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Several of its characters make appearances in earlier novels, but it may most handily be considered a sequel of Lost Illusions. 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.
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.
And here is my review, also posted on the book page! I see I agree with a lot of what you said, Steven! 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. 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 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 , but it seems obvious, if veiled by the restrictions of the era, to me. 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! Group: Author Theme Reads members 1, messages.
Balzac: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (A Harlot High and Low)
Esther van Gobseck throws a wrench into Vautrin's best-laid plans, however, because Lucien falls in love with her and she with him. Instead of forcing Lucien to abandon her, he allows Lucien this secret affair, but also makes good use of it. For four years, Esther remains locked away in a house in Paris, taking walks only at night. One night, however, the Baron de Nucingen spots her and falls deeply in love with her.
Illusions perdues; Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes; Le Père Goriot
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