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In this tale of ambition and betrayal, friendship and revenge, deviousness and even devotion, Balzac explores the worlds of Paris and the provinces, of literature and journalism, of business and money-lending, of art and science, and of aristocratic pride versus bourgeois striving. It is a sweeping story that begins with two friends in a small town in southwest France. David Séchard has returned from an apprenticeship in Paris to take over, in an onerous and unfair transaction, his miserly father's printing business; Lucien Chardon, the son of a dead pharmacist, is a budding poet who has managed to be introduced to Madame de Bargeton, the leading lady of the titled set. David, who has dreams of making a fortune by inventing a way to make paper much more cheaply, falls in love with Lucien's sister Eve.
From there, the reader follows Lucien as he makes inroads with Mme de Bargeton,who encourages him to call himself Lucien de Rubempré, after his mother's titled family. He winds up in Paris, where he first falls in with a group of ambitious but principled young men in a variety of fields who debate ideas and generously help each other, but later is seduced by another group of young men who show him how he can make money through the corrupt field of cultural/political journalism, a field which enables him not only to get paid for his columns, which make him the talk of the town, but also to get free books and theater tickets which he can turn around and resell. As a theater journalist, Lucien meets a young (16-year-old) actress, Coralie, who is being kept by an older married man. They fall in love, and essentially live off the generosity of the married man. At least for a while. Plots are hatched, and counterplots are hatched, and Lucien winds up in dire financial straits that lead him to take a step that puts his dear friend David and his beloved sister Eve at risk. Meanwhile, back in the provinces, David has been toiling incessantly at his invention, while losing business in the print shop which is eyed covetously by his competitors, the rapacious, scheming, and very successful Cointet brothers. Much drama ensues.
The plot is complex, and the characters many, but through them Balzac paints a picture of corruption and duplicity in many facets of French life, both in Paris and in the provinces, where to some extent it's every man for himself. While a few characters epitomize goodness and generosity, including Eve (almost unbelievably good!) and the writer d'Arthez, it is the corrupt and evil characters who truly spring to life, as step by step Lucien loses not only his illusions but his integrity. In many ways, this is a profoundly depressing book.
Those who have read Père Goriot will re-encounter Rastignac and, at the very end, a mysterious Spanish priest who is not at all what he seems. I am now reading A Harlot High and Low, in which Lucien returns to Paris under the "protection" of this Spanish priest.
My Modern Library edition, translated by Kathleen Raine, had some good notes at the back illuminating contemporary cultural references and more; unfortunately, they were referenced only by page number and not in the text itself, which made finding them when I needed them into guesswork.
ETA I forgot to mention that there were several places where Balzac refers to Jews in stereotypical and insulting ways; I took these as signs of the times, but they were still disconcerting. He also can be somewhat insulting to women, again probably a sign of the times. I have learned that Balzac held political view that were very conservative and royalist, but he doesn't seem to let that get in the way of portraying a variety of people, although he doesn't seem (in the two books I've read so far) to have much compassion for the poor.