Monday, February 18, 2008

A Harlot High and Low - it needs a miracle for a pure and wholesome love to blossom in the heart of a courtesan

"'All for love!' said the duchess proudly. 'Destroying oneself is a pleasure at the time.'" (Penguin, p. 494)

Roughly speaking, that sums up A Harlot High and Low* (1839-47) pretty well. It's a big, crazy, book. There is more incident than in any other Balzac novel I know. Grand passions, suicides, murders, disguises, police interrogations. The main characters are the most beautiful prostitute in Paris, the most beautiful young poet, the richest banker, the most evil master criminal. Here's the sort of novel it is - Balzac decided that having one famous criminal disguised as a priest was so good, that two would be even better. There must be two dozen instances of people in disguise.

I usually think of Balzac as an early realist, a cold-eyed dissector of society. Lost Illusions (1837-43) was realistic, mostly, exaggerated for satire.** Lucien Chardon comes to Paris with a book of poems and a historical novel, ready to be a famous writer. Things don't work out that way - see the title. Balzac uses Lucien's innocence to skewer book publishing, journalism, the theater, book reviewing, and so on.

A Harlot High and Low is the sequel, but it is an entirely different creature. Realism is not Balzac's only mode, far from it. Lucien is back in Paris, but somehow under the protection of a sinister priest. The literary satire is completely absent. Comparisons are made to The Arabian Nights, and James Fenimore Cooper.*** The first half of the novel is really the story of Esther, the titular harlot who renounces everything for the beautiful Lucien. In the second half of the novel, the disguised master criminal takes over the story. Everything is pushed to the edge, at the risk of hysteria, or nonsense.

Much of this book is more than a little ridiculous. I can imagine a reader, though, of different sensibilities, who thinks that this is the one where Balzac gets it all right, where he overcomes his restraints. I'm still sorting it out myself.

* The actual title translates as something like Splendour and Misery of a Courtesan. Less euphonious, but accurate. I don't know when the novel picked up this other English name.

** It's all a matter of emphasis, though, of ratio. Here's a fellow who has pulled all of the most Romantic bits from Lost Illusions.

*** “As there is certainly as great a distance between the customs she was giving up and those she was adopting as there is between the savage state and civilization, she exhibited the grace and simplicity, the depth, which single out the wonderful heroine of The Prairie.” (p. 55)


  1. Is it as ridiculous as some of those wonderful "Droll Stories"? I began to read a few of those (complete with not-quite-family-friendly illustrations) and could hardly keep from laughing out loud.

  2. I haven't read the "Droll Stories", but I think I'm going after something different here. They're modeled after Rabelais or Boccaccio, right? Outrageous but good humored stuff. I think the phrase I did not use but could have for Harlot is "over the top".

    I'll try to be more precise about what I mean.

  3. No, no, that's probably not necessary. I think this sentence captured what you were trying to say (and I missed it): Everything is pushed to the edge, at the risk of hysteria, or nonsense. The "Droll Stories" (so far) don't have an hysterical edge at all.

    You're quite right about the Rabelaisian comparison. So many of the authors I've read recently have referred to him -- I really should get on with Gargantua and Pantagruel...after Tristram Shandy.

  4. I'll probably spend the rest of the week trying to explain what I mean.

    Rabelais is fantastic.

  5. Rabelais is fantastic indeed!

    I have only read Balzac in excerpt (in college) and I realize I should really experience him once on his own.

  6. "A Passion in the Desert" is less than 10 pages. Eugénie Grandet is less than 200.

    Maybe not everyone finds low page counts as encouraging as I do. This is meant to be encouraging. Everyone, read some Balzac!

  7. Finished reading this yesterday and I don't particularly recommend it to anyone who hasn't read Balzac's more well known (and better) novels. The novel "Cousin Bette", for example, included a few mildly tedious parts, but is otherwise superb. The "Harlot" contains several lengthy sections which are mind numbingly boring and nearly incomprehensible - the whole novel is so full of place names, details and obscure allusions only marginally relevant to the story, that I considered giving up. The Penquin edition is completely without notes. - Not all bad, but I hated the ending.