Friday, August 22, 2014

The Balzac Project - Harlot High and Low

Note: My edition from 1899 has this book titled Harlot's Progress. Later, the title was changed to Harlot High and Low.

A Harlot High and LowA Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why should anyone care about Esther, a prostitute from a young age, a harlot with powers over men? Why should anyone care about a spoiled feeble individual such as Lucien, the poet whose ambitions are to secure a noble title and live in luxury for the rest of his life? The same Lucien who, by the way, in Lost Illusions ruined his sister and her husband, the only man that cared for him. Why?

Because of Balzac.

Yes, it is all Balzac's fault.

This unbelievable author has taken over most of my reading time for the past several months, and I do not see the end of this 'binge' arriving anytime soon.

Balzac wrote in a style like no other. His descriptions are vivid, his metaphors exquisite, and his understanding of humanity alarming. And this is precisely why I enjoy his writing.

It is as if one was reading two works at once: One, a social commentary on the high society of Paris. The other, a psychological study of the characters. And what characters those are. It's been said that throughout his work, about three thousand characters circulate within his novels. Some appear more frequently than others do; yet they are never the same. Depending on the narrator, they are all depicted as the narrator sees them, which, is a unique approach. But I had already made this observation in my previous reviews of his other works, so I shall not bore you with the details.

Balzac created faulty characters that often cross social boundaries and norms, while, on the surface, they hold on to strict moral codes of the time. His men are often cold and removed, his women often passionate beyond reason. Yet, they all wear the masks society expects of them, and appear untouched by the events around them. Deep inside, however, they love and hate, cherish and condemn, and often sell their souls to maintain the facade of perception.

One cannot help but sympathize with them, whether they are likeable or not, because Balzac masterfully shows both sides of their personalities. Even in the case of the original villain, Jacques Collin, Balzac creates a softer side to the man who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal.

After reading this book, I am still amazed at how well it ties together with the books I read earlier, and how everything becomes full circle. Of course, a new circle begins, spun off the threads of the original circle, but Balzac does not leave the reader hanging with a cheap plot line to spur the reader's curiosity. Each novel has its own end, its own closure. Yet, a few books later, a character reappears, enters the scene, and proves the reader wrong all along. And for this, I adore his writing.

So what is this book about? Well, it is about Lucien, the poet; Esther the prostitute; and a villain who has a soft spot for the former whom he wants to see rise in society while using the latter to secure it. Throw in a few counts and countesses, a greedy banker, politicians who care more about their future than justice, spies, the secret police, some forged bills, drugs, poison, murder, kidnapping, mistresses and lovers, gambling, and a love one would die for, and you have it. Oh yes, don't forget the powerful social commentary that Balzac did so well.

It's a complicated yet rewarding read. Technically, Harlot High and Low finishes the tale started in Lost Illusions, as well as the tale in Distinguished Provincial in Paris, the tale in Father Goriot, and the tale in M. Gobsec. It also brings in characters from other novels that are not directly tied to any of the above mentioned. Nevertheless, if my previous reads have taught me anything, it is to expect the unexpected, so I'm fairly certain that the tale spun here will continue elsewhere.

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