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Scenes from a Courtesan's Life

Honoré de Balzac

Book Overview: 

Scenes from a Courtesan's Life is one of the last great works completed by Balzac for his huge novel series entitled The Human Comedy. Sections of this book, in various groupings and with various titles. It eventually settled into the four sections found in the present edition. At the end of that book, Lucien de Rubempré (born Lucien Chardon), a young provincial poet with great ambitions but feeble moral will, was heading for Paris in the company of a mysterious Spanish priest. In the present book, we quickly discover that the "Spanish priest" is actually Jacques Collin, alias "Vautrin," a master criminal first introduced to readers in Balzac's Father Goriot (1835). Lucien develops a relationship with Esther van Gobseck, a prostitute (the "courtesan" of the title). With these three main figures — Lucien, Vautrin, and Esther — Balzac explores the corruption of the aristocracy, the world of prostitution, the courts, and the prisons of 19th-century Paris. With masterful depictions of society and individual psychology, Balzac is considered a father of realism in fiction.

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Book Excerpt: 
. . .ghtened them across the stomach; from the belt hung on each side a short steel chain, composed of several finer chains, and ending in a bunch of seals. His white neckcloth was fastened behind by a small gold buckle. Finally, on his snowy and powdered hair, he still, in 1816, wore the municipal cocked hat which Monsieur Try, the President of the Law Courts, also used to wear. But Pere Canquoelle had recently substituted for this hat, so dear to old men, the undignified top-hat, which no one dares to rebel against. The good man thought he owed so much as this to the spirit of the age. A small pigtail tied with a ribbon had traced a semicircle on the back of his coat, the greasy mark being hidden by powder.

If you looked no further than the most conspicuous feature of his face, a nose covered with excrescences red and swollen enough to figure in a dish of truffles, you might have inferred that the worthy man had an easy temper, foolish and easy-going, that of a pe. . . Read More

Community Reviews

Published in 1847, this work is ostensibly a continuation of Lost Illusions but could actually stand alone, especially since its focus is so centered on Paris as opposed to the largely provincial setting of its prequel.

The Abbe Carlos Herrera, (also known as Trompe le Mort, Jacques Collin, Dodgedeat

[Original review, Sep 1 2020]
What a strange book this is, a veritable crossroads of the French novel! I ordered a copy after seeing Michel Houllebecq recommend it several times in La possibilité d'une île, a novel which reprises one of the main themes in a cleverly inverted perspective. It's the seq

So Balzac's father added the "de". It was invented not inherited. Actually it the author himself, not his bourgeois father.Such utility is brought to bear in the two novels Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low. Both chronicle the verve of self-creation, first in Lost Illusions in a literary/jou

There is a singular "textual pleasure" in reading Balzac, once you've acquired the taste. It's decadent.

In this unofficial sequel to Lost Illusions, Balzac exercises his capacity to depict psychological tortures. Though I have not read the first novel in this sequence, the four parts of Harlot High

Finally finished this novel about the Parisian underworld and police in 1830s Paris. The character Vautrin who has many aliases, Jacques Collins, the priest Carlos Herrera or Dodgedeath. Vautrin is perhaps the greatest villains of French literature. In short, when people say crime does not pay shoul

The sequel to Illusions Perdues, Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes is a breath-taking story of intrigue and features one of literatures greatest villains of all time Vautrin at the height of his perfidy. It is a must read and one of the greatest books by the already splendid and prolific Balzac.

I didn't find out until I was well into this book that it is actually part of a series, so I feel that I missed out on a deeper level of meaning that exists for people who read the books in order. That being said, it was still an engrossing read. It is the tragic love story of a beautiful prostitute

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