Reviewed in the United States on March 16, 2004
Like many other reviewers here at Amazon, I have a weakness for `Sequelitus.' What is this dreadful affliction, you might ask? Well, it is the compulsion to pursue a good story to its very end - enjoying the source media so much that it is paramount to ones mental comfort to locate and devour all related material. This can often lead to tragic result, for sequels tend, as a rule rather than as an exception, to wear thin the primary quality: the beauty and sweat-inducing power of the original diminished through needless repetition, theme-bastardization and/or the tangible fatigue of that most accursed of artistic predicaments: the necro-stench, the entropy, <the horror! the horror!> of author-enervation. Nothing like a terrible case of "twilight of the idols" to put one in a despondent mood! But, in the past few years, I've managed to curtail my tendency towards indiscriminate consumption. No more Wheel of Time for this jaded .com shopper! Get thee gone, foul Star Wars simulacra!
And yet. . . and yet here I am again. After the month-long endeavor of reading - nay, <savoring> - the delicious disenchantments of Honore de Balzac's *Lost Illusions,* I simply had to have the sequel post-haste. What would be the fate of Lucian Rebempre, *Illusions'* failed poet of increasingly ignoble achievement? Who _was_ the dastardly "priest" that plucked Lucien from the liquid depths of potential-Providence? Would they together storm the snooty ranks of Parisian high society, acquiring a noble rank for Lucien, enacting revenge on all those who had scorned the poet in his previous incarnation as a mudraker and news-shaper? I had to know. So, barely recovered from *Lost Illusions,* I cracked open this penguin edition of *Harlot,* eager for answers, desperate for the final contentment of my shameful sequelitus itch.
Alas, *A Harlot High and Low* does not live up to either the reputation or the narrative force of the previous volume. For although it shares the same techniques that have endeared this French author to my particular literary `taste' - that being a forceful Voice, a sensitive Ear, and an intuitive sense of balancing straight drama with the shamefaced attractions of its "melo"-histrionic cousin - despite these similarities in quality, *Harlot* meanders (like all Balzac) but rarely justifies its long-winded digressions; it simmers with harlot-heat, but the tensions hardly reach that particular boiling-point necessary for a cathartic climax; it is occasionally boring. Worst of all, after a sprightly pick-up of pace and a much-enjoyed battle-of-the-(criminal)-wits climax, the ending crumples in and around itself with desultory result: the other reviewers were right in that it comes within stomping-grounds of far-reaching, ludicrous, unlikely - pick your adjective, it'll do.
In fact, *Harlot* is a flawed progeny in so many respects - at least in the matter of base comparison - that, for insight as to _why_, we must examine the particulars around its construction, rather than take the (oft-correct) blindsight standpoint that pere Honore must have been milking the prime components of his past masterpieces in a vainglorious attempt at renewal. . . or for *money*, that silver-grasping Judas of artistic downfall, another foul-but-certain aspect of sequelitus. No, I believe the "blame" should be assigned elsewhere. Perhaps it is due to the fact that this was written during Balzac's final three years, when the strain of overwork began to catch up with his physical shell: there is certainly something fatigue-ridden and world-weary to be read *between* the lines, and though Balzac masks it well, it is an inescapable impression. Or perhaps the "blame" should be assigned to the translator - Heppenstall readily admits to having difficulties with some of the particulars of the text, and although I'm ignorant with the origin-language and thus cannot check comparatively, there seems something suspect with the balance of digression/progression, usually so keenly integrated in Balzac; it feels as if Heppenstall approached these delicate pace-issues as if he were in an automobile, chugging along, stopping every so often to put more gas in the tank, jump-starting the cranky old girl to get her going again, etc. - a rather grotesque metaphor, I admit.
In the end, I think it's a combination of the above theories along with the pertinent fact that Balzac wanted, initially, to just write a book about a prostitute, adding essential flavor to his social-strata opus: *Harlot* is considered part of _Scenes of Parisian Life_, and you cannot adequately delineate the sub-structures of this Gallic city-society without tackling the more sordid realities of its primal urges. I get the feeling that Balzac introduced Lucien and Vautrin as the twin passion-pillars on which to support his poor Esther, a woman elevated from base brothel squalor to the very highest levels of concubine-existence - and Lucien and Vautrin, inscrutable rascals that they are, came to dominate the story on their own accord. Esther simply could not compete with the satanic vigor of Jacque Collins' varied schemes . . . and in this regard, the novel itself suffers from the lack of clear-sighted predevelopment; not enough harlot for this *Harlot*! And yet Esther's passions are the only tangible _purity_ to be found from cover to cover; she is simple and true, a virgin-white canvas upon which these hypocrites and fools spurt their petty aspirations upon, and subsequently her plight is the only real tragic involvement.
Now, with my grievances expressed (except for one more, but I'll get to that in a moment), don't mistake my overall opinion of this novel - it frustrated me with its unevenness, but it's still a fine read in and of itself, at times entertaining, erudite and educational. I don't regret spending the time to read/absorb all of its insights/inconsistencies. It's just that it cannot compare favorably with its predecessor, and the end - without spoiling anything - is a remarkable cop-out as to the fate of the novel's protagonist. I found out later, by way of the introduction, that this wily scoundrel actually makes his final-incarnation appearance in *Cousin Bette* - AGGH! I burn with the itch: Sequelitus has infected me once again!