I found A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac (also translated as The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans) to be a complex and rich story, both a love tragedy as well as a complex society thriller. For me, this is the pinnacle of Balzac’s work. That is really saying something, considering he finished 91 books and left 46 more unfinished. I’ve personally read about 21. Some are good, some are downright bad, but for me A Harlot High and Low was about the best. It certainly affected me more than any other.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Iain Pears.)
A Harlot High and Low features a love story: Lucien de Rubempré and Esther van Gobseck. Their love is pure, powerful, and enduring. Unfortunately, Lucien has given himself up completely to the schemes of the master criminal Vautrin (who often masquerades as a Spanish priest). Vautrin is scheming to make Lucien extremely rich and powerful, stopping at nothing, and Esther is a courtesan (nicknamed “the Torpedo”). Not a simple prostitute, she was perhaps one of the most famous and powerful entertainers of men at the time. This is, of course, impossible for Vautrin’s plans for Lucien. Still, Vautrin is wily as well as a master of the criminal underworld. Because Esther’s love alone is not good enough for Vautrin, he puts Esther through a four-year program to be good enough for his Lucien. Lucien, though he loves Esther, is weak enough and slave enough to Vautrin to go along with it.
‘…Just as in Police files, you are a mere number, without social identity,’ went on the implacable priest. ‘If love, appearing to you as a runaway, made you suppose, three months ago, that you were reborn, you must feel that since that day you have been truly in a state of childhood. You must therefore conduct yourself like a child; you must change utterly, and I take it upon myself to put you beyond recognition. In the first place, you will forget Lucien.’
The poor girl was heartbroken at this thought; she raised her eyes towards the priest and shook her head; she could not speak, finding that the supposed rescuer was still to be her executioner.
‘You will at least stop seeing him,’ said the priest. ‘I shall take you to a religious house where the daughters of the best families receive their education; there you will become a Catholic, you will be instructed in Christian practices, you will be taught religion; you could leave that place a girl with accomplishments, chaste, pure, well-bred, if…’
He held up a finger and paused.
‘If,’ he went on, ‘you feel that you have the strength to leave the Torpedo here.’
Worse, Vautrin still needs Lucien to marry another in order to get a vast fortune.
This is bad enough, but the unscrupulous and incredibly wealthy Baron de Nucingen falls for Esther. Vautrin exploits this to get yet another fortune. Esther does this for Lucien, but kills herself after.
When the doomed woman appeared in the drawing-room, there was a cry of admiration. Esther’s eyes gave off a light of infinity in which the soul lost itself as it saw them. The blue-black of her splendid hair showed off the camellias. In short, every effect the sublime whore aimed at had been achieved. She had no rivals. She was the very embodiment of the unbridled luxury with which she was surrounded and adorned. Her wit, too, was at its most sparkling. She ruled the orgy with the cold, tranquil power deployed by Habeneck at the Conservatoire in those concerts at which the leading musicians of Europe attain the peak of execution in their interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven. She nevertheless observed fearfully that Nucingen ate little, didn’t drink and was acting as master of the house. At midnight, nobody was in his right mind. They broke glasses so that they shouldn’t be used again. Two curtains of Pekin print were torn. Bixiou was drunk for the only time in his life. As nobody could stand up, and the women lay more or less asleep on the divans, the guests were unable to carry out the joke they had originally planned of leading Esther and Nucingen to the bedroom, standing in two lines, holding candelabra and singing the Buona Sera from The Barber of Seville. Nucingen alone gave his hand to Esther; though drunk, Bixiou, who noticed them, still found the strength to say, like Rivarol at the last marriage of the Duc du Richelieu: ‘The Prefect of Police should be told…A foul trick is about to be played…’ Intended as light chaff, this would turn out to be prophecy.
This leads to Lucien being arrested, breaking in prison to betray Vautrin, and killing himself. Ironically, after Esther’s death it turns out she just inherited the kind of immense fortune that could have allowed her to marry Lucien. Also, it is revealed that the authorities were going to let Lucien go anyway, given his ability to compromise most of the women of Paris society.
Vautrin, if you can believe it, ends up spending much of the rest of his life working on the police force.
This is a sophisticated, beautiful book. Balzac is heavily credited as one of the big forces in the modern realistic novel, though he himself frequently pays his homage to Sir Walter Scott. It really is Balzac’s best, but you really can’t read it alone. You see, Balzac’s work was pretty much all part of a vast collection called The Human Comedy. 91 finished and 46 unfinished books? All part of it. All the same world, characters repeated and running through various books. It was supposed to completely depict the entirety of nineteenth century French society, from top to bottom. To really appreciate this one, you really need to have read Lost Illusions, the story of how Lucien came to Paris from the country to seek his rightful place in society, totally failed and betrayed his friends back home, decided to destroy himself, and then instead gave himself to Vautrin as a last resort. A Harlot High and Low is beautiful sophisticated novel and all, but it’s true magic comes as the capstone (as I see it), of The Human Comedy.
I’m sure that many people would love A Harlot High and Low, but I’m not sure so many are willing to go through enough of The Human Comedy as is really necessary to truly appreciate this book. I thought I did okay with having read 21, but that’s quite a bit more than most people. I would really recommend reading this one, but perhaps only after reading at least Cousin Pons, Cousin Bette, The Black Sheep, Father Goriot, and Lost Illusions. The build up from those books really makes A Harlot High and Low sing.