Review of A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0140442324 (ISBN13: 9780140442328)

There is a singular “textual pleasure” in reading Balzac, once you’ve acquired the taste. It’s decadent.

In this unofficial sequel to Lost Illusions, Balzac exercises his capacity to depict psychological tortures. Though I have not read the first novel in this sequence, the four parts of Harlot High and Low vary in quality. There are 43 characters in this volume, many of whom appear elsewhere in the Comedy under other aliases or simply the same name. It is a crucial work in the body of Balzac’s writings, but probably not as important as Lost Illusions, which is his longest single book.

Has there ever been a time when the justice system was not in need of reform? Reading this got me thinking back to other books. People have a habit of writing about all the harm the prison system does to a person, rather than any good it might have ever accomplished. This has been true, seemingly to a greater degree, since Balzac’s France.

How dismaying it is to see everyone, time after time, looking out for themselves in exclusion to everyone else. The author has cast light on the ugly bits of the human psyche before, but in this iteration, human vice is the modus operandi of the novel.

The ins and outs of financial corruption are also reminiscent of our own time. Have our human flaws remained consistent since 4000 BC? Balzac posits it is so. Every form of bribe, fudging the accounts, graft, and other financial trickery is represented here in spades.

The common subjects to be found in Balzac include: finance, business, history, fashion, drama, religion, ideal love, familial relations, and social hierarchies.

As usual, he is waxing poetic on every other page. His languorous prose, deep in pathos, gravitas, and dependably deep themes, is rapturous. Can a person be purified? We have been asking this question for millennia. Harlot High and Low explores the reasons why people fall into sin, despair, depravity, or how in turn they might ascend to the ideal, the divine, attain man’s higher nature, the angelic, and what part, if any, money plays in the equation. Man’s material obsession is inescapable, his lust for power and satiation, mingled with the chimerical forms of love correspond to our darkest discontents and our holiest dreams. The methodology of the devil, in human form, is expounded in the well-rounded characters, each of whom have their own stakes and motives for seeking to control others.

The very clear references and connections to Romeo and Juliet may seem trite nowadays, but there is also the oft-used archetype of Mephistopheles and Faust. This book is not simple enough to be summed up as a retelling of anything. It is in fact, quite convoluted. The structure of Balzac’s human labyrinth fits in well with the style of what he calls the “severe luxury” of the aristocrats he satirizes.

The flitting play of vanity is occasionally amusing to watch, but after a while, the joke grows stale. Various incarnations of greed in endless forms, make their appearance throughout literature, and they must be expressed through interesting characters in order to be relevant. Most of the time, this book accomplishes that. These scandalous characters cultivate scandal like some people raise tomatoes.

Part of the author’s method is contrast and juxtaposition: Sin and baptism, prostitution and marriage, crime and charity, often mingling virtue with vice in the same character. There is a prevalent double-standard, wicked dames and masters of disguise, to add intrigue and Dumas-ian grandiosity.

The male characters have a very serious weakness for women. No surprise there. And most of the women have a weakness for Lucien. This felt odd to me. Probably because I have not yet read Lost Illusions. Anyone who is human has a weakness for money, except for the Baron, for whom money is a defining character trait, a strength, mere bird seed to be distributed liberally to the flocking hordes.

The book also contains rich interpretation of Rabelais, mentions of Moliere, Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. In these we can detect some of Balzac’s literary idols. Then there is the satire on police, politicians, aristocrats, prostitutes, priests, and bankers.

Subtlety, where warranted, and ever-present humor of the dry, witty variety. The powerful men are in thrall to the women whose only source of power is their beauty. They wield it with the same ruthlessness as the men wield their inherited powers. It was nice to see the character of Asia play a major part. Her manipulations resulted in much of the novel’s powerful interactions.

In Balzac’s time, social status came with proscribed behavior. Etiquette was paramount. Class, wealth, position: these were the pursuits of men and “great” ladies, and so often led to a lack of virtue, sympathy, a dearth of wisdom and inflexible greed.

The obsession with money and beauty can only go so far in a novel. Luckily, there is charm and tension to spare. I won’t lie and claim that parts of it did not bore me. It is a long book, and requires analysis to best be appreciated. One of the challenges is the fact that the 4 parts do not sync up perfectly. Balzac did not write them all at once, and their focus, where they do not intersect, can swerve far afield.

There are plenty of fancy dress balls and snooty operas if that’s what you were hoping for. I preferred Part 3. It was both morbid and mundane.

Part 4 went on an interesting tangent about argot and its uses. This part either inspired a little of Les Miserables, or borrowed from the same sources. Mesmerism makes another appearance. Aliases come into play heavily in the latter part of the book. It was nice to finally leave the character of the Baron behind. His excessive display of groveling was unbearable. I greatly disliked this character and and hold him solely responsible for what might be considered the flaws in this near masterpiece.

Some police procedural segments occupy the second half as well. It relies more on Lucien and Herrera than our titular harlot. I plan to read Lost Illusions, to get a glimpse of some of these characters at earlier stages in their tragic careers.

The trope of the great police inspector was just emerging. Les Miserables made use of the same real life examples as did Balzac, as the translator claims. I would however, recommend Hugo’s book over this one.

The unintelligible accent of the Baron, which the translator assures us, is just as execrable in French was the defining unpleasantness of my reading experience. It was the bird poop in the soup, the anchovies on the pizza. I consider it a flaw in translation. Even if Balzac made a mess of the Alsatian accent, the same accent can be approximated with verisimilitude and still be readable. It is not necessary to switch around the letters of every word to give the sense of an accent. Dickens offers many examples of how to switch a couple words in a sentence to convey just the right amount of accent.

As another examination of the animal in man, of the concept of the clothes make the man, there are few examples which shine as brightly as Balzac’s. However, I would by no means consider this a must-read, even within the Human Comedy. I think he touches on most of these themes elsewhere more succinctly. Chivalry is not exactly thriving in Paris at this time. I felt the same sickness of boredom as his characters on occasion, but it was nonetheless pleasant to luxuriate in the atmosphere he flawlessly conjures in his fiction. The Torpedo is an entertaining character and her rippling affect on the men around her is highly amusing. This is, at bottom, an unconventional portrayal of prostitution for its time, which has been superseded by other novels which trade classical tropes for accuracy.

Men of action incline toward Fatalism, Balzac warns us. Watching Nucingen being bled dry was disheartening, considering how many of the upper-class elderly are so often preyed upon by the younger generation. But how much of his situation was his own fault, resulting from his petty animal instincts? “Prettiness conceals horror.” This line stands out as representative of his plight, which he chooses over his own security.

“A bit of morality does nobody any harm. It’s the salt of life to people like me, just as vice is to the pious.” Lines like this make up the bulk of Balzac’s dialogue. As impossible as it is to imagine real people speaking so eloquently, the conciseness adds to the rhythm. You can easily see the havoc a properly worded letter can wreak on a person’s life in this book. It makes it easier to reflect on our own time, having perused the accounts from previous centuries. With our faces glued to our phones and screens, sending thousands of messages per day, receiving information from all sources like living computers, yet preserving many of our basic functions, our changing family structures, the differences in lifestyle, art and how we distribute our wealth. These comparisons keep Balzac relevant.

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