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A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac

A Harlot High and Low (1847)

by Honoré de Balzac

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English (6)  Italian (1)  French (1)  All languages (8)
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Será que Oscar Wilde realmente disse: “One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré... It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh”? É apropriado. ( )
  JuliaBoechat | Mar 30, 2013 |
This novel picks up the story of Lucien Chambron de Rubempré and the mysterious Spanish priest, Carlos Herrera, who rescues him from where it left off at the end of Lost Illusions. They have returned to Paris, and the priest's wealth and other forms of support help Lucien enter the world of Parisian nobility; he seems to have given up his interest in poetry. As the novel opens, he is in love with Esther, a beautiful former prostitute, having an affair with the married countess Madame de Sérisy, and hoping to marry Clotilde de Grandlieu, the daughter of a duke. Herrera, who the reader who has read other Balzacs soon realizes is Vautrin from Père Goriot, another name for the notorious escaped convict and criminal mastermind Jacques Collin, is out to make Lucien's fortune.

Herrera, along with his henchmen and -women, spins complicated plots and counterplots to "reform" Esther and then, after a period referred to as "A boring chapter, since it describes four years of happiness" in which Esther and Lucien live together, sets Esther up to entrap a rich banker, Nucingen, who has become obsessed with her after an incredibly brief chance sighting, and get enough money from him to enable Lucien to marry Clotilde. While all this is unfolding, a multitude of other characters, including competing police spies hired by characters with competing interests, complicate matters, as do Herrera and his associates. The plot can be confusing, if not melodramatic at times, and I don't want to say too much to avoid spoilers.

Balzac uses this novel to explore how the police and legal systems work, how police spies disguise themselves and take private commissions, how the criminal underworld and prison society work, how the nobility have their own methods and language and how they feel entitled to interfere with the legal system, and how public servants scheme to get ahead.

The French title of this book translates literally as "Splendors and miseries of courtesans," which I think is a better title than "A harlot high and low," but still doesn't capture what is for me the real heart of the novel, the story of Herrera/Vautrin/Collin, who has an astounding understanding of the different levels of French, especially Parisian, society, and a horrifying ability to take advantage of everything that presents itself to him. The question emerges of of the nature of his relationship with Lucien, as it is clear at the end of Lost Illusions that he is homosexual and has proposed to Lucien that he will help him attain status in Parisian society if they become lovers. This isn't mentioned explicitly in this novel, but Herrera certainly has strong feelings for Lucien and for another attractive young man who appears late in the plot. The translator of my edition, in his introduction, rejects this interpretation (he was writing in 1970), but it seems obvious, if veiled by the restrictions of the era, to me.

Although I was eager to read this novel, because Vautrin was such a compelling character in Père Goriot, it was a little overly melodramatic for me, although I really enjoyed following Herrera's schemes (and his remarkable "assistants," "Europe" and "Asia"), and learning about the French criminal, legal, and prison systems.

Finally, I was very disappointed that this Penguin edition did not have notes. There were many times when I had to resort to Wikipedia to look up a reference to people or works of literature, but many many more times when I didn't bother and just read without fully understanding what Balzac was trying to say. This is a novel that cries our for explanatory endnotes!
6 vote rebeccanyc | Mar 10, 2013 |
Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, a title rendered somewhat crudely in this English edition as A Harlot High and Low, is one of the last completed novels in Balzac's monumental cycle La Comédie humaine. Several of its characters make appearances in earlier novels, but it may most handily be considered a sequel of Lost Illusions. Together the two large novels chronicle the career of the ambitious and amorous young poet, Lucien Chardon de Rubempré.

Lucien is the novel's central character, but he disappears from its pages for long stretches. The dominant personality is that of Father Carlos Herrera, the Spanish priest who rescues Lucien from financial and moral destitution. Who is this mysterious cleric, and why does he rescue a complete stranger from the brink of suicide and set him up as one of Paris's most prominent young men of fashion? Herrera, as Lucien's sponsor and mentor, tries to maneuver the poet into a profitable marriage, but he cannot prevent the lad from falling in love with Esther Gobseck, a ravishing young prostitute. But Herrera works to turn this to his advantage, controlling not only Lucien but Esther as puppets on a string with the aid of his two extraordinary henchwomen, nicknamed "Europe" and "Asia."

The novel takes place almost entirely in Paris from 1824 to 1830, a period that coincides with the reign of Charles X, France's last Bourbon king. Balzac depicts a society dominated by a corrupt and dissolute aristocracy. The titled and the rich marry for power and position, then openly take mistresses and lovers, often with their spouse's active assistance. Lucien, with a cynicism typical of the time, is courting the hand of a duke's daughter while publicly being the lover of a married countess and secretly living with a prostitute.

Balzac's novels focus on different aspects of French life and culture. In this case he documents the workings of the police and courts system. We see that there were two rival police agencies, the Judicial Police and the Political Police, rarely cooperating and often working at cross purposes. Some agents had managed to maintain their power base and network of spies through several successive regimes, and were as capable of working against the law as on its behalf. The prison and courts system are also described in some detail, and it is no surprise to learn that justice is dispensed as often on the basis of political influence as on guilt or innocence.

A Harlot High and Low is a remarkable novel for several reasons, one of which is the absence of a dominant or sympathetic character. (Esther, the "Harlot," is the novel's most likable character, but she exits the story about midway through the novel.) Also notable is Balzac's frankness in depicting such things as prostitution, promiscuity, corruption and homosexuality. The Penguin edition is nicely translated and introduced by Rayner Heppenstall (though I would have chosen a more elegant title), but surprisingly has no footnotes or endnotes to explain the occasional now-obscure reference to contemporary culture.

I would recommend that you read at least Lost Illusions first. If you enjoy it, and you want to see what becomes of Lucien and learn what the mysterious Spanish priest is up to, then you will find A Harlot High and Low quite rewarding. ( )
5 vote StevenTX | Feb 22, 2013 |
Suite des ##Illusions perdues##. Le grand monde et la pègre dans le Paris du 19e siècle. Pour P. Citron, ce 'mélodrame se hausse au niveau d'un fantastique de poésie'. Dossier (50 p.). Dans la préface, p. 7-32, P. Barbéris signale que Balzac solde ici les 'comptes idéologiques du ##Père Goriot## (premier volet de la trilogie)
  PierreYvesMERCIER | Feb 19, 2012 |
A selection from the "Scenes of Parisian Life" novels of Balzac includes elements of finance, intrigue, the Parisian underworld and the police. As the title suggests the Harlot in the story experiences the vicissitudes of life with her days of wealth and luxury numbered and ultimately offset by misery. But she is merely a pawn in the hands of criminal masterminds at whose apex is Vautrin, the Satanic genius at the heart of the story. He is one of the greatest of Balzac's many memorable characters and ranks among the greats of world literature. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Jul 26, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Balzac, Honoré deprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Heppenstall, RaynerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heppenstall, RaynerIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Porcelli, Maria GraziaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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En 1824, au dernier bal de l'Opéra, plusieurs masques furent frappés de la beauté d'un jeune homme qui se promenait dans les corridors et dans le foyer, avec l'allure des gens en quête d'une femme que des circonstances imprévues retiennent au logis.
1824 metais paskutiniajame Operos baliuje daugeli kaukiu suzavejo savo grazumu vienas jaunas vyras, kuris vaikstinejo koridoriais ir foje cia letu, cia greitu zingsniu, kaip paprastai vaikstineja vyriskiai, belukuriuodami moters, del nenumatytu priezasciu uztrukusios namie.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140442324, Paperback)

Handsome would-be poet Lucien Chardon is poor and naive, but highly ambitious. Failing to make his name in his dull provincial hometown, he is taken up by a patroness, the captivating married woman Madame de Bargeton, and prepares to forge his way in the glamorous beau monde of Paris. But Lucien has entered a world far more dangerous than he realized, as Madame de Bargeton's reputation becomes compromised and the fickle, venomous denizens of the courts and salons conspire to keep him out of their ranks. Lucien eventually learns that, wherever he goes, talent counts for nothing in comparison to money, intrigue and unscrupulousness. "Lost Illusions" is one of the greatest novels in the rich procession of the Comedie humaine, Balzac's panoramic social and moral history of his times.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:03 -0400)

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