She adored Byron and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or anybody else with a picturesque or dramatic career… any kind of genius was accommodated with an aureole, and she was fully persuaded that gifted immortals lived on incense and light.
Through Madame, Lucien comes to Paris, and – without giving away too much of his very deviant plot – begins to lose many of his illusions, and his good writing habits, starting with his entry into the morally compromised circles of Parisian journalism. But it is one of the teasing frustrations of this novel that he constantly replaces lost illusions with new ones. He is a hopeless case, and Balzac appears to tie this firmly to his “poetic” nature. Here’s Lucien early on, still in the provinces, learning the hard truth as he gives his first public poetry reading in that upper-class salon:
An intelligent man in the sphere most stimulating to his faculties can see in every direction, like a snail; he has the keen scent of a dog, the ears of a mole; he can hear, and feel, and see all that is going on around him. A musician or a poet knows at once whether his audience is listening in admiration or fails to follow him, and feels it as the plant that revives or droops under favorable or unfavorable conditions. The men who had come with their wives had fallen to discussing their own affairs; by the acoustic law before mentioned, every murmur rang in Lucien’s ear; he saw all the gaps caused by the spasmodic workings of jaws sympathetically affected, the teeth that seemed to grin defiance at him.
When, like the dove in the deluge, he looked round for any spot on which his eyes might rest, he saw nothing but rows of impatient faces. Their owners clearly were waiting for him to make an end…
The other characters, vivid and finely drawn, also undergo the gradual process of disillusionment, all ingeniously tied, directly or indirectly, to Lucien’s choices and behaviour.
The author heaps on his dubious hero almost more misfortune than I, as a reader, can stand, even though he sometimes deserves it. Think Hardy’s authorial persecution of Jude or Tess, upon whom the woes never seem to stop raining.
But there’s a lot of fun along the way, and Balzac is intent upon unveiling the machinations not only of the big bad world in general, but those of the (not unconnected) literary and journalistic worlds in searing detail.
If you’ve ever believed in honest and fair reviewing, in serious commitment to genuine literature and the writing life, this book will remind you that there will always be those prepared to take your beliefs for a ride and profit from them.
Lost Illusions, as a novel with a writer-protagonist, is anything but boring or self-indulgent. And Balzac takes it even further: the rest of Lucien’s story is told in another novel, The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans, also published as A Harlot High and Low.
Clearly this wide-ranging novelist did not discount “the writer” as valid protagonist in fiction. So who else does it well, in your opinion? Which other novels about writers have you read that make the grade?