A more correct translation of the title of this novel would be Splendour and Misery of Courtesans, however the title that Penguin has given this translation is just as apt. You haven't necessarily have had to have read the prequel to this Lost Illusions (Classics), but to be honest that book is one of the masterpieces of the Comedie humaine, this isn't. Near the end of the preceeding novel Lucien is seen being persuaded not to kill himself by the enigmatic Carlos Herrera, and in this book you find out who Carlos really is.
Lucien has returned to Paris and is making his way to a respectable position; he has Esther a high class whore as his lover and he is trying to arrange a good marriage which will give him money and make him into a marquis. Carlos is working behind the scenes to make sure that Lucien can make it in society but when Esther is recognised and tries to kill herself Carlos saves her and re-invents her. With Esther trying to seduce a banker out of his money to pay for Lucien to buy land you just know something is going to go wrong.
With police agents getting entangled in the plot and machinations galore this novel defies definiton, as it seems to swing between melodrama, thriller and farce. Of course Balzac as usual digresses to some extent which makes this novel longer than it need be, and I know a lot of people aren't all that enamoured by it, however I did find it quite enjoyable. If you have never read Balzac before I would seriously recommend you to stay away from this novel to start with, and instead try something like Old Goriot (Penguin Red Classics).
I'm a big fan of Balzac and so it is enormously disappointing that this book is such a Grade A Turkey.
Balzac's literary object was to describe the Human Comedy of scenes from French Parisian and provincial life. In this volume his subject is the criminal underworld and he uses the master criminal Jacques Collins, who has first appeared in Balzac's Old Goriot as the central character. Collin is as cunning and deceitful a person as you will ever come across. Here Collin uses Lucien de Rubempres - previously the handsome poet hero of Balzac's Lost Illusions, together with Esther Gobeseck - the original harlot with a heart of gold - as tools for his evil plans. Unfortunately this mix is a disaster in plot terms and it is totally unclear as to whether the narrative is following Collin, Lucien or Esther and since each of their stories has a different arc the whole is a complete failure.
There are passages and paragraphs in the narrative which presage Proust in their nobility, but these are few and far between and fairly soon Balzac loses himself in the most fantastically complex plot wherein the poet Lucien is to marry an heiress provided he can prove he is a man of financial substance. The means of providing that proof becomes the sale of Esther by Collin to the fabulously wealthy Baron Nucingen. But this scheme unravels because Esther truly loves Lucien and decides that rather than submit to being Nucingen's mistress she will commit suicide. This brings the force of the law down on both Collin and Lucien and in the final scenes Collin comes into his own in attempting to escape from the clutches of the law.
There's nothing wrong with Balzac's idea but his execution is hopeless. Collin is a pale shadow of a character until the final few chapters and so the narrative is dominated by the love story between Lucien and Esther. Unfortunately the power of their love makes the willingness of this couple to submit to Collin's plans for them totally implausible since they cannot both be completely in love and have worldly ambitions. This implausibility is made worse by the fact that Lucien is known to the reader through Balzac's Lost Illusions and, although in that book he was also a weak character and prepared to do bad things, he would never knowingly allow a woman such as Esther to prostitute herself for his financial gain. This implausibility knocks the bottom out of Balzac's world.
Balzac's cast is enormous and there are so many characters in this book that I began to lose the plot altogether. In addition many if not all of the characters have more than one name (Collin has five or six) so that the reader is frequently left bewildered as to who is who and what they're motives are. When the police start to close in instead of one master policeman there are two named Coretin and Contenson and the judge is called Camuset - it's very hard to follow.
Finally Baron Nucingen is a Polish Jew and Balzac has written the part in cod dialogue that is extremely hard work - at least in translation.
I'd like to say that there is a good book trying to get out from these pages but in truth I think the entire narrative is misguided, poorly plotted, with dubious characterization and with only the occasional piece of purple prose to redeem it. My conclusion is that this is one to avoid.
I just had to find out what happened to Lucien, when he was so mysteriously (and admittedly, a bit too miraculously) saved from suicide at the end of Illusions Perdues. This is the place to find it. 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.