Thursday, April 28, 2016

Honoré de Balzac: Le Cousin Pons (1847)

Superbly read by the great Bruce Pirie, in Ellen Marriage's fine translation, for Librivox . There are not many securer pleasures in life than hearing Pirie read Balzac, unless it's hearing him read George Eliot or Tolstoy.

This note is for those who have heard or read Le Cousin Pons recently. It would be a shame to spoil that experience by knowing anything about the plot or characters in advance.


French text:
Online text (Ellen Marriage translation):

Reproduction of Honoré Daumier: The Free Performance

[Image source:]


After an introduction in Balzac's most discursive manner, Cousin Pons explodes into drama, mostly in direct speech, the pace ever-accelerating until the end. Its titular hero is on his deathbed, and the book revolves around the efforts of a catalogue of rogues both high and low to plunder Pons' collection and thwart its settlement on his too-unworldly friend Schmucke. As a narrative of death and its aftermath, it's painful and accurate. Balzac isn't a comic novelist in the way that Dickens is, but there's the energy of comedy; it's comedy in the sense that Beckett or Dostoyevsky are comic.

Despite the dying Pons' heroic last-ditch attempt to outwit them, the rogues triumph in the end. They comprise some of the most unsavoury characters in the whole human comedy; above all the bent lawyer Fraisier, and those equally horrific women from opposite ends of the social scale, Mme. Cibot and the Presidente de Marville.

Often the book indulges emotively in the simple contrast of good with evil. But this is persiflage; behind it lies a much more searching analysis. Pons is not portrayed as a deeply lovable man, and Schmucke is too innocent; he is both good and not good for very much. Pons was once a composer, but he's come down in the world. His brilliant collecting, his eye for a bargain, creates an instability in the social fabric; you cannot bring this much wealth into a poor neighbourhood without having it taken off you. When Mme. Cibot belatedly understands that her old gentleman's bric-a-brac is worth a great deal of money, her behaviour, not her character, changes in the blink of an eye.

All the rogues do well for themselves, but a collection such as this ends up in the hands of the upper classes; at which point, you may say, a stable balance has been attained once more. Fraisier is clear-sighted in seeing that he can only have what it fits him to have. It's the triumph of a society on the make. The fearsome greed of individuals is only a symptom of larger economic forces at work. There's a certain irony in that the surrender of Schmucke's legacy is ultimately brought about not by the wholly corrupted Fraisier but by Gaudissart, the rather likeable impresario. The simple notions of crime, innocence and guilt, are displaced by the more neutral idea that it's just a matter of finding the right price for the person; and one succeeds better if one possesses a certain amount of genuine human warmth. Schmucke's price is, of course, shockingly low.  


Sebastian del Piombo, portrait of Cardinal Antonio Pallavici
[Image source: A Sebastian del Piombo is one of the jewels of Pons' collection.]

Balzac's skill as a narrator is breathtaking; we're never sure where the story is going, and for much of the first 100 pages have little idea of what it's going to be about. (Pons' sudden interest in promoting a marriage for the unamiable Cécile, and Brunner's sudden withdrawal from the negotiations, are perhaps the least well-founded elements.)

Snuff-box by Jean Frémin

[Image source: "Remonencq's eyes lighted up till they glowed like carbuncles, at the sight of the gold snuff-boxes".]

I've enjoyed speculating that Tolstoy´s War and Peace (1865-67) was influenced by Cousin Pons. (Perhaps it's more than  mere speculation, but I'm no Tolstoy scholar.) The reminiscences, if that's what they are, all surround the unpleasant figure of Prince Vasily. Least significant, no doubt, is the collection of snuffboxes and discussion of their finer points in Book III. Then there's the scene, in Book I, Ch 21, where Vasily and Princess Katerina Semyonovna plot abortively to seize and alter the will of the dying Bezukhov in which he leaves everything to his illegitimate son Pierre. Villainy and dirty tricks feel somewhat anomalous topics in War and Peace, alien to Tolstoy's mature vision; but Cousin Pons is a master-class in both. Finally there are the two scenes, close to each other at the beginning of Book III, in which mercenary betrothals are arranged by Vasily; successfully in the case of Pierre and Helena, unsuccessfully in the case of Princess Mary and Anatoly. Both scenes in different ways recall the scene where Fritz Brunner is expected to propose to Cécile.

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