Thursday, February 21, 2008

Balzac - it was so beautiful, and at the same time so full of horror

"What Love May Cost an Old Man" - that's the title of the second part of A Harlot High and Low, published in 1843, four years after the first part.* The old man is Baron de Nucingen, a banker, who longtime Balzac readers know from several earlier stories.

Nucingen catches a single glimpse (in the dark, somehow) of the retired harlot Esther, and begins to pine away from love. Esther has been living in a sort of love nest for five years, perfectly happy, renouncing everything but her beautiful Lucien. Lucien, by contrast, under the control of a sinister Spanish priest, spends his time in society, spending money, keeping mistresses, and trying to marry the wealthy daughter of a duchess.

The only obstacle to the marriage is money. Lucien and the priest need a million francs to buy an estate, so Lucien will look legitimately respectable. The Baron de Nucingen gives them the opportunity they need - they just need to sell Esther to the Baron for a million francs.

"Lucien cast upon Esther a begging look, the look of a weak, greedy man, his heart full of tenderness, his character that of a coward. Esther answered with a sign of the head which meant: 'I must listen to the executioner and learn how to place my head beneath the axe, and I shall die bravely.' It was so beautiful, and at the same time so full of horror, that the poet wept; Esther ran to him, folded him in her arms, drank the tear and said to him: 'Don't worry!' a thing said with the eyes and with a gesture, and with the voice of madness." (161)

Drank the tear, did she. Anyway, this is where part 1 ends. Part 2 mostly involves the negotiations among various parties over Esther's price. It's one of the crassest things I've ever read. There must be a monetary figure mentioned every other page.

"So the goldsmith will have to be paid thirty thousand francs and the pawnbroker another ten thousand before the plate can be got at. Total: forty-three thousand francs with expenses." (179)

On and on like this. The Baron is cheated and squeezed at every turn, although between the irritating accent Balzac forces on him, and the fact that he's essentially buying a slave, I would guess he does not find many readers who feel too sorry for him.

Fortunately, or tragically, or predictably, Esther has a final act of renunciation in reserve.**

That's the way the novel works, the collision between the purest Romantic love, and the most vulgar commercial and criminal life. Some of this is pretty ordinary irony - who's the true harlot? Sometimes the gulf seems too wide to comprehend. This is all in the same book? That friction, the clash between the high and low, is brought to life in A Harlot. However absurd the results, that's why we still read this book.

* A Harlot High and Low has a strange publication history. It is clearly one novel, but the four parts were published as separate volumes in 1839, 1843, 1845, and 1847.

** Boy, that's a lot of story. Maybe too much. And this just gets us through Part 2, ignoring subplots. There's still half of the book left, with at least as much activity.


  1. Stopped into a second hand bookshop yesterday and was staggered by the sheer number of Balzac to choose from; ended up leaving with empty hands (well, seven books but no Balzac!) They did not have Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisans...lots of Pere Goriot, however.
    His whole project of La Comédie Humaine is overwhelming...where to even begin?

  2. At some point I'm planning to post a sort of Balzac guide. Not for a while, though. I'm not quite ready to put him aside.