March 8, 2023

Reading and Watching Balzac’s “Lost Illusions”

By Stuart Mitchner

Don’t assume that everyone on earth has seen every movie you have seen.

—John McPhee

Now and then A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984) offers an entry that demands repeating, like the one for March 8: “1931: John McPhee (Giving Good Weight) is born in Princeton, N.J.”

Which follows a remark from journalist, novelist, and biographer Gene Fowler (March 8, 1890): “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Which is followed by the news that on March 8, 1935, Thomas Wolfe’s second novel Of Time and the River “was published to great acclaim” and that on March 8, 1941, the novelist Sherwood Anderson “ingested a toothpick with an hors d’oeuvre at a cocktail party” and died of “complications of peritonitus.”

Approaching Oscar Night

In Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (2019), John McPhee uses an example from the creative nonfiction course he’s been teaching at Princeton since 1975: “Another mantra, which I still write in chalk on the blackboard, is ‘A Thousand Details Add Up to One Impression.’ “ After admitting that it’s “actually a quote from [movie star] Cary Grant,” McPhee explains the “implication,” which is “that few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential.”

An essential “individual detail” buried in the star-crossed collective history of the Academy Awards is that Cary Grant — “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema,” in the words of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994) — never received a Best Actor Oscar in his long Hollywood career (1932-1966).

“Lost Illusions”

Between us, my wife and I have viewed only half of the 10 Best Picture nominees. By far the best film we saw in 2022, Xavier Giannoli’s Lost Illusions, received no nominations, although it scored “Universal Acclaim” on Metacritic. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott put the film on his personal 10 best list, saying “if there’s any justice this movie will become a touchstone and cult object among the grasping, scheming denizens of the current media jungle.”

Discovering Balzac

Mindful of John McPhee’s admonition not to assume that everyone on earth has seen every movie you’ve seen, I have to confess that while watching Giannoli’s film, my wife and I were reliving the euphoria of discovering Balzac’s novel half a century ago in Bristol, birthplace of Archie Leach (who became Cary Grant). The Georgian neighborhood we lived in was a stone’s throw from the Clifton suspension bridge, “a wonder of the age” designed by a young engineer named Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the time that Balzac was in Paris living and writing Lost Illusions — a title Brunel might have related to since the construction of his dream bridge (he called it “my first child, my darling”), begun in 1831, was not completed until 1864, two years after his death. 

Moved by the “absolutely essential” collection of details in Giannoli’s film, I think back to the 682-page Penguin paperback of Lost Illusions that my wife disappeared into, reading it everywhere all at once — on the bus to Bath and back, at breakfast, and walking on the Downs — first thing in the morning, last thing at night, surfacing only to tell me “You have to read this!”

As soon as she handed over the book and disappeared into the Penguin Classics sequel, A Harlot High and Low, I was reading Lost Illusions on busses, on the Downs, and sitting on a cliffside bench overlooking Brunel’s storybook bridge. By the time I begin pestering my wife for the sequel, she was dealing with the death of Lucien de Rubempré, which Oscar Wilde famously said was “one of the greatest tragedies” of his life. For my wife, the total impact of both books caused a minor medical emergency, her cheeks inflamed, her forehead hot, her heart racing, as if Balzac’s own heavily caffeinated energy had livewired her nervous system. Where’s the Paracetamol, or at least some herbal tea? No, perish the thought: it has to be coffee and it has to be strong: this is Balzac!

Streaming’s the Word

We still own that fat Penguin paperback; in fact it’s sitting on the sofa between us as we watch the film Giannoli seems to have shot on the wings of a reading experience as intense and all-consuming as ours was. We streamed the film first in August and again last week, and streaming is the word, Giannoli’s vision of Balzac’s Paris overflowing our 36-inch screen, the literary force of it conveyed by a voiceover so compelling that we soon forget we’re reading English subtitles and it’s as if Balzac himself is the narrator. The words may not be exactly his, not to worry: this is the voice of the author speaking in the living moment, with a godlike grasp of a fascinating subject and we find his fascination fascinating.

Spoken, it turns out, by the film’s only “serious writer” Nathan d’Anastazio (Xavier Dolan), the voiceover is paced to the coming and going of the rogues and knaves of the press, actresses and prostitutes and poets darting in and out of the wooden galleries of the Palais Royale. The camera never stops, everything as if gathered into a single monumental tracking shot, sheer momentum of voice and image with the narrator riding the tide: “To create an event, a paper could print any rumor. True or false, no one dwelled on such details. These men had understood, fake news and its denial were two events. The only truth that mattered were sales figures. The paper was now a shop that sold the public what they wanted to hear. One no longer enlightened, one flattered opinions. Or created them. News, debate, and ideas had become goods to palm off on subscribers. Journalists became retailers of phrases, wheelers and dealers of words, brokers between artists and the public.”

After observing that Giannoli “illuminates the dank frenzy of the 19th-century attention economy with an eye on our own post-truth era,” A.O. Scott ends his review by declaring that Lost Illusions is “sensational,” adding, “Nobody paid me to say that. Well, actually, The New York Times did, but you should believe me anyway.”

“Something That Overflows”

Now fast forward 150 years from the every-man-for-himself ambiance of the headquarters of the publisher Dauriat (Gerard Depardieu) to the headlong knockabout wonder of Maurice Pialat’s Loulou (1980), starring a young, roguish Depardieu and an impish Isabelle Huppert. In Loulou, all bets are off. This is ambiance in overdrive, ambience unplugged, however you spell it. What Pialat seeks, and captures, says Huppert in a 2021 interview, is “something that overflows.” The result is remarkable, life spilling out of the teeming moment, people in disarray, sexually, temperamentally, violently, funnily, sweetly, spontaneously, and for the better part of two hours you’re an intimate witness to actors seemingly abandoned to their own devices, Huppert and Depardieu like overgrown children set loose, tumbling in and out of sex and sweet disorder.

It’s no surprise that the French have a gift for ambiance; it’s their word, and there are innumerable varieties: the ambiance of romance creating cinematic poetry in the “love is so simple” night scene between the mime Debaru (Jean-Louis Barrault) and the courtesan Garance (Arletty) in Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, which takes place in a Paris contemporary with Balzac’s; one of Giannoli’s captivating, string-driven (by Vivaldi) tracking shots sweeps past a billboard showing Debaru in action.

Team ambiance among actors is the collective essence of masterful French television series like Spiral, A French Village, and Le Bureau, in contrast to the mannered social ambiance of Eric Rohmer’s films, which can be both charming and callous, a society so shallow and unfeeling that it has no place for the suffering of shy outsiders like Marie Rivière’s beautifully played Delphine in Le Rayon Vert.

The Presence of Cary Grant

With Oscar Night looming, I’m thinking again of the Motion Picture Academy’s three and a half decades of resistance to Cary Grant, at least until 1970 when he was placated with an Oscar for his “lifetime of achievement.” Probably one reason for the oversight is an inability to comprehend David Thomson’s rationale for ranking Grant above all the rest, “the essence of his quality being that he can be attractive and unattractive simultaneously, with a light and dark side, that no matter which is dominant, the other creeps into view.” After mentioning a number of specific roles as evidence of the actor’s “unrivaled sense of timing,” Thomson asserts that Grant “could not be the demanding portrait of man that he is but for a technical command that is so complete it is barely noticeable.”

A Birthday Lesson

Recalling the mantra McPhee the teacher found in Grant’s “thousand details” adding up to “one impression,” I think of McPhee the writer, as in “a technical command” so complete “it is barely noticeable.” Writing about Draft No. 4 in October 2017, I quoted a student of McPhee’s claiming that he is “of the school of thought that says a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people” (hopefully not so difficult that “drops of blood form on your forehead”). Perhaps the most essential quality Princeton’s John McPhee has in common with Bristol’s Archie Leach is that the one lesson he can’t teach is how to be John McPhee.