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A Harlot High and Low (Penguin Classics) Paperback – December 30, 1970
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Text: English, French (translation)
About the Author
The son of a civil servant, Honoré de Balzac was born in 1799 in Tours, France. After attending boarding school in Vendôme, he gravitated to Paris where he worked as a legal clerk and a hack writer, using various pseudonyms, often in collaboration with other writers. Balzac turned exclusively to fiction at the age of thirty and went on to write a large number of novels and short stories set amid turbulent nineteenth-century France. He entitled his collective works The Human Comedy. Along with Victor Hugo and Dumas père and fils, Balzac was one of the pillars of French romantic literature. He died in 1850, shortly after his marriage to the Polish countess Evelina Hanska, his lover of eighteen years.
Top customer reviews
That said, I read this book on Kindle and found the text full of annoying typographical errors. Does anyone proofread the text after it's prepped for Kindle? Someone should.
Balzac is a great one to read if you want to understand how society works, and in this case, how these inhuman humans called psychopaths work.
The interesting thing is that Lucien is not the principal player here: it is an equally mysterious mentor, whose identity and methods are revealed as the plot thickens. Another character is the "harlot" from the title in English, which misconstrues the character of the novel. She is Esther, who is Lucien's true love, whom he uplifts from prostitution to install as his secret mistress. There is also Nucingen, the Jewish banker whom Balzac despises (from the novel of the same name), and several wily spies.
I must say that, though I love Balzac, this novel wore a bit thin on me: it has too many unlikely coincidences and is crowned with a cynicism in the surprise ending that stretched way beyond what I could believe, even when taking into account the French judicial system. That being said, Balzac offers a wonderful tour of the underbelly of the life of the scheming courtesan: without revealing too much of the plot, having given up on art, Lucien is trying to enter the aristocracy as a diplomat with the rank of Marquise. But to do so, he had to marry the right woman, buy his ancestral grounds, and somehow pose as a dandy when he is in fact flat broke. One pole of the plot revolves around the maneuvering of his mentor, who proves himself exceptionally cunning, the other around Lucien's true love. Needless to say, there are betrayals, hidden enemies, and ruthless manipulations that destroy oh-so-many lives. In the end, it is mostly sad, except for...well, you have to read it to believe it! The view of the aristocracy in this one is rather oblique as they play behind the scenes, while I expected them to play center stage.
If there is one thing to sum up Balzac, it could be this: there is one chapter entitled, "boring chapter to explain four years of happiness" in which Lucien in love is portrayed. When I told my wife that it was winding down, she replied: "don't you mean it is grinding down?"
As usual, you need a strong stomach for this one. I got bored by the middle, at the height of all the unbearably sleazy maneuvering, but the last 200 pages really picked up the pace. To wit: I enjoyed the characters hurtling toward destruction in this one, which is usually the opposite: I prefer their hopes and hate their falls, except in the case of Lucien.