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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Harlot High and Low

Honoré de Balzac

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Title: A Harlot High and Low
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Genre: Novel
Written: 1847 (Eng. 1970)
Length: 554 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Harlot High and Low - US
A Harlot High and Low - UK
A Harlot High and Low - Canada
Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes - Canada
A Harlot High and Low - India
Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes - France
Glanz und Elend der Kurtisanen - Deutschland
Splendori e miserie delle cortigiane - Italia
  • French title: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes
  • Translated by Rayner Heppenstall
  • Previously translated as Splendors and miseries of courtesans by Ellery Sedgwick (1895); translated as Lost Souls by Raymond N. MacKenzie (2020)

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Our Assessment:

A- : often grand, but spins a bit out of control

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A Harlot High and Low is a sequel of sorts to Lost Illusions: Lucien Chardon/de Rubempré had fallen as low as he could in that novel, ready to do himself in, but before he could the devil tempted him. Here now he has taken up that offer of the man calling himself Carlos Herrera, putting himself at his disposal. It's allowed him a return to Paris, where he lives in luxury -- though it's not that long before people begin to ask what the source of his money is. He's also in love, with Esther -- but Esther has a past.
       Esther was known as the Torpedo, and, yes, she's the harlot of the title. As the novel opens she is recognised, and suddenly the past she thought she had escaped threatens her again. Worse, it threatens Herrera's plans for Lucien, and all Herrera cares about is Lucien ("you have in old Herrera a mother absolutely devoted ..." he tells his boy ...). Herrera -- pretending to be a clergyman -- convinces Esther she must become a completely different person, sending her into seclusion to be taught to be a proper Catholic girl (Esther is, of course, also Jewish). It's tough for her -- she tries her best but she's a whore at heart and "her body contradicted her soul at every turn" -- but she does what she has to.
       A Harlot High and Low seems, ostensibly, to be the love-story of Lucien and Esther. Once Esther has been turned into an acceptable mistress -- albeit the sort that still must be hidden away -- Herrera allows Lucien and her to have their fun and live in some bliss. But Balzac cares little for such happiness, compressing the years they then spend as a happy couple into a single short chapter which he even describes as "boring" ("since it describes four years of happiness") before getting down and dirty again.
       The central figure in the novel is, of course, the puppet-master, Herrera -- who turns out to be known by other names as well: Dodgedeath, Jacques Collin, Vautrin ..... In fact, the last part (of four) of the novel does without the harlot or Lucien completely, as both were mere instruments for this master manipulator.
       At some point not having a proper source of income -- and lots of debts -- becomes problematic for Lucien (and hence also Herrera). It's all about image, and as long as creditors believe they have nothing to worry about they don't make a fuss -- but once there are some seeds of doubt things can get very messy, very fast. Herrera finds a good match for Lucien, but despite his fine name -- de Rubempré -- the family want assurances that he has the proper means to marry their daughter. Buying an estate for a million would do the trick, but, of course, Lucien doesn't have that kind of money. But Herrera has a plan.
       The very fetching Esther has been out of sight for some four years, pretty much breaking any connexion to her old Torpedo days. She's only allowed out under the cover of darkness, but when Baron Nucingen happens to spy her he falls head over heels and decides he must have her. Incredibly wealthy, he's the perfect mark for Herrera, who decides it's time to use Esther again for what she was born for. Convincing her that Lucien will be better off this way she goes along, and they play Nucingen in quite an amusing manner, accumulating quite a bit of cash along the way. He may be a financial wizard, but as far as Esther goes he's a complete sucker, complaining at one point:

     "Ha'f a million, and not yet efen gaught zight of her legs. It is too zilly
       ('Zilly', also, is Heppenstall's attempt to capture Nucingen's accent .....)
       Herrera's elaborate plans are good fun, but the house of cards he builds up isn't very sturdy and at some point all comes crashing down. For a pro like Herrera (Vautrin/Collin) that's not that much of a problem, but Esther and then Lucien break under the weight of it all. Herrera could pull the fat out of the fire, but Lucien is too weak and emotional, penning yet another suicide note, pining away for Esther:
Where Jacques Collin had saved everything by his boldness, Lucien , the clever one, had lost it all unintelligently through lack of reflection.
       No wonder Balzac pushes them aside and turns his full attention to the bad guy .....
       A Harlot High and Low is part of Balzac's grand 'Human Comedy', and like many of his novels it's one that seems to get out of hand. That's part of the appeal of Balzac, of course, that he starts a simple story and then get's carried away with something completely different -- all of it part of that very big picture his multi-novel epic ultimately adds up to. A Harlot High and Low suffers some from his unwillingness to focus on a particular character (or even characters), but the narrative is powerful enough to easily carry readers past any of that. The deception, corruption, and trickery, at every level of society, are brilliantly displayed -- often almost off-hand, in casual conversation because everyone expects nothing different. There's a great cast of secondary characters, too, from the maids Herrera uses in his carefully orchestrated plans to various members of high society.
       Balzac doesn't do badly with the little romance he builds his novel around, but he doesn't have that much patience for it. He's not a romantic at heart, believing in more primal instincts -- and so no one is ever allowed to forget that Esther is a whore at heart, that it's practically in her blood and that she can be little else, no matter how hard she tries. And Balzac sees criminals similarly -- and admires them for being true to themselves and their instincts:
Modern reformers write wooly, long-drawn, nebulous treatises, or philanthropic novels; but the thief acts ! he is clear as a fact, he is logical as a blow with the fist. And what stye ! ...
       "Logical as a blow with the fist": what style, indeed. Balzac's writing here isn't meandering, but it is all over the place -- but even at its messiest it's never less than forceful. Even an aside that feels completely forced, such as the one about the language among criminals (or, as he already excessively puts it, "their lingo, cant, jargon, slang or argot") has so much energy that it's a captivating digression.
       Early on Balzac expresses his doubts about the possibility of fallen women like Esther ever being redeemed, choosing the perfect example to fully make his point(s):
They are like the literary critics of today, who may be compared to them in more than one respect and who attains to a profound unconcern with artistic standards: he has read so many books, forgotten so many, is so accustomed to written pages, has watched so many plots unfold, witnessed so many dramatic climaxes, he has produced so many articles without saying what he really thought, so often betraying art to serve his friendships and his enmities, that in the end he views everything with distatse and continues nevertheless to judge. It would need a miracle for such a writeer to produce a single book of his own, just as it needs a miracle for a pure and noble love to blossom in the heart of a courtesan.
       But Balzac isn't a cynic -- he does hold out some hope for redemption and pure love and all that. But he's also a realist, and he doesn't have much patience for all that .....
       Balzac seems to have gone into this project with a specific purpose in mind. As he reminds the reader:
The world of prostitutes, thieves and murderers, the hulks and the prisons comprise a population of some sixty to eighty thousand individuals, male and female. This world can hardly be ignored when the state of our society is depicted, when a literal reproduction of our way of life is attempted. The law, the constabulary, the police employ much the same number of people, is that not strange ? The antagonism between all these people who reciprocally seek and evade each other constitutes an immense duel, eminently dramatic, sketched in these pages. Theft and the traffic in public prostitutes have much in common with the theatre, the police, the priesthood and the military. In these six conditions of life, the individual takes on an indelible character. He can no longer be other than he is.
       Fortunately, however, there's never any danger of Balzac offering a didactic or 'social' novel, and ultimately it's for the best that he lets himself get carried away so readily. A novel meant to be about prostitution, with a courtesan (or harlot ) in the title, manages to dispense with her services for its entire final part: yes, that's a bit odd, and, yes, something is lost, but Balzac knows where his strengths lie and when Esther (or, especially, Lucien) no longer serve his purposes he's quick to brush them aside and concentrate on the anti-hero he can have the most fun with.
       Balzac's lack of control, and his inability to make Esther and Lucien tragic heroes, do prevent A Harlot High and Low from being a great novel, but it's nevertheless a very good one. Less coherent than Balzac's best novels, it's nevertheless an admirable piece of his great human comedy.

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A Harlot High and Low: Reviews: Honoré de Balzac: Other books by Honoré de Balzac under review: Books about Honoré de Balzac under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The great French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) is best known for his multi-volume 'Human Comedy'.

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