Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life by Honoré de Balzac Review: A Classic Hot Mess

I am a fan of Balzac’s work since I read some of it in college, though I must admit my memory of the books of his I have read is sketchy at best. I picked up Scenes as one of those free books on Amazon and felt like rekindling my love of French naturalist lit with a random Balzac pick.

In the modern parlance, this book is an enjoyable hot mess.

Whatever the title may say, the Courtesan whose life we see is not the main character, nor is her life or the life of her sugar daddy the main focus of this story. In fact, about half way through the novel, the entire drama shifts rather unexpectedly, with an event I will try not to spoil. Suffice it to say, the first half of the book is connected to the last half of the book in little more than superficial ways. It’s almost as if the author started writing one story, got somewhat bored with it as he came up with a different story which he then proceeded to write about without starting something new. Ostensibly, the main protagonist in the whole piece is the Spanish Abbe Carlos Herrera, who we find early on is really an escaped convict and Frenchman Jacques Collin. Posing as a Spanish priest, he is the benefactor of Lucien Rubempre, a poet who could be destined for great things in the French court, if only he were rich enough to marry well. Esther, the titular courtesan, is his true love and will only prevent his social elevation should their relationship be made public. Herrera/Collin contrives to make an honest woman of Esther and sets the couple up in a secret home, all while maneuvering Lucien to the marriage his ambitions require. One night, Esther is spotted in a midnight carriage ride by an aging, corpulent banker named Baron Nucingen, who instantly falls madly in love with her and vows to find her and make her his. All of this threatens to reveal Lucien’s relationship to the world, potentially spoiling Herrera/Collin’s plans for the boy.

If that all sounds confusing, it becomes a lot more confusing as the book goes on. Almost every character is referred to by multiple names (some names are actually titles and keeping track of them is somewhat difficult). There are long discussions of how many francs are changing hands, how much some characters are worth, and the plot gets completely lost in these discussions over sums of money. The second act twist brings an odd, jarring sort of climax to the piece, leading to what feels like a long denouement, which is only upset by the real climax to the piece that comes much later. And in the end, what seems the message of the book gets muddled by all the confusing pieces. What does shine through, however, is the character of Jacques Collin, who reminded me of a more evil version of my own character, the cyberpunk fixer Artemis Bridge, if Bridge had been intent on elevating a poor poet to the court of France in the 1830’s.

Is the book worth reading? Yes, but only if you truly like the time period or this kind of literature. There are certainly pieces of great writing and genuine literary brilliance. However, if you aren’t familiar with French lit of this period, there are better introductions than this one.

December 13, 2018 at 11:00 pm | Books | No comment

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