That’s not my choice of a title, but the translator’s rendering of the French Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. I would have preferred the more literal Splendors and Miseries (misfortunes?) of Courtesans. “High and Low” implies a social or moral dimension the book has not shown so far. Reading this Balzac for my book group, I have finished parts 1 and 2 and am honor-bound not to read — or reveal — further until after our group discussion.
This novel is a continuation of the story of young Lucien from the provinces, the poet and sometime journalist of Lost Illusions. That said, where is Lucien? He has disappeared into a world of found illusions where every character seems to have at least three names and two identities. The “splendors” of the title amount to conspicuous consumption based on sex. A bored aristocrat with enough money or a member of the nouveau riche, who by definition has plenty of money, displays it by keeping a courtesan in elegant and expensive circumstances. Her prestige in turn depends on the level of expenditure she can evoke. She also indirectly supports a band of jewelers, dressmakers, florists, servants, carriage horses and even a stray lover or two.
Love is dangerous in a profession where artifice is all. According to Lucien’s mentor, as he contemplates courtesan Esther’s love for Lucien:
All these angels turn into women again, sooner or later; and at moments all women are at once ape and child! two forms of life in which we encourage laughter at our cost, if only in boredom….”
All society, the legitimate as well as the marginal, is based on artifice and simulated emotions. In the marquis’ drawing room, participants react to the news of a dangerously ill family member:
A group of women was remarkable for the diverse attitudes each took from her manner of playing mock grief. In society, nobody is interested in suffering or misfortune, everything is talk.
Balzac doesn’t view women as adult human beings (whereas men apparently are), but still he thinks he can tell the difference between false love and real love.
When they [women] are all they say they are, when truly they are in love, they behave as Esther did, as children do, as true love does; Esther didn’t say a word, she lay with her face in the cushions and wept hot tears.
This sort of thing becomes wearisome. The love story is lightened however by Balzac’s evident delight in financial wheeling and dealing. Esther’s patron is a successful banker who does what bankers do.
Forcing the states of Europe to borrow at twenty or ten per cent, making up this ten or twenty per cent from public funds, holding whole industries to ransom by monopolizing raw materials, throwing a line to some large speculator to pull him out of the water while one recovers his drowned enterprise, such pecuniary warfare constitutes the high politics of money.
So what else is new! Balzac’s grasp of the psychology of financial speculation is far more credible that his understanding of women in love.