Honoré de Balzac.

A Distinguished Provincial at Paris online

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Of threads of sunlight and of purple stain;
No flower so glorious in the garden bed,
But Nature, woe is me, no fragrance shed
Within my cup of Orient porcelain.

"Well?" asked Lucien after a pause, immeasurably long, as it seemed to

"My dear fellow," Etienne said, gravely surveying the tips of Lucien's
boots (he had brought the pair from Angouleme, and was wearing them
out). "My dear fellow, I strongly recommend you to put your ink on your
boots to save blacking, and to take your pens for toothpicks, so
that when you come away from Flicoteaux's you can swagger along this
picturesque alley looking as if you had dined. Get a situation of any
sort or description. Run errands for a bailiff if you have the heart, be
a shopman if your back is strong enough, enlist if you happen to have a
taste for military music. You have the stuff of three poets in you;
but before you can reach your public, you will have time to die of
starvation six times over, if you intend to live on the proceeds of your
poetry, that is. And from your too unsophisticated discourse, it would
seem to be your intention to coin money out of your inkstand.

"I say nothing as to your verses; they are a good deal better than
all the poetical wares that are cumbering the ground in booksellers'
backshops just now. Elegant 'nightingales' of that sort cost a little
more than the others, because they are printed on hand-made paper, but
they nearly all of them come down at last to the banks of the Seine.
You may study their range of notes there any day if you care to make an
instructive pilgrimage along the Quais from old Jerome's stall by the
Pont Notre Dame to the Pont Royal. You will find them all there - all the
_Essays in Verse_, the _Inspirations_, the lofty flights, the hymns, and
songs, and ballads, and odes; all the nestfuls hatched during the
last seven years, in fact. There lie their muses, thick with dust,
bespattered by every passing cab, at the mercy of every profane hand
that turns them over to look at the vignette on the title-page.

"You know nobody; you have access to no newspaper, so your _Marguerites_
will remain demurely folded as you hold them now. They will never open
out to the sun of publicity in fair fields with broad margins enameled
with the florets which Dauriat the illustrious, the king of the Wooden
Galleries, scatters with a lavish hand for poets known to fame. I came
to Paris as you came, poor boy, with a plentiful stock of illusions,
impelled by irrepressible longings for glory - and I found the realities
of the craft, the practical difficulties of the trade, the hard facts of
poverty. In my enthusiasm (it is kept well under control now), my first
ebullition of youthful spirits, I did not see the social machinery at
work; so I had to learn to see it by bumping against the wheels and
bruising myself against the shafts, and chains. Now you are about to
learn, as I learned, that between you and all these fair dreamed-of
things lies the strife of men, and passions, and necessities.

"Willy-nilly, you must take part in a terrible battle; book against
book, man against man, party against party; make war you must, and that
systematically, or you will be abandoned by your own party. And they are
mean contests; struggles which leave you disenchanted, and wearied, and
depraved, and all in pure waste; for it often happens that you put
forth all your strength to win laurels for a man whom you despise,
and maintain, in spite of yourself, that some second-rate writer is a

"There is a world behind the scenes in the theatre of literature. The
public in front sees unexpected or well-deserved success, and applauds;
the public does _not_ see the preparations, ugly as they always are, the
painted supers, the _claqueurs_ hired to applaud, the stage carpenters,
and all that lies behind the scenes. You are still among the audience.
Abdicate, there is still time, before you set your foot on the lowest
step of the throne for which so many ambitious spirits are contending,
and do not sell your honor, as I do, for a livelihood." Etienne's eyes
filled with tears as he spoke.

"Do you know how I make a living?" he continued passionately. "The
little stock of money they gave me at home was soon eaten up. A piece
of mine was accepted at the Theatre-Francais just as I came to an end
of it. At the Theatre-Francais the influence of a first gentleman of the
bedchamber, or of a prince of the blood, would not be enough to secure
a turn of favor; the actors only make concessions to those who threaten
their self-love. If it is in your power to spread a report that the
_jeune premier_ has the asthma, the leading lady a fistula where you
please, and the soubrette has foul breath, then your piece would be
played to-morrow. I do not know whether in two years' time, I who speak
to you now, shall be in a position to exercise such power. You need so
many to back you. And where and how am I to gain my bread meanwhile?

"I tried lots of things; I wrote a novel, anonymously; old Doguereau
gave me two hundred francs for it, and he did not make very much out of
it himself. Then it grew plain to me that journalism alone could give me
a living. The next thing was to find my way into those shops. I will not
tell you all the advances I made, nor how often I begged in vain. I will
say nothing of the six months I spent as extra hand on a paper, and was
told that I scared subscribers away, when as a fact I attracted them.
Pass over the insults I put up with. At this moment I am doing the plays
at the Boulevard theatres, almost _gratis_, for a paper belonging to
Finot, that stout young fellow who breakfasts two or three times a
month, even now, at the Cafe Voltaire (but you don't go there). I live
by selling tickets that managers give me to bribe a good word in the
paper, and reviewers' copies of books. In short, Finot once satisfied,
I am allowed to write for and against various commercial articles, and I
traffic in tribute paid in kind by various tradesmen. A facetious notice
of a Carminative Toilet Lotion, _Pate des Sultanes_, Cephalic Oil, or
Brazilian Mixture brings me in twenty or thirty francs.

"I am obliged to dun the publishers when they don't send in a sufficient
number of reviewers' copies; Finot, as editor, appropriates two and
sells them, and I must have two to sell. If a book of capital importance
comes out, and the publisher is stingy with copies, his life is made a
burden to him. The craft is vile, but I live by it, and so do scores of
others. Do not imagine that things are any better in public life.
There is corruption everywhere in both regions; every man is corrupt or
corrupts others. If there is any publishing enterprise somewhat larger
than usual afoot, the trade will pay me something to buy neutrality. The
amount of my income varies, therefore, directly with the prospectuses.
When prospectuses break out like a rash, money pours into my pockets; I
stand treat all round. When trade is dull, I dine at Flicoteaux's.

"Actresses will pay you likewise for praise, but the wiser among them
pay for criticism. To be passed over in silence is what they dread
the most; and the very best thing of all, from their point of view, is
criticism which draws down a reply; it is far more effectual than bald
praise, forgotten as soon as read, and it costs more in consequence.
Celebrity, my dear fellow, is based upon controversy. I am a hired
bravo; I ply my trade among ideas and reputations, commercial, literary,
and dramatic; I make some fifty crowns a month; I can sell a novel for
five hundred francs; and I am beginning to be looked upon as a man to
be feared. Some day, instead of living with Florine at the expense of a
druggist who gives himself the airs of a lord, I shall be in a house of
my own; I shall be on the staff of a leading newspaper, I shall have
a _feuilleton_; and on that day, my dear fellow, Florine will become a
great actress. As for me, I am not sure what I shall be when that time
comes, a minister or an honest man - all things are still possible."

He raised his humiliated head, and looked out at the green leaves, with
an expression of despairing self-condemnation dreadful to see.

"And I had a great tragedy accepted!" he went on. "And among my papers
there is a poem, which will die. And I was a good fellow, and my heart
was clean! I used to dream lofty dreams of love for great ladies,
queens in the great world; and - my mistress is an actress at the
Panorama-Dramatique. And lastly, if a bookseller declines to send a copy
of a book to my paper, I will run down work which is good, as I know."

Lucien was moved to tears, and he grasped Etienne's hand in his. The
journalist rose to his feet, and the pair went up and down the broad
Avenue de l'Observatoire, as if their lungs craved ampler breathing

"Outside the world of letters," Etienne Lousteau continued, "not a
single creature suspects that every one who succeeds in that world - who
has a certain vogue, that is to say, or comes into fashion, or gains
reputation, or renown, or fame, or favor with the public (for by these
names we know the rungs of the ladder by which we climb to the higher
heights above and beyond them), - every one who comes even thus far is
the hero of a dreadful Odyssey. Brilliant portents rise above the mental
horizon through a combination of a thousand accidents; conditions change
so swiftly that no two men have been known to reach success by the same
road. Canalis and Nathan are two dissimilar cases; things never fall out
in the same way twice. There is d'Arthez, who knocks himself to pieces
with work - he will make a famous name by some other chance.

"This so much desired reputation is nearly always crowned prostitution.
Yes; the poorest kind of literature is the hapless creature freezing at
the street corner; second-rate literature is the kept-mistress picked
out of the brothels of journalism, and I am her bully; lastly, there is
lucky literature, the flaunting, insolent courtesan who has a house
of her own and pays taxes, who receives great lords, treating or
ill-treating them as she pleases, who has liveried servants and a
carriage, and can afford to keep greedy creditors waiting. Ah! and
for yet others, for me not so very long ago, for you to-day - she is a
white-robed angel with many-colored wings, bearing a green palm branch
in the one hand, and in the other a flaming sword. An angel, something
akin to the mythological abstraction which lives at the bottom of a
well, and to the poor and honest girl who lives a life of exile in the
outskirts of the great city, earning every penny with a noble fortitude
and in the full light of virtue, returning to heaven inviolate of
body and soul; unless, indeed, she comes to lie at the last, soiled,
despoiled, polluted, and forgotten, on a pauper's bier. As for the men
whose brains are encompassed with bronze, whose hearts are still warm
under the snows of experience, they are found but seldom in the country
that lies at our feet," he added, pointing to the great city seething in
the late afternoon light.

A vision of d'Arthez and his friends flashed upon Lucien's sight, and
made appeal to him for a moment; but Lousteau's appalling lamentation
carried him away.

"They are very few and far between in that great fermenting vat; rare as
love in love-making, rare as fortunes honestly made in business, rare
as the journalist whose hands are clean. The experience of the first man
who told me all that I am telling you was thrown away upon me, and mine
no doubt will be wasted upon you. It is always the same old story year
after year; the same eager rush to Paris from the provinces; the same,
not to say a growing, number of beardless, ambitious boys, who advance,
head erect, and the heart that Princess Tourandocte of the _Mille et un
Jours_ - each one of them fain to be her Prince Calaf. But never a one of
them reads the riddle. One by one they drop, some into the trench where
failures lie, some into the mire of journalism, some again into the
quagmires of the book-trade.

"They pick up a living, these beggars, what with biographical notices,
penny-a-lining, and scraps of news for the papers. They become
booksellers' hacks for the clear-headed dealers in printed paper,
who would sooner take the rubbish that goes off in a fortnight than a
masterpiece which requires time to sell. The life is crushed out of
the grubs before they reach the butterfly stage. They live by shame and
dishonor. They are ready to write down a rising genius or to praise
him to the skies at a word from the pasha of the _Constitutionnel_,
the _Quotidienne_, or the _Debats_, at a sign from a publisher, at the
request of a jealous comrade, or (as not seldom happens) simply for
a dinner. Some surmount the obstacles, and these forget the misery of
their early days. I, who am telling you this, have been putting the
best that is in me into newspaper articles for six months past for a
blackguard who gives them out as his own and has secured a _feuilleton_
in another paper on the strength of them. He has not taken me on as his
collaborator, he has not give me so much as a five-franc piece, but I
hold out a hand to grasp his when we meet; I cannot help myself."

"And why?" Lucien, asked, indignantly.

"I may want to put a dozen lines into his _feuilleton_ some day,"
Lousteau answered coolly. "In short, my dear fellow, in literature you
will not make money by hard work, that is not the secret of success; the
point is to exploit the work of somebody else. A newspaper proprietor
is a contractor, we are the bricklayers. The more mediocre the man,
the better his chance of getting on among mediocrities; he can play the
toad-eater, put up with any treatment, and flatter all the little base
passions of the sultans of literature. There is Hector Merlin, who came
from Limoges a short time ago; he is writing political articles already
for a Right Centre daily, and he is at work on our little paper as well.
I have seen an editor drop his hat and Merlin pick it up. The fellow was
careful never to give offence, and slipped into the thick of the fight
between rival ambitions. I am sorry for you. It is as if I saw in you
the self that I used to be, and sure am I that in one or two years' time
you will be what I am now. - You will think that there is some lurking
jealousy or personal motive in this bitter counsel, but it is prompted
by the despair of a damned soul that can never leave hell. - No one
ventures to utter such things as these. You hear the groans of anguish
from a man wounded to the heart, crying like a second Job from the
ashes, 'Behold my sores!'"

"But whether I fight upon this field or elsewhere, fight I must," said

"Then, be sure of this," returned Lousteau, "if you have anything in
you, the war will know no truce, the best chance of success lies in an
empty head. The austerity of your conscience, clear as yet, will relax
when you see that a man holds your future in his two hands, when a word
from such a man means life to you, and he will not say that word. For,
believe me, the most brutal bookseller in the trade is not so insolent,
so hard-hearted to a newcomer as the celebrity of the day. The
bookseller sees a possible loss of money, while the writer of books
dreads a possible rival; the first shows you the door, the second
crushes the life out of you. To do really good work, my boy, means that
you will draw out the energy, sap, and tenderness of your nature at
every dip of the pen in the ink, to set it forth for the world in
passion and sentiment and phrases. Yes; instead of acting, you will
write; you will sing songs instead of fighting; you will love and
hate and live in your books; and then, after all, when you shall have
reserved your riches for your style, your gold and purple for your
characters, and you yourself are walking the streets of Paris in rags,
rejoicing in that, rivaling the State Register, you have authorized the
existence of beings styled Adolphe, Corinne or Clarissa, Rene or Manon;
when you shall have spoiled your life and your digestion to give life
to that creation, then you shall see it slandered, betrayed, sold, swept
away into the back waters of oblivion by journalists, and buried out
of sight by your best friends. How can you afford to wait until the day
when your creation shall rise again, raised from the dead - how?
when? and by whom? Take a magnificent book, the _pianto_ of unbelief;
_Obermann_ is a solitary wanderer in the desert places of booksellers'
warehouses, he has been a 'nightingale,' ironically so called, from
the very beginning: when will his Easter come? Who knows? Try, to begin
with, to find somebody bold enough to print the _Marguerites_; not to
pay for them, but simply to print them; and you will see some queer

The fierce tirade, delivered in every tone of the passionate feeling
which it expressed, fell upon Lucien's spirit like an avalanche, and
left a sense of glacial cold. For one moment he stood silent; then, as
he felt the terrible stimulating charm of difficulty beginning to work
upon him, his courage blazed up. He grasped Lousteau's hand.

"I will triumph!" he cried aloud.

"Good!" said the other, "one more Christian given over to the wild
beasts in the arena. - There is a first-night performance at the
Panorama-Dramatique, my dear fellow; it doesn't begin till eight, so you
can change your coat, come properly dressed in fact, and call for me. I
am living on the fourth floor above the Cafe Servel, Rue de la Harpe. We
will go to Dauriat's first of all. You still mean to go on, do you
not? Very well, I will introduce you to one of the kings of the trade
to-night, and to one or two journalists. We will sup with my mistress
and several friends after the play, for you cannot count that dinner
as a meal. Finot will be there, editor and proprietor of my paper. As
Minette says in the Vaudeville (do you remember?), 'Time is a great lean
creature.' Well, for the like of us, Chance is a great lean creature,
and must be tempted."

"I shall remember this day as long as I live," said Lucien.

"Bring your manuscript with you, and be careful of your dress, not on
Florine's account, but for the booksellers' benefit."

The comrade's good-nature, following upon the poet's passionate outcry,
as he described the war of letters, moved Lucien quite as deeply as
d'Arthez's grave and earnest words on a former occasion. The prospect of
entering at once upon the strife with men warmed him. In his youth and
inexperience he had no suspicion how real were the moral evils denounced
by the journalist. Nor did he know that he was standing at the
parting of two distinct ways, between two systems, represented by the
brotherhood upon one hand, and journalism upon the other. The first way
was long, honorable, and sure; the second beset with hidden dangers,
a perilous path, among muddy channels where conscience is inevitably
bespattered. The bent of Lucien's character determined for the shorter
way, and the apparently pleasanter way, and to snatch at the quickest
and promptest means. At this moment he saw no difference between
d'Arthez's noble friendship and Lousteau's easy comaraderie; his
inconstant mind discerned a new weapon in journalism; he felt that he
could wield it, so he wished to take it.

He was dazzled by the offers of this new friend, who had struck a hand
in his in an easy way, which charmed Lucien. How should he know that
while every man in the army of the press needs friends, every leader
needs men. Lousteau, seeing that Lucien was resolute, enlisted him as a
recruit, and hoped to attach him to himself. The relative positions of
the two were similar - one hoped to become a corporal, the other to enter
the ranks.

Lucien went back gaily to his lodgings. He was as careful over his
toilet as on that former unlucky occasion when he occupied the Marquise
d'Espard's box; but he had learned by this time how to wear his clothes
with a better grace. They looked as though they belonged to him. He wore
his best tightly-fitting, light-colored trousers, and a dress-coat.
His boots, a very elegant pair adorned with tassels, had cost him
forty francs. His thick, fine, golden hair was scented and crimped into
bright, rippling curls. Self-confidence and belief in his future lighted
up his forehead. He paid careful attention to his almost feminine hands,
the filbert nails were a spotless pink, and the white contours of his
chin were dazzling by contrast with a black satin stock. Never did a
more beautiful youth come down from the hills of the Latin Quarter.

Glorious as a Greek god, Lucien took a cab, and reached the Cafe Servel
at a quarter to seven. There the portress gave him some tolerably
complicated directions for the ascent of four pairs of stairs. Provided
with these instructions, he discovered, not without difficulty, an open
door at the end of a long, dark passage, and in another moment made the
acquaintance of the traditional room of the Latin Quarter.

A young man's poverty follows him wherever he goes - into the Rue de la
Harpe as into the Rue de Cluny, into d'Arthez's room, into Chrestien's
lodging; yet everywhere no less the poverty has its own peculiar
characteristics, due to the idiosyncrasies of the sufferer. Poverty in
this case wore a sinister look.

A shabby, cheap carpet lay in wrinkles at the foot of a curtainless
walnut-wood bedstead; dingy curtains, begrimed with cigar smoke
and fumes from a smoky chimney, hung in the windows; a Carcel lamp,
Florine's gift, on the chimney-piece, had so far escaped the pawnbroker.
Add a forlorn-looking chest of drawers, and a table littered with
papers and disheveled quill pens, and the list of furniture was almost
complete. All the books had evidently arrived in the course of the last
twenty-four hours; and there was not a single object of any value in
the room. In one corner you beheld a collection of crushed and flattened
cigars, coiled pocket-handkerchiefs, shirts which had been turned to
do double duty, and cravats that had reached a third edition; while
a sordid array of old boots stood gaping in another angle of the room
among aged socks worn into lace.

The room, in short, was a journalist's bivouac, filled with odds and
ends of no value, and the most curiously bare apartment imaginable. A
scarlet tinder-box glowed among a pile of books on the nightstand.
A brace of pistols, a box of cigars, and a stray razor lay upon the
mantel-shelf; a pair of foils, crossed under a wire mask, hung against
a panel. Three chairs and a couple of armchairs, scarcely fit for the
shabbiest lodging-house in the street, completed the inventory.

The dirty, cheerless room told a tale of a restless life and a want of
self-respect; some one came hither to sleep and work at high pressure,
staying no longer than he could help, longing, while he remained, to
be out and away. What a difference between this cynical disorder and
d'Arthez's neat and self-respecting poverty! A warning came with the
thought of d'Arthez; but Lucien would not heed it, for Etienne made a
joking remark to cover the nakedness of a reckless life.

"This is my kennel; I appear in state in the Rue de Bondy, in the
new apartments which our druggist has taken for Florine; we hold the
house-warming this evening."

Etienne Lousteau wore black trousers and beautifully-varnished boots;
his coat was buttoned up to his chin; he probably meant to change his
linen at Florine's house, for his shirt collar was hidden by a velvet
stock. He was trying to renovate his hat by an application of the brush.

"Let us go," said Lucien.

"Not yet. I am waiting for a bookseller to bring me some money; I have
not a farthing; there will be play, perhaps, and in any case I must have

As he spoke, the two new friends heard a man's step in the passage

"There he is," said Lousteau. "Now you will see, my dear fellow, the
shape that Providence takes when he manifests himself to poets. You
are going to behold Dauriat, the fashionable bookseller of the Quai des
Augustins, the pawnbroker, the marine store dealer of the trade, the
Norman ex-greengrocer. - Come along, old Tartar!" shouted Lousteau.

"Here am I," said a voice like a cracked bell.

"Brought the money with you?"

"Money? There is no money now in the trade," retorted the other, a young
man who eyed Lucien curiously.

"_Imprimis_, you owe me fifty francs," Lousteau continued.

"There are two copies of _Travels in Egypt_ here, a marvel, so they
say, swarming with woodcuts, sure to sell. Finot has been paid for

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 9 of 29)